Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente
Reviewed by Matt Denault
20 April 2009
Catherynne M. Valente's The Orphan's Tales was a tour de force of postmodern folktale, showing how a culture, and indeed a world, is constructed by an accumulation of stories that become history that become myth. Palimpsest, her newest novel (an expansion of her short story in last year's Paper Cities anthology), brings the same insight to the myths of the contemporary world. It extracts the myths of the industrial revolution on which post-industrial society rests and constructs from them a surreal and fantastic city. At the same time, Palimpsest subverts the tradition of fantasy that relies on a portal to a mythologized past for its moral bedrock. C. S. Lewis's Narnia series is never explicitly referenced, but a classic of the portal-quest tradition like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950) is both a touchstone and a point of departure.
The focus of Palimpsest's narration, to begin with, is on four people from the contemporary world, two female and two male, who discover a portal to a fantastic land. The four are not family by birth, but they are bound together by other ties—one of which is that all of the main characters of Palimpsest are in a sense trying to become a family.
November Aguilar is a beekeeper who lives outside of San Francisco, marking time by making honey, writing poem-like lists, and tending the grave of her dead father, a librarian. It is November, unsure of her bravery, who becomes the leader of the four (evoking Narnia's Peter Pevensie in attitude while contrasting in gender). In Rome, Ludovico Conti is a publisher of limited edition books. A follower of Saint Isidore of Seville, compiler of the first encyclopedia, Ludo finds himself trying to make strange and fantastic a world that has already been fully compiled and categorized. This obsession leads his wife to leave him. Amaya Sei works a ticket booth for Japan Rail in Tokyo, where she tries, unsuccessfully, to assuage her love of trains and the memories of her crazy, suicidal mother. Sei, like Lucy Pevensie, is the youngest woman, and the first of the four we see enter the portal. And Oleg Sadakov is a locksmith in New York City, where the ghost of a dead sister from his native Russia haunts him.
Each of the four is missing a family member, and has left of them only a private story—a myth of identity told by a mother, selected by a father, now recited over and over like writing on a slate constantly in danger of being wiped clean. Each of the four lives a solitary life, wanting a level of fulfillment and belonging that they cannot find in the modern world. And each of the four, in separate encounters, find themselves infected with the sexually transmitted virus that is the portal to the fantastic land of the city of Palimpsest.
Every carrier of the Palimpsest virus is marked with a tattoo-like map of a portion of the city. Engage in sexual congress with a carrier, and when you sleep that night you will be transported, as if in a dream, to the area of the city carried by your partner. When you wake, somewhere on your skin will be a new area of Palimpsest—which other night-time travelers will be more than eager to explore. And only night-time travelers: as Narnia was locked in winter, tourists to Palimpsest can only experience the city at night. When Palimpsest is revealed to be a land where nearly any desire can be fulfilled (perhaps the purest form of fantasy), yet also a land in need of healing (as the lands beyond portals almost always are), the plot becomes driven by the desire of its carriers to experience the city in daylight as well as night, to heal Palimpsest in order to emigrate permanently.
Structurally, reading Palimpsest deliberately mirrors the experience of making a home in a foreign city. In the city of Palimpsest, we are tantalized by elements of story that appear familiar in their evocation of Narnia and other fantasy tales, but that prove strange and new here. The Perilous Woman In Charge is soon met, but Green Casimira is warm and can still blush: she is not a White Witch; nor a Snow Queen, never mind her association with bees. Similarly, the girl whose legs end in cloven hooves and the man with the head of a lion are not fauns and other creatures of legend, but something, it is hinted, more horrific. Yet our desire to know more about these story elements, more about Palimpsest, is initially frustrated by a chapter structure that keeps the contemporary world, our own frame of reference, in the forefront. Much of the first half of the book is taken up by an assemblage of story elements from our world—bits of history; Japanese culture and mythology; embedded ideas of gender roles and sexuality; the methodologies of subculture; personal stories told; read and remembered—all without focus or context to their meaning in the story. Within Palimpsest and without, Valente's customary voluptuous prose initially acts to frustrate understanding with seemingly meaningless details and repetition—of color, especially:
The walls are draped in red silk. A few vague forms hunch at scattered tables—the sound of soup slurping echoes. A tall woman stands a little space away. She is wearing a black kimono with a jade-colored lining, but it is beltless, and her small breasts show, and her slender legs. Her long face is painted red from brow to chin, and it is starkly angular, curiously stretched just slightly past human proportion. Her lips etch a hard black line; her hair folds back and back like the wrapping of a present. She approaches, her red eyelids downcast, and in her naked hands she cradles a teacup. The tea, too, is red, and smells of cinnamon. (p. 111)
And then, about halfway through the book, there is a shift in our perspective. Events in Palimpsest become privileged in the story's structure, repetitions coalesce into meaningful patterns, relationships between disparate story elements solidify into something like a culture. We feel we've achieved a level of fluency in Valente's language, and we go native in her city. Of course those initial story elements seem meaningless in the light of the modern world, of course those same elements acquire meaning in Palimpsest: that's the point. Palimpsest, we realize, is a repository of symbols that highlight the relationship to myth that modernity has come to have, the sense of meaning lost in a rational world.
