Hugo Best Novel Nominee Review: Palimpsest, by Catherynne M. Valente

I occasionally have these conversations with people that run a long a fairly predictable script. The subject of reading will come up, and people will talk about what they’ve been reading, and then drift more generally into what people like and don’t like, that sort of thing. Then comes the good part, when I tell people that I usually read science fiction, because that’s the most interesting stuff out there. At this point there’s usually a pause, and the other person will look at me sadly, with a note of pity, and say something along the lines of “Oh yeah, that Star trek stuff. Can’t stand it myself.” I just had one of these recently with an old friend, who is smart and well read. These conversations, I must say, no longer surprise me. He did mention, I should point out, that he hasn’t actually read much science fiction the past thirty years or more, although he did like that Neal Stephenson book he read.

I long ago gave up any pretense of trying to cure people of what they don’t know. If readers choose to compartmentalize themselves, I can’t help that. But it does lead to some interesting conundrums for some people. Reviewers here in London were universally enthusiastic over Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (an embarrassingly bad book from a good writer), ignoring the fact that the same themes had been explored by writers usually found in another section of the bookstore for decades. A more interesting example is Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, a very good book from a very good writer, which nearly won the Man Booker Prize a couple of years ago, and would have been a deserving winner had it done so (John Banville won that year). Then there’s P.D. James’s The Children of Men, again universally applauded, and made into a pretty good movie as well. James lays out a brutal portrayal of a pretty dystopian future, one explored by science fiction writers for decades. And the whole world (including Mrs W) loves Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. W.S. Merwin (the new US Poet Laureate) recently published a book of fables, called Fables. Which they are—and because they are, many of them are clearly what would be called fantasy, were it not for the fact that Merwin wrote them. So the boundaries are getting fuzzier, and I can’t imagine that this won’t continue to be the case.

This does make reviewing a bit dicier than it was, say, 20 or 30 years ago, when boundaries were better defined. Who should be reviewing the Atwood book? The “literary” reviewer? Or the Sci-Fi reviewer who checks in with his or her short reviews once a month? And Sci-Fi isn’t even the right term any more, nor has it been for some time. Speculative fiction is really what we’re talking about here, and it’s not just the people who show up in the Science Fiction/Fantasy shelves of the bookstore. You could (and probably should) throw in Calvino, Borges, Flann O’Brien, the Latin American magical realists, Barbara Hodgson, and a whole lot more. What’s critical is the consistency of the world that’s being created, but this doesn’t necessarily have to be based on some tricky scientific concept. So long as the rules of the world, or worlds, are consistent, that the internal logic is apparent and rigorously enforced, then one can approach many of these books the way one would approach any book, with the same degree of critical judgment and intelligence.

This is where fantasy becomes more interesting as a genre. Because fantasy is no longer the Dungeons and Dragons meme that most people think of it as. It’s a much broader concept than that, or even than Ursula Le Guin’s work. Barbara Hodgson’s books about travellers’s experiences through time and space, which are thrilling books to read, don’t end up in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section, but they probably should. And Catherynne M. Valente’s Palimpsest probably won’t show up in the Literary/Fiction section of the bookstore, but it should. Instead, it will be relegated to the SF section.

Well, it has been nominated for a Hugo as best novel, so that’s the genre. But it would be a strange event if it won, I think. Not that it doesn’t deserve to. But it probably won’t, because it’s such a different kind of book that the other serious nominees (I’m excluding Wake as a serious nominee). It concerns Palimpsest, another world tripped over (or, more accurately, sought out) by the four protagonists of the novel, and the efforts of these four (and others) to return. Which proves might difficult. And it’s all a metaphor for desire, for eroticism, for love. It’s a beautifully written and structured book as well. But it’s not exactly a page-turner yarn, as much type-cast fantasy is. There are no dragons, or pricesses. There is magic, however.

Instead, we have a beekeeper from Omaha, a locksmith from New York, a bookbinder from Rome, and a Japanese train clerk moving in and out of both worlds, as they seek to discover what Palimpsest is, how to return, and to make contact with each other. Which is done sexually, by partnering with others who have tattoos of portions of the map of Palimpsest on their bodies. Palimpsest is like a sexually-transmitted disease—once you’ve screwed someone with a tattoo, you’re hooked. You find your way to different parts of Palimpsest the city by having sex with different partners. The trick, which takes you and the protagonists some time to figure out, is to find the right partners.

This is not an easy read. Palimpsest the city has its own logic and rules, and Valente takes her time laying them out. Our four travelers don’t understand what is happening, and we learn the rules of the place, and the costs required to travel there, as they do. It’s this learning that gives the novel its structure, and its momentum. It turns out that all four have been damaged in some way before the journey, and are further damaged by what they undergo during the steps they take. But this is all about desire and its consequences, and while Valente has written what at times seems to be an erotic fantasy, it’s deeper than that. Dreams play an important role in the book, and some reviewers have noted the book’s “dreamlike” qualities. I think that’s about right. But there’s much brutality here as well.

Palimpsest will not be to everyone’s taste. Several reviewers chose not to finish the book, on the grounds that the characters weren’t interesting enough, and it wasn’t enough of a novel. I take their point. These are characters who are addicted to desire, and it took me a while to come to terms with them. Valente’s vision and style eventually won me over. But I’m weird. I read science fiction.

Categories: Arts/Literature, ArtSunday

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