At the core of Palimpsest is an intriguing idea: people enter a truly weird otherworldly city (called Palimpsest, naturally) by having sex with others who share the same mark – something like a tattoo, but that is actually a map of one particular part of the city. Whom you plook determines where you go in Palimpsest.
But that’s not quite right. That’s sort of like saying that the core of Tommy is a story about a deaf, dumb, and blind kid who loves pinball or that at the core of Brave is a story about a mute girl wandering on a bridge. Since those are both concept albums, the real core of them is the music. The stories (such as they are) are secondary.
Palimpsest is kind of like that. It’s about words – lots of words – more than it is about the characters and what happens to them. It’s not surprising that Valente, in addition to writing a lot of fantasy and sci-fi prose, also writes a great deal of poetry. Palimpsest is, from beginning to end, a feast of words, of descriptions of the bizarre city and the people who are traveling there (not to mention how they’re getting there).
Language is clearly Palimpsest’s strength. Unfortunately, it’s also its biggest weakness, at least for me. Valente gets so wrapped up in descriptions and baroque prose that it’s easy to get lost in the words and skimp on meaning. As a result, character development suffers, as does any kind of real plot momentum, which greatly ramps up with about 1/3rd of the book left, as if Valente suddenly realized she had to actually do something other than have the characters wander around Palimpsest.
Which is understandable, because Palimpsest itself is an easy place to get lost in. Think of the most bizarre kind of world ever visited by Doctor Who, multiplied by a few levels of magnitude, and then given form by animator Hayao Miyazaki. Seriously, it is completely weird in the best sense of the word. For readers, anyway. For the residents there – including a cadre of mute wounded veterans of a war that may or may not be over – and our visiting main characters, the city tends to have some pretty rough edges. When the four characters decide they want to stay in Palimpsest forever, it doesn’t seem like a natural consequence of their nature, but rather a necessary engine to drive the plot.
Ultimately, what left me most unfulfilled about Palimpsest is the questions that I had about the world Valente created, both as it applies to our “real” world and the fictional city. Valente calls Palimpsest a “sexually transmitted city,” but is it the most communicable STD of all time (all four characters begin the book without the mark, sleep with one other person, then have it – a 100% transmission ratio)? Or is there some kind of volition involved in giving it to someone else? What is it about sex that opens the door to Palimpsest? What happens if the person with the section of the city on their body where you want or need to go isn’t attractive to you? What if you’re straight and that person is of the same gender? Three of the four characters are conveniently bisexual, which removes a potential area that would have been interesting to explore. Why do all four have to agree to go permanently for any of them to do so (another quartet had a member die and is permanently shut out)? And how exactly does Palimpsest work, anyway, with its combination of purely magical mythology and steampunk mechanics?
In the end, the word that jumps most to mind when thinking about Palimpsest is one that gets thrown at things like Brave and Tommy, too – pretentious. In and of itself, that’s not a bad thing – I love Tommy and Brave, after all. But I suspect how much one enjoys Palimpsest will come down to how enamored they are of Valente’s verbose style. It keeps me from being truly wrapped up in the book. But there are enough interesting ideas and audacious imagery that it made me think a bit. And that’s never a bad thing.
A final note on something I don’t comment about much when it comes to books. As with lots of books I “read,” I actually listened to Palimpsest via Audible. I’ve never really gotten thrown off by the reader/narrator, but this one really had some issues. Particularly when it came to one character who is Italian, whom she gave an outrageous “that’s a spicy a meataballa” accent (until, near the end, he thankfully lost his tongue). From a quick search in Amazon’s “look inside” feature, the dialogue doesn’t appear to be written that way. If that’s correct, it was a horrible off-putting choice on the reader’s part.
By Catherynne M. Valente
Nominee, Best Novel – 2010 Hugo Awards
Winner, SF/Fantasy/Horror – 2009 Lambda Literary Awards