Book recommendation: Palimpsest by Catherynne Valente

This is an unconventional review with suspect authority, so I won’t call it a review.

It took me about two years to finish this book, due to personal reasons (nothing out of my control; mostly just plain obstinacy and contrariness). This is despite the fact that I really, truly enjoyed it, even felt mesmerized by it, scene by scene. But I never felt compelled to hurry; instead, the most appropriate way to experience it seemed to be by tiny bites at long intervals, only taking the next one when I’d nearly forgotten the taste of it completely. Once, after getting about a third of the way through but realizing I couldn’t remember the details from the start (and this is a book where you want to remember the details; it’s a puzzle-story, fragments scattered over the whole and you can’t tell at the start which ones will be key), I started over from the beginning.

I can’t recall ever encountering a book like this one before, though maybe that’s my memory failing me. Yes, it’s fantasy; yes, the idea of going between worlds — one of them our own, one of them secret and fantastical — is not new. What stood apart for me was the level of poetry encapsulated in the prose; how it stands out as one of the best examples of poetry-as-prose that I’ve encountered.

And also, the sex scenes. That’s what first blew me away, with Sei and the author on the train. If anyone ever asks me the distinction between erotica and smut, I’ll point them to that scene. Any scene that captures the full potential of what sex can be, even between strangers, is erotica to me. I wouldn’t say that every sex scene in this book meets that standard, but a few of them do. November and Xiaohui. Oleg and Gabriel.

Valente captures her philosophy on sex (and the city of Palimpsest as a whole) beautifully:

“To touch a person… to sleep with a person… is to become a pioneer,” she whispered then, “a frontiersman at the edge of their private world, the strange, incomprehensible world of their interior, filled with customs you could never imitate, a language which sounds like your own but is really totally foreign, knowable only to them. I have been so many times to countries like that. I have learned how to make coffee in all their ways, how to share food, how to comfort, how to dance in the native ways.”

And Palimpsest is a spectacular mix of seductive and horrifying (and also the wonderfully creative: see the Brauria as the price paid by the wealthy, and the ultimate explanation for the human-animal hybrid veterans). Unlike a lot of similar fantasy stories, the cost of admission to this world was real and terrifying, not romanticized. And even without mutilation or disfigurement, the psychological toll on those like Hester made it decidedly unattractive to me. But I did love reading about it, soaking in the language.

Just one more excerpt now, from the introduction of Oleg, the Russian immigrant locksmith:

He lived in New York, but the New York of Oleg Sadakov was not the New York of others, and he alone ministered this secret place, stamped onto the back of the city like a maker’s mark. He crept and crawled through it, listening, for Oleg could listen very well, better than rabbits or horses or safecrackers.

The trouble was, New York was famous. Oleg had even seen it in Novgorod — a city so often photographed, filmed, recorded that there was truly no one who did not know its name, its outline, the shape of its body. So many books had been written about it, so many people had loved it and lived in it until their clothes smelled of its musk, so many had eaten its food and drunk its water and extolled its virtues like a gospel of the new world, that it had, with infinitesimal slowness, ceased to be, melted into vapor and dust. What rose now on the island of Manhattan was no more than the silver-white echo of all those millions of words expanded on its vanity, the afterimage of all those endless photographs and movies which broadcast it to anyone who might live ignorant of its majesty. A monster, a fairy-tale mirror, glittering but false, a doppelganger, a golem with New York City engraved roughly on its forehead.

No one had noticed.

Oleg retreated from the broad limbs of this new metropolitan giant and saw only the locks. He let people into places both secret and obvious, places they owned and places where they trespassed, into lovers’ hallways and grocers’ shops, into hotel rooms and abandoned buildings. Oleg did not care. He only wanted to touch the locks and find the keys for whom they wept. He saw nothing but the infinite city of locks, turning and winding through and around and behind the monochrome behemoth, and when the hours were very late, he often felt as though he could look through one lock and see all the others lined up behind it, opening up into forever, into a hundred thousand houses, into the Hudson, into the Atlantic. He could almost see the whitecaps breaking.

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