[Sei] thought of Tokyo, waiting for her in the north like a crocodile, languid, vicious. What waited for her? Her tempered glass booth at Shinjuku Station, the endless tickets for everyone but her, her Japan Rail uniform with its crisp lapels? It was nothing, all nothing, because it was not [Palimpsest], not those trains, not that place. (p. 119)
"Nothing means anything," one character laments to Oleg about the modern world; "It's all flat. It's like it's missing a dimension, deeper than depth" (p. 140). And Oleg in turn sees signs of death "on the moribund world like burn marks on an old lightbulb" (p. 141). Some of these marks we can imagine in a November-like list: Things with romanticized mythical resonance that yet linger in diminished form today: cities, factories, trains, maps. Sex. Books and storytelling. Due to a number of factors—mass media, mass education of the concept of history, even the simple durability of steel and concrete—we live today among many functional aspects of society that we have the sense were of different and greater function to past generations. Cities, history textbooks tell us, were once great melting pots that welcomed waves of immigrants with opportunity; factories were the backbone of the industrial revolution and progress; trains enabled the colonization of the frontier; the vague and empty areas on maps were testament to the presence of the unknown in the world. Today, however, more people in Valente's native United States live in suburbs than cities, factories stand still and mute in the wake of the information economy, trains mainly carry passengers on short daily commutes, and our maps are all filled in. Readership of fiction and poetry has declined, and so much has changed in our ideas of sex, from the initial awareness of the AIDS epidemic that Valente's generation grew up with (which is part of what makes Palimpsest as a sexually transmitted city so audacious) to the not-uncommon recreational sex of the present, that it is difficult, now, to imagine any large-scale commonality in attitudes toward sex. Myth traditionally gave us something to belong to by creating commonality, connecting us together. But in modern times it has become hard to believe in myths, because we inhabit their failed remains.
Valente's representation of Palimpsest as palimpsest—a parchment skin whose original writings have been scraped off and written over, with the original ink only faintly and (until recently) imperfectly discernable—presents her city as the original writings; a land in which each of these underpinning myths of modernity exists in their romanticized, meaningful form. It is steampunk for the New World. Her city is ever-expanding and offers a manifest destiny for the imagination: Valente explicitly evokes the openness of the past, the impulse "to become a pioneer . . . a frontiersman" (p. 25). A cartographer's shop in Palimpsest offers maps of nearly every sort—" street maps and historical maps . . . false maps and correct-to-the-minute maps" (p. 45)—except there are no world maps, no maps of boundaries. In Palimpsest language is cultivated, yet its trains run wild, a daily challenge for those brave (and athletic) enough to commute. The industrial laborers of Palimpsest "dance into the factory, their serpentine bodies writhing . . . as they side step and gambol and spin to the rhythm of the machines" (p. 4). And for all the sex that occurs outside of Palimpsest as a means of entry—sex typically impulsive or utilitarian—the little sex we're shown in the city has the quality of long-desired fulfillment of dreams.
Even the smallest of descriptive details, like the use of color, comes to reflect Palimpsest as a locus of vibrant meaning. In Valente's prose the most common colors of our modern world, outside Palimpsest, are blue (which evokes a cool iciness) and yellow (sickness—the color is explicitly linked to cholera, which in turn evokes Garcia Marquez's novel that treats love as a disease). Meanwhile, Palimpsest's colors are red (the color of warmth and, via blood, life; the color of sexual potency; the primary color often missing from Valente's depictions of the modern world) and green (the color of growing things; and also of envy, which proves an important story element). And red and green together are the colors of Christmas ("you are so close to [Palimpsest] now, it is like Christmas Eve. Don't you feel it?" p. 350), which evokes Narnia yet again.
