Book 46: Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente, isbn 9780553385762, 367 pages, Bantam, $14.00
Back in May, when I was reading the short story anthology Paper Cities, I read and reviewed Cat Valente's short story "Palimpsest." At the time, I didn't know that story was excerpted from her novel of the same name. It was the choice to make the novel her August book club selection by calico_reaction that clued me in to the world of Palimpsest existing in longer form. I enjoyed the short story, as you can see from my brief comments here. I also enjoyed the novel, although I had to work harder at it.
"I had to work harder at it" sounds awfully negative now that I read it on the screen. I considered rephrasing that sentence, but I'm not going to. It says what I want it to say: Palimpsest is not a mindless beach read. It's not trope-filling SF, the kind of thing you can sort of let your attention wander and still know what's going on. Palimpsest the novel requires your attention the way Palimpsest the city requires the devotion of its inhabitants and visitors. You can choose, like one minor character in the book, to walk away if the work is too weird for you. Honestly, I almost did walk away. As much as I've enjoyed Ms. Valente's short stories, I was on vacation and didn't want to tax my brain too hard. It was being introduced to that minor character who gives up on Palimpsest that made me decide to stick it out; I'm not one to normally give up on a book anyway (the list of books I couldn't bring myself to finish is a short list indeed), but something about a minor character wishing she'd never heard of the place the four major characters (and several other secondary ones) are willing to hurt themselves to move to made me decide to see the novel through and find out if either her sacrifice of the city or the major characters' sacrifices of parts of themselves (literally and figuratively) was the wiser, more noble choice.
I realize I have not summarized the book at all, or given you any indication of what it's about. An online friend commented that it's a book about "a sexually-transmitted city." That's the high concept: people can only find Palimpsest after they've had sex with someone who has been to Palimpsest, after which a portion of a map of the city becomes a permanent tattoo somewhere on their flesh. After that, they can only return to Palimpsest, as 'immigrants,' by having sex with other people who have been tattoed by the city. Many of the characters wonder what it takes to go from immigrant to emigre, and would gladly pay whatever price -- the city is that addictive for them.
A book can't survive on high concept alone. Well, okay, some books can and become wildly popular because they are nothing but high concept. This particular high concept wouldn't sustain itself, though, if it were just a series of orgiastic vignettes. Well, okay, again some books would, but I'd lose interest quickly. Each of the main characters needs something the city can provide, each of them is searching for something they've lost. Valente creates a main quartet of characters that is international, intergenerational, intergender and fluid intersexual -- a pretty good cross-section of society. They may start out as "types" (the disaffected Asian, the lonely young spinster, the work-obsessed husband, the hard-working immigrant) but get past the opening section and those characters take on greater depth.
What seems to put some people off the book is the intense weirdness of the city itself -- a dreamlike place where no-one is quite human, even the humans. There's a lot of weirdness to process, and again that's where the hard work comes in. The weirdness starts early and is unrelenting, although even those characters who are permanent residents of Palimpsest become deeper, almost less dream-like as the book moves on -- it's almost like moving from regular dreaming to lucid dreaming, in a way. The more I read of Palimpsest the city, the more I could picture it, the less weird the weird felt, if that makes sense.
Ultimately, I'm glad I chose to follow Oleg, Sei, November and Ludovico on their journey, rather than turning my back on Palimpsest like that minor character by drugging myself with something less dream-like. The more I read of her work, the more I feel that while Cat Valente is not an easy writer to read she is a writer worth reading.