Friday, August 20, 2010

Po Mo Dreams

Catherynne M. Valente's Palimpsest was the fifth novel I read of the six nominated for the 2010 Hugos. I love that word, palimpsest. It refers to a document that has been erased and re-used for a different document. It's the sort of thing people used to do a lot when material to write on was expensive. Now we use various technological tricks to recover the erased material. The thing is, it's also a word I sometimes forget, and I'll be wondering, what was that word?

Crazy, I know.

Anyway, Valente's story is well named. It concerns four people who meet in a place that is revealed to be a kind of dream city called Palimpsest which you can only enter by having sex with someone bearing a birthmark consisting of a map of some portion of the city. With that you gain your own birthmark, and access to the portion of the city depicted in your partner's map.

The four people of this story don't know each other, at first, but in turns out they are connected in an important sense. As their story develops, Valente takes you from Palimpsest to the real world and back, and sometimes it takes a while before you recognize where you're at as the one world blends into the other.

Valente utilizes magical realism and a style of stream of consciousness writing, tossing out lists of words like an impressionistic painter tosses out daubs of paint to depict scenes and characters and events without ever actually doing the sort of painstaking detail work you expect from an author. At times you might catch yourself stumbling over a word that doesn't seem to mean what you think it means, but it all serves to create a dreamy sense of floating reality.

The frequent descriptions of sex won't be to everyone's taste. This is not the sort of book you'll recommend to your neighbor's sixteen year old daughter. But it is the sort of book you will recommend to fans of fantasy who are tired of elves and dwarves and magical swords. It is a satisfying read.


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