Some people write for the love of zombies and airships. Others for dinosaurs . Others write for the love of books and trains. And cities and maps. And deeply, deeply damaged people. Palimpsest, by Catherynne M. Valente, tells the story of the things it loves in such bejeweled language, it seems to inspire still more ornate metaphors in everyone who tries to talk about it. For me, reading this book is like eating an entire pound of assorted chocolate truffles, each one flavored in artfully exotic, repulsive combinations, like sandalwood and prosciutto.
The book revolves around four characters who are so out of place in this world, they long for any other place to live. Each of them has lost someone dear to them, and they would give up everything, pursue any hope, to retrieve even an image of their beloved. For some reason, they think they will find what they want in Palimpsest. As the four go deeper, I never felt entirely convinced the city was such a wonderful place. It is a dream world, with all the nastiness the dreams sent in the night by our subconscious can have. Horrible things are described in the most beautiful language. But the more unpleasant their experiences, the more convinced they are that their suffering is merely the price of earning the right to stay.
Every now and then, there were substories that I liked, but I had trouble raising any interest in the main story. In the introductory chapters, any progress for a plot is hampered by the format. Four characters have casual sex with someone who bears a curious networked tattoo that looks like a piece of a street map. Four characters dream of Palimpsest and awaken with a tattoo of their own piece of the map. Four characters yearn for their lovers and find new ones. It happens differently to each of them, so we don’t get any shortcuts in four retellings of the same initiation ritual. The sexually transmitted magic is novel, but it reduces the sex — no matter erotically described — into a transaction to get somewhere else. As the book progresses, the couplings become more perfunctory, even forced.
I did like learning the term, Pecia. When books existed only in manuscript, you could rent a pecia, or portion, from an exemplar copy to read or copy for yourself. Pecias take a slightly different meaning in the book, just as Palimpsest itself is not a manuscript but a city, and the old version resists attempts to write over it.
It’s all written very prettily, but a lot of the metaphors don’t make sense. What does “the way a widow kisses the feet of a statue” even mean? Much of the story doesn’t make any sense outside of dream logic. In the end, well, the final chapters go by in such an ecstatic rush that by the next day, I wasn’t sure I had actually finished reading the book. It’s not so much an ending, as a climax. And considering how this set of stories is told, that makes about as much sense as anything else.