Sunday, July 12, 2020

Palimpsest by Catherine Valente

I’m not exactly sure how to write about Palimpsest. It’s not quite like anything I’ve read before. The closest comparison I can think of Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany, but while both are poetic explorations of impossible cities with lots of sex, I think that’s as far as the comparison can be taken. It took a little while to figure out what was happening, but once I got on its wavelength, I really loved it.

A palimpsest is a manuscript that has been at least partially scraped away and written over. The city itself is written over the mundane world and is accessed in dreams. Four people, a beekeeper, a bookbinder, a locksmith and lover of trains all find themselves bound together. Each has slept with someone recently who had a strange tattoo and found a similar tattoo on themselves. Now they visit Palimpsest each night when they sleep. They are limited to the area covered by the map on their tattoo unless they sleep with a person with a different tattoo. It’s not the kind of book that you can spoil, but I won’t describe the plot further. It’s more a book to be experienced. It’s a cliche to say a prose work is like a poem or dream, but damned if I haven’t read at least three that fit that description this year (this, Dhalgren, and Dead Astronauts). And while that might be a pejorative in some cases, these three really work.

The prose is dense and poetic without being too purple. Despite the dream-like quality of the story, there is a plot; there is ambiguity it is about the meaning of the work, not the action. The city is a palimpsest, but so are the identities of the protagonists, their tattoos and the culture that changes as they, and by extension the other inhabitants of and visitors to Palimpsest, do. This is a book that will take several readings to fully get, but on a first pass, I’m pretty sure it’s great.

Highly Recommended (though on reread it could be canon worthy)

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 46/75

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