Catherynne Valente’s new(ish) book Palimpsest is a hard one to describe. Palimpsest tells of a city visited only in dreams. It’s a sort of sexually transmitted city. Certain people bear a strange tattoo-like mark on their skin … a map. Enjoy a moment or a night of intense passion with one of them, and in the heavy sleep after climax, you might find yourself in the city of Palimpsest. It’s a city of decadent magnificence, strange delights, and twisting, labyrinthine wonder. Of tall gothic cathedrals, bizarre masquerade balls, and bejeweled vermin. The story’s four characters all carry a wound of some sort, a loss. They’ve come to find solace in Palimpsest. They are bound together, each sharing what the others experience, pain and pleasure, tasting what the others taste. In the morning, they wake back in our world, marked with a strange tattoo, a map, and a longing to return. Like I said, it’s kind of hard to describe.
On one level, Palimpsest is a metaphor, of sorts, for the maze of sex and relationships, with all its beauty and danger. Sex can be a hollow, fleeting, even dangerous thing, or it can be sacred, the ultimate sacrament. The emotions are complex and churning. It marks and wounds, and it opens a longing in the depths of the soul. It’s a way that too people can build a world all of their own, a city of the heart. Once they do, they’ll always long to return there. That’s one level.
The joy of Palimpsest is in it’s lush, dense, baroque, poetic and, yes, even haunting language. Every line is lovingly wrought, a treasure. Every paragraph aches with loveliness. It is utterly sensual and at times even erotic. It’s also refreshingly witty. But it’s like rich food; it’s delicious, even decadent, but it’s hard to take too much at once. It’s a book to savor, in small bursts of bliss, and return to. It’s not a book for careless beach reading; it is for autumn, with blanket, firelight, and blood-red wine.
Descriptions are loving, detailed, and exact. But for all their beauty and precision, the images in Palimpsest are microcosmic, rather than macrocosmic. And see, that’s the genius of the book. Like any relationship, it requires a partner. Palimpsest is not a city created solely by the author, for all the magnificence of her words. More than any other literary world I can think of, it is created in collaboration with the reader. Read it, and pass your copy along to a friend, and the two of you will not be reading the same book.
You see, Palimpsest makes demands of the reader. If the foreground is created with detail and a master jeweler’s precision, the background (so to speak) is sketched, leaving the reader to fill in the rest. Don’t come thinking to read passively. It’s impossible. Like any relationship, it’s a partnership, a shared act of creation. The characters are fully realized, their personalities are defined to a breathtaking degree. You can’t help but ache for them. All the same, the portraits have holes, here and there, inviting the reader like open arms to enter and pour their own wounds in, to patch the empty places with parts of themselves. The characters, then, become, like the dream city of wonders around around them, something new. Marked and changed.
It’s a challenging book, and probably not for everyone. (What is?) The beauties here are uncomfortable at times. Lines are crossed, and yes, raw nerves are probed. But Catherynne Valente has discovered or created (I have no idea which) a unique way to couple with a reader, an astonishing act of sharing through creation. I found myself finishing each chapter breathless and basking in a warm smile of afterglow, longing for a cigarette even though I’ve never smoked. I also found myself wanting to pass the book along to friends to see what they might discover within.