Palimpsest: A Review
I first heard about the book "Palimpsest" through Livejournal spam. I kept getting reminders that the author, Catherynne Valente, would be reading from her latest novel at the KGB Bar. There was a plot synopsis of the novel in the announcement: something quivering and salacious, but also far, far too coy. Something about four strangers meeting in the night.

Here's the plot synopsis that would have got me to buy her book in person and to hear her read, something I wish I'd done now:

Palimpsest is a book about a city that is also a sexually transmitted disease. You visit the city the night after you fuck somebody infected with it, and then the city possesses your heart and dreams.

After you are infected, you can only be conscious of the lack of magic, mystery, and beauty in your life now that you have seen the alternative. The lack is as brutal as a spiked bat!

Palimpsest is the true reality that you have always known lies just out of reach for you. Like HIV, once you are infected with the city, you die unless you find a cure. But there is only one cure -- permanent immigration to Palimpsest -- and there has been a war that makes this nearly impossible. Good fucking luck, you wanton travelers!

Or, to sum up the theme using Valente's own far more lyric and lucid prose:

"To touch a sleep with a to become a pioneer," she whispered then, "a frontiersman at the edge of their private world, the strange, incomprehensible world of their interior, filled with customs you could never imitate, a language which sounds like your own but is really totally foreign, knowable only to them. I have been so many times to countries like that. I have learned how to make coffee in all their ways, how to share food, how to comfort, how to dance in the native ways. It is harder, usually, to find a person who wants to walk the streets of me, to taste the teas of my country, to... immigrate you could say."


"Palimpsest" is a fantasy novel, I guess. But it is a fantasy novel in the same way that the works of Haruki Murakami or David Mitchell are fantasy novels.

It is "high fiction," a book that tells a story on its own terms, using an uncompromising and invented form to create higher resonance than the genres of either "literary fiction" or "fantasy" are capable of providing.

High fiction is gaining ground in literature and might be literature's best hope for bringing in new souls. It melds the best things about post-modernism, modernism, and genre fiction, while cutting out the excesses of all three disciplines.

High fiction would not be possible without post-modernism's brush clearing, even though reading the triumphs of 60s, 70s, and 80s literature is like reading through the filing cabinet of an English professor while all the air is being sucked out of a sealed room, like some kind of Batman deathtrap.

But post-modernism worked! At least, it worked in television and film. Everything has now been leveled. Thanks to the gimcrackery of image, New York City is just as real a place as Hogwarts. Since this is true, fiction can tell whatever the fuck story it wants now and people will just go with it. Settings can be manipulated and tweaked to conform to the logic of stories without rigorous world building.

Nobody cares what is real anymore, because now even telling "true" stories means we have to incorporate the mystical, the alien, the fantastical, and the arcane. Also, memoirs and reality television have laid such siege to the truth these days that they have stolen it from fiction like a fancy toy, so fiction can do what it pleases.

However, the lessons of modernism have also taught us that formal experimentation, craft, and deployment of a unique style, are the best ways to elevate prose, and they always improve a work when used deliberately and with control. "Ulysses" = huge success! "Finnegan's Wake" = unreadable, unless it is the only book you ever read.

People toiling for decades in the thankless Prose Mines of modernism taught us the limits of language and revealed many of the tricks, traps, inadequacies, and open areas of narrative exploration.

These days, while you write fantasy novels, you must read Faulkner.

Which brings us to the most important component of "high fiction." The fantastic. The genre spirit. Over the years, the genre writers kept the raw spirit of fiction alive by focusing on pure story. Tales! Adventure! Imagination! Crisis! Catharsis!

And that's what people want. Genre writers realized that if they didn't get it from fiction, they'd get it elsewhere. Those with aspirations for high fiction can no longer neglect this audience. This audience is all of us.

High fiction combines the structural freedom of post-modernism, the elevated style of modernism, and the story power of genre. To write a piece of high fiction is to therefore write fiction that challenges a writer's skills on all levels.

This is a great age for such challenges, an age where if you know how to look, you can see that the path is clear for anything. This is the age of high fiction masterpieces such as Mitchell's "Cloud Atlas," Murakami's "Kafka on the Shore," Ursula Le Guin's "The Tombs of Atuin," Susannah Clarke's "Dr. Strange and Mr. Norrell," and Peter Matthiessen's "Shadow Country."

"Palimpsest" is part of this tradition; a tradition struggling out of imagination's protoplasm to reignite the novel for modern readers.


"Palimpsest" is the story of four people on three continents who journey to the city of Palimpsest together for the first time one night and are then forever linked.

The structure is simple but specially tailored to the subject. The story cycles between the four characters -- each of whom has different desires and problems -- while alternating between the psychogeography of the sexually-transmitted city and the real life dilemmas of four very damaged human beings.

For instance, in order to keep visiting the city, the characters must keep fucking new people who have been there. And every time they visit, they lose something or are permanently altered.

My major problem with this book is also its chief strength. This is not a novel driven by plot or characters. This is a novel driven by setting and by ideas, where the characterization is revealed by the setting. The setting is actuated by the structure, and the structure is lyrical and poetic, replete with images and synesthesias that describe a city that is half-wonder and half-nonsense.

