Our graduating class recognized one young woman as its most talented artist. She even won a couple of superlatives in our yearbook competition - best artist, most talented, most likely to go far, that sort of thing. Her art consisted primarily of precious fairyland paintings, often of herself with butterfly wings, or a corona of pink and blue fireflies, or taming a luminous unicorn in an incandescent forest glen. These paintings were lovely, for what they were, but... well, you know. They were that.
Which is to say, lots of people really liked them. Even I, awkward and judgmental weirdo that I was, recognized the artist's ability and I understood, more or less, her art's appeal. But I didn't like it.
And that, in a nutshell, is my problem with Valente's Palimpsest.
Valente's fantasy city, the eponymous Palimpsest, is lovingly rendered with incredibly evocative imagery. Her writing is gorgeous, lyrical and baroque and simultaneously stylized and accessible. But I didn't like it.
I was moved to pick up Palimpsest because I found and liked Valente's blog, particularly her thoughtful and surefooted anger about the gender politics of Superbowl advertisements. I strongly suggest that you read that essay.
I like Valente's gender politics. But I loathed her novel's sexual politics. Palimpsest is a dreamscape, only accessible if you have sex with someone who sports a tattoo of the city. Once you've been you find yourself longing to return, to the point that you wander the streets of your shabby reality searching desperately for another person with the right tattoo, so that you can fuck him or her and get back. It doesn't matter who you're fucking; what he or how she votes or whether he's some sort of homicidal lunatic - in essence, who he or she is. All that matters is that his or her body is your ticket back to your rococo urban dream-geography. Worse, sex becomes not simply a gateway, but a commodity. Every tattoo is unique, a map of a different part of the city. To get to a particular place, you have to find and fuck the person with that tattoo. Individuality, humanity, personhood is rendered entirely and utterly inconsequential.
The novel reads like an allegory about addiction. But it's not. Valente never seems to make this connection. Palimpsest is a novel about people fucking almost indiscriminately, desperately, with whatever bozo wanders along, to spend a few precious hours frolicking about in a glorious fantasy world in which they have no hope of remaining. The plot, when it kicks in (very, very late in the book), is essentially how the protagonists figure out how to stay permanently. And then they do. The end. Are you surprised to learn that the key is sex?
I'm not doing this novel justice, I know. It is written beautifully. "When they are old enough," one typically lyrical passage begins, "the young girls of the Aviary greet each morning on the banks of the Albumen."
They braid their extraordinarily long hair together to make a great net, and hand in hand, float upon their backs on the gentle currents. Great golden koi live in the shallows of the river, and the poor beasts are obsessed with the taste of curls. They become tangled in the net, and by noon the girls drag themselves back to shore and gut their catch with small bone knives strapped to their calves. The koi perish in a rapture of braids and young girls' savage laughter. Their meat tastes of coconuts and birdfat, and the girls have the rest of the long day for their lessons.
But that's about it. It's all beauty; there's very little substance to this novel, some "meaningful" but ultimately superficial nods to creating and recreating one's own identity aside. (This is also deeply ironic, considering the novel's problematic sexual politics.)
I'm not the right audience for this kind of book. I understand, I think, why people like this kind of writing, but it's not for me.