Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

According to Webster’s New World College Dictionary, a palimpsest is a parchment, tablet, etc. that has been written upon or inscribed two or three times, the previous text or texts having been imperfectly erased and remaining, therefore, still partly visible.

In Catherynne Valente’s novel, Palimpsest is a dream city full of fantastic, magical people, animals, and architecture. It is a city of subtle layers of shading, born out of the hopes, dreams, and fantasies of the people who live and visit there. One arrives in Palimpsest through sexual intercourse transferring topographic tattoos from body to body. Four humans find themselves in Palimpsest: Oleg, the locksmith; November, the beekeeper; Ludovico, the bookbinder; and Sei, the young Japanese woman who is obsessed with trains. Although the four arrive independently, their fates are bound together by Palimpsest. The only way they can permanently remain in Palimpsest is to find each other in the real world. In the meantime, they continue to explore the weird intricacies of the city through further sexual encounters with others that Palimpsest has touched.

The prose style has a lyrical, dreamlike quality. A sans-serif typeface distinguishes the sections in Palimpsest from the normal typeface of the normal world. But for all the literary style, or maybe because of it, the novel is frustratingly difficult to read and comprehend. Certain passages ring with surreal and picturesque images, but the characterizations seem bland and indistinguishable. What characterization there was was filled with despair and desperation.

While the novel is imaginative, it is style over substance. Those who crave straightforward plots with positive protagonists should look elsewhere. Readers should also be aware of some brief, but explicit sexual language.

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