It is a place built for crazy people. Luckily, our protagonists are crazy and fit right in. However, it is a gamble that the reader will be able to empathize with the obsessions of these half-rendered characters. Taken as a story about the safety valve of the imagination, however, "Palimpsest" becomes a book about what people will risk in order to fight for their rightful place.

Sometimes the end result was like reading a beautiful map instead of visiting a real place. Or reading the rules to a game instead of playing it. I am conventional: I wanted more change, growth, risk, and plot.

However, the map and the rules were so engrossing that I stopped caring after awhile and just let my mind savor the possibilities. The ingredients were so fascinating and rare that it became okay that I could not always taste the dish.


Palimpsest is also really hot.

The characters don't care who they fuck in order to travel to their dream city. Men, women, lepers, the disfigured, the portly, the old, the young, the good, the evil. Every person is their own country and if you want to visit, you have to pay the price.

The tension of the book is the movement between sleaze to the sublime, which is also the tension of sex itself. Isn't it? The passage from life to mystery; the movement from the ordinary to the exalted.

The lowest world is raised up:

"A folktale current in Hokkaido just after the war and passed from conductor to conductor held that the floor of heaven is laced with silver train tracks, and the third rail is solid pearl. The trains that ran along them were fabulous even by the standards of the Shinkansen of today: carriages containing whole pine forests hung with golden lanterns, carriages full of rice terraces, carriages lined in red silk where the meal service brought soup, rice-balls, and a neat lump of opium with persimmon tea poured over it in the most delicate of cups. These trains sped past each other, utterly silent, carrying each a complement of ghosts who clutched the branches like leather handholds, and plucked the green rice to eat raw, and fell back insensate into the laps of women whose faces were painted red from brow to chin. They never stop, never slow, and only with great courage and grace could a spirit slowly progress from car to car, all the way to the conductor's cabin, where all accounts cease, and no man knows what lies therein."

"In Hokkaido, where the snow and ice are so white and pure that they glow blue, it is said that only the highest engineers of Japan Railways know the layout of the railroads on the floor of heaven. They say that those exalted engineers are working, slowly, generation by generation, to lay the tracks on earth so that they mirror exactly the tracks in heaven. When this is done, those marvelous carriages will fall from the sky, and we may know on earth, without paying the terrible fare of death, the gaze of the red women, the light of the forest lanterns, and the taste of persimmon tea."


Valente has a huge, wild talent and reading her book is intoxicating yet dangerous, like sipping liquor from a crystal goblet and eating dainty sandwiches while getting a massage from an assassin.

It's a book that feels well-tuned and well-edited. Blood was spilled on this book. Whole ink buffalo were slaughtered, and every part was used.

Here's a fascinating and spot-on editorial Valente wrote about why editors are so important, and why self-publishing is not a good idea.

"The general meme seems to be this: with the advent of ebooks, which are definitely going to be the dominant form of book publishing forever and ever, there will no longer be any need for traditional publishers. Each writer will become something of an autonomous press, self-publishing through Amazon and Apple, who are totally awesome indie champions of the little guy, unlike those horrible corporate presses, hiring their own editors, copyeditors, typesetters, marketers, and artists, and putting up their work directly for sale online. Then: profit!"

"I find this to be a horrifying dystopian future, and I'll tell you why."

However, in this editorial, she does bring up a very important point about electronic rights:

"Where I think change could best happen right now is on the contract level. If, for example, e-rights became a subsidiary right I could administer separately, like audio rights, then you'd see a revolution in ebooks as we all experiment. Right now, however, you more or less cannot sell a book to a major publisher without giving them e-rights, and that sucks."

She isn't just whistling Dixie, either. When her partner lost his job and they needed money, she took a YA-novel from "Palimpsest" and turned it into a persistent, online web novel called "The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making."

You can read this book for free here, and donate what you want.

I think this is exactly how electronic novels should look, personally. By putting out an online novel this way, an author doesn't have to go through Amazon, Apple, or Google, and they are able to add artwork, audio tracks, links, and "code art" in ways that simply don't work for ebook readers. You can read "Fairyland" from any computer with an internet connection. It can be tweaked. Corrected. Added to.

Unfortunately, "Fairyland" is also an example of a book that a professional writer had to put out without help, unable to pay for good graphic designers, good coders, or good editors, and also unable to convince publishers that this is what an ebook should look like.

Imagine what kind of electronic books publishers could make if they brought all of the resources of the New York industry to bear on this burgeoning market, instead of buying into the idea that Apple or Amazon are in a better position to create and leverage narrative art, which is a ludicrous idea.


"Palimpsest" is a radical and experimental piece of metatextual prose, cloaked in the guise of a perverted fantasy novel about A City. It is rough, smart, and flawed.

It is a book designed to makes passing it on a radical act. An act of transgression.

And I want to pass it on to you.

I want to put this book in your mind forever.

To make it a part of you. To tattoo it on your flesh. You like to read, right? So come a little closer...don't be shy...just a little bit closer, please...

Posted by miracle on Tue, 23 Mar 2010 12:56:12 -0400 -- permanent link

The Gallery at LPR
158 Bleecker St., New York, NY
Tuesday, August 5th, 2014

All content c. 2008-2009 by the respective authors.

Site design c. 2009 by sweet sweet design