Catherynne M. Valente's recently published novel Palimpsest (Bantam Spectra, March 2009)is wonderful, in all senses of the word. Read it, no, savor it.
Valente is already, at age thirty, one of the best in the field. Her prose is rich, brocaded, lustrous--many passages are prose-poems, reflecting her award-winning skills as a poet. Her language has hints of Lord Dunsany, Clark Ashton Smith and Angela Carter, but is very much her own. (Valente is one of a cohort of younger writers--Goss, Duncan, Taaffe, Monette, VanderMeer--who have emerged as master-stylists.) Hers is a deep fantasy that is not just bizarre but familiar in a bizarre way, rousing a half-memory of recognition and longing in the reader's mind.
Palimpsest is a city somewhere beyond the fields we know. Four mismatched travelers arrive in Palimpsest through the power of a stranger's kiss. The city literally marks its visitors with a tattoo, a map of one of its precincts, and all its ways lead through Eros. Neither the reader nor the characters are certain where they are, what they should do, what they want. Waking and dreaming mesh--the effect is uncanny, very much in the sense that Freud defined it (and as Cixous and Castle have nuanced it since). Overlaying everything is an enigmatic eroticism, bringing to mind the mysteries of films such as Julia and Julia, The Double Life of Veronique, and That Obscure Object of Desire.
Valente's imagery is surreal, again leading us back to the Freudian uncanny. Palimpsest is a worthy heir to Ernst's collage novels and Magritte's paintings. In Palimpsest, "a gilded cart [is] drawn by twin herons, their long black legs rustling the street-leaves," and a maitre-d' is "an absurdly tall and silent man with glossily spotted giraffe legs." Young tenement women braid their hair together to catch fish in the river, revelers dance in skull-masks under a chandelier that drips gems to music played by faceless girls, mechanical roaches skitter about.
The city is itself a major character. In Palimpsest, Valente has created a city-character to rival Viriconium, The Etched City, New Crobuzon, Ambergris, and Melusine. Oh what a city Palimpsest is!
"Zarzaparrilla Street is paved with old coats. Layer after layer of fine corduroy and felt and wool the colors of coffee and ink. Those having business here must navigate with poles and gondola, ever so gently thrusting aside the sleeves and lapels and weedy ties...Great curving pairs of scissors are provided in case of sudden disaster, tucked neatly beneath the pilot's seat."
"Inamorata Street ends in silver sand and a great craggy finger of stone, stretching out into the sea. ...Striped tents dot the beach head: red and yellow, green and white, rose and powdery blue. Women change into bathing uniforms with flared waists and broad hats to keep out the moonlight; tuba players march back and forth, blaring out nocturnes."
In "the grand convocation chamber of Colophon Station...the 3:17 northbound Decretal had had a somewhat unhappy affair with the 12:22 eastbound Foolscap. The mysterious train was their child, and like any child whose parents no longer love each other, it runs wild and does what it likes and there is little at all to be done about it."
At 212th, Vituperation, Seraphim and Alphabet, "in the center of the roundabout sits the Memorial. It is tall and thin, a baroque spire sheltering a single black figure--a gagged child with the corded, elastic legs of an ostrich...Bronze and titanium chariots click by in endless circles..."
I hope that Valente is dream-writing further adventures in this city, Palimpsest of fixations, misunderstandings, and voluptuous meanderings.