By Catherynne M. Valente (Bantam Books, 2009)
Through incredible energy and talent, Catherynne M. Valente has been steadily building a name for herself pretty much since the day she started publishing. Her two-book story cycle, The Orphan's Tales, was at one point perhaps her best-known work, nominated for several awards and winner of a few, too. That was until Palimpsest was nominated for a Hugo, while Amazon's editors deemed it the best science fiction and fantasy novel of 2009. All of this success, however, still doesn't quite prepare you for—and perhaps disarms you against—the fact that Palimpsest is kind of freaky.
As the gossip preceding its publication went—possibly lifting a phrase from the author herself—Palimpsest is about a sexually transmitted city; that is, you're only allowed to visit if you find someone who has already been there and have sex with them. When you fall asleep afterward, you go to the city in your dreams; and if you are so blessed—or so unlucky?—after you visit it once, the waking world seems much diminished, and you do everything you can to return. Aiding you is that everyone who has visited is marked with a tattoo—perhaps small, perhaps large—that is itself a piece of a map of, a part of, that dream place. So you spend your time moving away from the life you knew, looking for those other people, for those tattoos, to connect with them, just to stay, in your dreams, in Palimpsest, as long as you can. The plot of the book follows four people who arrive in Palimpsest at the same time, first relating what each of them are willing to do just to get back—and then what happens when they discover that they are connected in a deeper way than they first understood.
Those of you who aren't habitually science fiction or fantasy readers—and maybe some of you who are—may be turning away at this point. You should not. Because Palimpsest, to me, works best as an extended metaphor: for addiction, disease, and profound loss; for the ways disparate people build their own tribe based on a common need, a dissatisfaction that overrides their differences. It's a fantastical book about some very real things, and in its fantasy, comes perhaps closer to letting the reader touch the real than a more realistic portrayal of the same thing ever could.
Which is another way of saying that the best reason to read Palimpsest is because it's absolutely beautiful, heady, hopeful and sad. This isn't just because of Valente's muscular imagination, her seemingly inexhaustible ability to create image after arresting image; it's also because she writes as well as anyone out there. The idea that literary fiction has all the best writers is as false as it is shopworn—obviously, there are great (and lousy) writers in every genre of both fiction and nonfiction. But Valente is a particular feast for those who love language and literature. To me, her writing is folkloric, medieval, Romantic, and at the same time, startlingly modern. There aren't many people who can write sentences as eerie and gorgeous as hers. How gorgeous are they really? I can hear you asking. You'll just have to find the book and find out.
P.S. Here's the word palimpsest in Merriam-Webster:
1 : writing material (as a parchment or tablet) used one or more times after earlier writing has been erased. 2 : something having usually diverse layers or aspects apparent beneath the surface.
Yes, I had to look it up. You're welcome.