Palimpsest, by Catherynne M. Valente

I’ll start by saying I dreaded reading this book, I could tell by the back cover blurb that this was not my thing and once again the Hugos are causing me to read a book I would otherwise blissfully ignore.  I had one false start where I just wasn’t into it, I even got my wife to read it so she could explain it to me, but then I never finished it myself so that conversation didn’t happen.  So three years later in a inexplicably divergent mood, I gave it another try and this time made it all the way through. 

And it’s not as bad as I thought.  While I was expecting pure fantasy, this book is somewhat grounded in our reality, and its really Valente’s own effluvient prose that steers the feeling of the story into a fantastical realm, not unlike some of your purpler 30’s pulp writers.  I shouldn’t sell her short, Valente is a much better writer and “prose stylist”, and most of the book is really free-form poetry, just beautiful to read.  But ultimately it gets in the way of the story she’s trying to tell, I understand its purpose for those scenes in a dreamlike state, but as I said some parts take place in New York, or Tokyo, or Greece, and a little more lucidity might have gone a long way. 

At the beginning and the end of the book we’re working with the same four protagonists, whose stories are mostly independent of each other, but they all have similar goals once they’ve made their initial journey to this city outside of reality called Palimpsest.  The palimpsest metaphor is obvious enough without naming the city after it, I’m not sure why that was necessary.  In fact the most interesting aspect of the book concerns the brief ruminations Valente indulges in about cities in our own world being constantly “overwritten” by the passage of time, and even long-abandoned places like Cavacalla (which I remember as the site of the first Three Tenors concert on tv) are repurposed for other places. 

The characters themselves, having once been to Palimpsest, have an obsessive need to get back.  In every case they’ve lost something in this world and see the other reality as a better place, although its not always a pleasant or an easy trip.  Again I’m not quite sure why; the protagonists are each given their unique real-world connection, but the prose style makes all their inner monologues sound too similar.  The distinctions are there, but they don’t come across very well as individual voices. 

Palimpsest the city, in the end, would seem to be a living thing, with the train system figuring in large part as its central nervous system, and even a character who is the embodiment of an electric train’s third rail, for some reason.  There are a lot of ideas floating around here, but to my taste it doesn’t measure up to China Mieville, who can take similar concepts and wordsmithing and make it work by linking them through a strong central narrative and adding an element of suspense and/or horror.  I can still admire her ambition, and the end result isn’t without merit, but it’s not something I can really enjoy.

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