If you want a hot, brooding novel for the sticky summer months, then you need Catherynne M. Valente's Palimpsest. It's the story of a lovely, haunting city you only visit by having sex with people who have visited it.
Published a few months ago, Palimpsest is urban fantasy at its most literal: Valente has created a city that is like an erotic fantasy, if only such fantasies always meant something else. In this smart, melancholy story, all sex has a subtext. The four main characters each wake up after a night of passionate sex (or a day, or an afternoon) to discover that they suddenly have strange new tattoos somewhere on their bodies. Their tattoos look strangely like pieces of a map, which in fact they turn out to be. Gradually they realize that the people they've been having sex with are gateways to the city of Palimpsest. Though only for one night at a time. After dreaming of the wondrous city, tourists always awaken back in our world.
The word palimpsest refers to a piece of parchment where something is written, then scratched off, then written upon again. It is a story that is erased and rewritten thousands of times, the same way many lives in a city begin and then wink out in the same places over time.
Bound together by one of the strange magic spells of the city, our four protagonists visit Palimpsest in dreams where they sense each other's presences. Each of them has a very strange sexual fetish: one is aroused by bookbinding, another by trains, another is infatuated with bees, and still another is a locksmith who falls in love with locks. Of course they love people too, impossible people who can exist only in Palimpsest. The more they adore the city's inhabitants, the more they must seek out other people back in their earthly cities with the strange tattoos. Only by having sex with those people can they return to Palimpsest.
Valente has written a novel where the clotted-cream style of the prose reflects the baroque landscapes she evokes in her imaginary city, and in the collapsing psychologies of her main characters. In many ways this is a book about transcendence, about finding a spiritual realm even in the most ordinary and debased activities. But it is also a novel quite simply about debasement. All of the characters, for various reasons, are leading shattered, degraded lives — half mad, filled with loss, dogged by loneliness.
Although Palimpsest seems like salvation to them, we are never quite sure why. The city is filled with horrors and dark visions, creatures who promise them love by literally torturing them. I think one of the flaws of the novel is that we never quite understand why these characters want to trade the ugliness of life on earth for the ugliness of life in Palimpsest. The bee lover called November, for example, meets a powerful woman in Palimpsest who proves to her that the city is not a dream by cutting off two of her fingers and then covering her body in bee stings. Unless she can figure out a way to immigrate to Palimpsest permanently — something nobody seems to know how to do — she is condemned to walk through life covered in thick scars.
It would seem that getting to Palimpsest isn't just a matter of getting laid. It's also about suffering. Valente's point, which is as much spiritual as it is sexual, is that love is always twinned with suffering. The beautiful city of Palimpsest therefore must contain a heaping measure of pain.
Despite this, or perhaps because of it, visiting Palimpsest and seeing it through the eyes of Valente's characters is a bittersweet pleasure. Slowly we begin to learn that the history of this city is similar to many countries on earth, where the citizens battle over who shall be allowed to immigrate. As our protagonists learn more about what it will take to become permanent residents, we are drawn into the mystery of Palimpsest's war veterans, whose lost heads and limbs have been replaced with those of animals.
This novel manages to be the oddest of things: a confection that hurts. You may be spellbound by the city's mystery, and intrigued by the strange characters — but you won't get away from this book without feeling like it has drawn a little blood.