I finished Catherine Valente's Palimpsest a few days ago, but I found I couldn't post about it immediately. It's a dense book, a beautiful one, and it needed time for digestion.
In a nutshell (and this nutshell is, like the Tardis, bigger on the inside) Palimpsest is about four people granted brief access to a parallel fantasy world, via marks on their skin. To get to this world, this city of Palimpsest, they must have sexual relations with other people who also bear marks. To stay in Palimpsest permanently, they must regroup with their companions, who are spread across the world.
Valente creates one of the most engulfing and rich alternate worlds I have recently read. It is sublime and yet gritty and dark, full of Wonderland-like rules and oddities. The opening scene, a factory stamping out glass and metal insects, grabbed me and didn't let go. I want glass crickets to scrape their wings together in my world.
The four main characters, November, Oleg, Ludovico, and Sei, are damaged, loners, full of boundaries and vulnerabilities, each with a unique place waiting for them in Palimpsest. November, a bee-keeper, was most endearing to me, though Sei and her train obsession felt the most clear of the four storylines. Valente understands people and sexuality in a very complex way, and she transfers the nuances of each sexual encounter without being overly graphic. They are all people of fluid sexuality and re-shaping identities; sex is sex here, whatever the combination of genders and numbers. It matters more who the people are, not what genitalia they have.
The writing... ah, the writing. Stunning, simply, and that has both advantages and disadvantages. Valente has a gift for images that haunt and insights that provoke, but I found that the intricate poetry of her language distanced me from the characters. Perhaps it was intentional; I am not sure. It erased the idea of transparency in writing, for the language formed a barrier between the story and I. It was almost too much at times, like a dish of too many exotic spices. I never lost the feeling that this was a book, written very painstakingly and with great talent. The jury's still out on whether this improved the book or not.
As for beautiful books, my family stumbled upon a gallery show opening downtown the other night. The theme of the show was "the art of the book." What this produced ranged from beautifully made, illustrated, and presented books, to art that focused on the idea of the book. With books beginning to retreat into Kindle-sized packages, the show made me a little sad--will the art of the book be only a museum piece in the future?
One of the main four in Palimpsest is a high-quality bookbinder (Ludovico), and the details of his craft made me want to make books of my own. You know, when a book just doesn't have the right cover, either because it's a shitty cover in general (cheap versions of classics FTW) or it just didn't jive with your interpretation of the book. Maybe I'll get into that, when the knitting is slow and the muse is on holiday.