The lively colors are appropriate because Palimpsest is consistently depicted as organic, personal, and vital: factories sigh and sing, trains couple, maps fold into origami birds and take flight, houses grow like plants and speak like boys. Each neighborhood is created out of a connection between individuals, and is grounded in a personal connection between an individual and the city. And so in a final layer of metaphor the city of Palimpsest is revealed as a network, a virtual community created by the separate connections made between individuals, all only degrees of separation apart. And in this sense Palimpsest is not so much urban fantasy as post-urban fantasy. It is fantasy for a generation that grew up with urban decay; grew up with the sensation of living a text that overlies an older story of the growth of cities; grew up where the idea of community is predicated not on physical proximity but on shared mindsets, interests, and desires.
Part of the myth of cities has always been that of desires made possible, of a place where dreams can come true. What makes Valente's story more interesting as a work of fantasy is how she devotes equal time to making Palimpsest plausibly functional as a city, making it something that must be understood literally, not just as metaphor. Every scene of intense surrealism—a canal of clothes floating in cream, a mechanical horse race with silently cheering spectators, a cemetery where the buried dead grow like bamboo shoots up into the sky—is intertwined with thoroughly quotidian aspects of city life. Palimpsest has restaurants where there are those who are served and those who serve. It has a financial district, a class system, and a special school for children of the elite. It has a problem with gang violence (what does happen, you may have wondered, when people have incompatible desires?). The mechanics of access to Palimpsest did not occur magically, or as an intrinsic feature of the land; rather, they are political policies argued over by citizens, an argument that had winners and losers. As a result of these episodes, we come to see Palimpsest as bound as any city by the rules of social sciences like political science, sociology, and economics. We gain a view of Palimpsest as a self-sustaining system—a teeming amoral monstrosity—and we come to understand the truth of its myths to be the truth of any city, a place in which we can find ourselves or we can lose ourselves, depending on what expectations we bring to the city and how we approach it.
Valente thus leads us, by the book's end, to an interesting perspective. To the extent that she has convinced us that Palimpsest could be real, there is no longer any reason to think that her characters will be any better off moving to Palimpsest than they would be moving to any other city. Palimpsest begins to appear not so much magical as (merely) different: it is not a place where the fundamental rules of living, of happiness or satisfaction, are changed. A move to Palimpsest is not a move from the real to the fantastic, it is a move from one location in reality to another. The only fantastic element is the portal itself.
"This is Palimpsest, November. This is the real world." (p. 209)
This perspective on the relationship between the real and the fantastic calls to mind another critique of portal fantasy as embodied by the Narnia books: that offered by M. John Harrison in his 1992 novel The Course of the Heart. In Harrison's story, three college friends attempt a ritual designed to bring them to a magical land called the Pleroma, a Gnostic heaven or higher realm of existence. The ritual does not work as expected: the friends remain on Earth, and are now haunted by odd visions (oddly familiar to us): a green lady; a young boy; a couple entwined in sex. Two of the friends, perceiving the visions as reinforcement of the ritual's failure, marry for the comfort of an experience shared, then divorce over the inability to truly share it. Both are devoured by a sense of meaning touched and then lost in the world. (When the pair attempts to put this sense of loss into words, their images are similar to those used in Palimpsest: the book; the declining city; the railroad; the tarot. The specifics of Harrison's story are centered on British post-Imperialism, and contrast with Valente's American-leaning multicultural take, but the parameters are largely the same.) The third friend, meanwhile, views the ritual as a success, seeing a life lived with the visions gained by the ritual, with a sense of magic present in the world, as the higher state of the Pleroma as promised. Yet this belief in magic serves only to alienate him from the human joys and tragedies of life in the real world.
What Palimpsest and The Course of the Heart share, then, is the sense that nothing can be more real than reality. Fantasy at the most involves contact with a portal, through which we journey and are returned to reality unchanged—except for our awareness of having passed though the portal, and how that awareness colors our subsequent perceptions.
Where the authors differ is their allowance for the possibility of value in such awareness. In Lewis's Narnia, where willingness to experience the fantastic is largely allegorical for willingness to accept Christianity, the value is a given: it is a prerequisite for entrance into Heaven. For Harrison, the portal by nature corrupts, renders life a quixotic quest that cannot even be begun or engaged with. Both of these works are tales of consequences, with moral sensibility conveyed by the positive or negative impact of the portal in their characters' lives. Palimpsest, in contrast, ends just after the point of passage, where any long-term consequences are still unknown. The sole possible value of the portal—which we might also call a tale of fantasy, or a personal myth—is as a motivator: to hang on a little longer; to try again, a little harder; to make a move when offered the chance. All of these actions are morally neutral, they depend on circumstances and specifics. The morality of Valente's novel is contained precisely in its refusal to moralize about the choices made by her characters, its refusal to give us definitive evidence to accommodate our doing so.
We can see, to take just one of Valente's characters, that Ludovico is offered a new chance at happiness by his connection to Palimpsest after his wife leaves him. We can likewise see that he is harmed because of this connection, and that he may be making the same mistake that he made with his wife again with November. We're also given, separately, a metaphor of locks and keys, and the suggestion that maybe not every brass key wants the brass lock it is supposed to open, but might be happier with a lock of some different sort. And we see that November is not Ludo's wife, that any relationship they may have will be less traditional, with less possibility that she will be boxed in. And so in the end, with this in mind, Ludo's situation is presented to us in what seems like a positive tone. But we are also made aware that this positive tone comes from seeing evidence of Ludo's industry, that by which he benefits the city. It is a complex relationship of equipoise that not only permits but encourages multiple readings, with the city of Palimpsest considered both literally and metaphorically. Like the city itself, Valente's novel is self-consciously designed to be about opening a type of narrative that has typically been closed, to reflect back at the reader how it is read, and perhaps even to call into question the impulse to judge the morality of the life choices of others.
The traditional portal fantasy is a morality play of willpower. Only those who are good, these stories say, want anything deeply enough to suffer for their wants. You "endure trials and it all works itself out," as one of Valente's characters envisions it (p. 148); perseverance rather than learning is key to earning the usual fantasy reward of passage to a better land. The land in traditional portal fantasy is thus largely a measuring stick of the moral achievement of its inhabitants. In contrast, using the modern conception of the city as an organic system, Valente has created a neutral metaphor for a fantasy land that not only responds to deeply held wants for good or for ill, but also has its own wants and is entirely amoral about pursuing them. Palimpsest is fantasy without a safety net, without the moral reference point of the land. Ironically, it is this amoral nature that allows Palimpsest to offer the sort of true grace missing from a more moralizing work like Lewis's The Last Battle: Valente's city is a place further up and further in that even the dysfunctional and the broken can reach.
Where Palimpsest can feel a bit slight, in spite of these layers of meaning, is its tendency to avoid the sort of character-driven internal conflicts that add dramatic interest. Valente gives all of her characters good reasons to want to emigrate to Palimpsest and no good reasons to stay where they are; as a result, no character faces the sort of difficult choice that can be so revealing of character. Even before they encounter Palimpsest, her characters begin so estranged from the world, and from themselves, that they can have no other suitors but the city, they can make no personal connections based on identity, attraction, or interests. It is also never clear whether the Palimpsest virus exerts any direct behavioral pull on the characters, and thus never clear whether we are to attribute the characters' addict-like desperation to their personal need for what Palimpsest offers, or to the needs of Palimpsest itself: that is to say, it is often unclear whose character is on display. The Internet—a portal to the very sort of network of personal connections that Palimpsest models—might have been better excluded from the novel; its perfunctory inclusion feels undeveloped and untrue (and not everyone will hunt down the extra-textual content that somewhat ameliorates this). And when characters do question the idea of Palimpsest, it is via the rather hackneyed disbelief of "it's just a dream . . . nothing matters in a dream" (pp. 58, 71), although the more interesting and topical challenge faced by children of a quantum world is surely the opposite. It isn't acceptance of the impossible that is difficult, it is believing that anything real can have a external foundation of meaning that won't, in the end, be proven false. It is a question that is suggested by the novel's contents, but never taken up by its characters.
That line of questioning is reserved for the reader of Palimpsest, which is not inappropriate. Valente's novel is constructed to be a fantasy that does not seek to provide universal answers, does not take the morality of choice or the mantle of judgment into its own hands. Like the fantastic city of its title, its success rests instead on its ability to reflect back on us what we bring to it. The satisfaction of the tale is not the satisfaction of closure typical to fantasy stories of its type, of "and they healed the land and lived happily ever after." Rather it is the satisfaction of being propelled into thoughts and questions: "how did they live, after? Would I want to live that way? How do I want to live?" Palimpsest encourages readers to question its story, and by relation to it, their own story. It is a novel worth thinking about, talking about, and connecting with people over.