Scraping at the Skin: A Review of Palimpsest

There are whole cities of me who could have hated Palimpsestby Catherynne Valente, or been indifferent, or been casually affectionate, and then left the next morning – or even just as it ended – and then called four days later and been polite but firm that it was over. Books can be – they are – often like lovers. We hold them in our hands – or if the lights are off and we cannot see – they whisper in our ears, and it raises gooseflesh all over our bodies. Sometimes our teeth clank, or they are too rough, or not rough enough. Sometimes they fill us up. Sometimes the same lover is all of those things: teeth-clanking, giggling, shuttering, and perfect – but you met them on the wrong day, in the wrong mood, and its fumbling and awful. I met this book on the right day, the right days, and I loved it. 

I don’t listen to audio books that often. My mind makes sounds when I read, and when other people are making the sounds, my mind is left to wander like a horse that has pulled its picket. But I found myself on a ride north with no other adult to talk to, with this book sounding out in my ears, my restless mind penned into watching the road and the landscape. This is a novel of cities – of a city, Palimpsest – a sexually transmitted city. A contagious city, a city that enters into the body like a drug, and leaves its absence as surely as any withdrawal. 

Four people – Sei, Ludovico, November and Oleg, each from their own countries – enter into Palimpsest through their own lovers and madnesses – and are bound by a frog goddess through lines of experience and string. There’s something Narnian about it, but only as a departure point – the wardrobe full of mother’s furs wearing its subtext as text. The language is aggressively adjectival and allusive, the plot not so much action as experience and the uncovering of memory. Even the sections that take place in the cities I can point to on a map – Rome, New York, Kyoto – had the too-vivid feeling of a fairy tale, or a dream. The characters are strange, bejeweled creatures who cannot live in this world. I don’t know about anyone else, but I don’t dream in black and white. That I do, or should, is one of the strangest things people tell me with credulity, so I understand these bee-loud almost-people. 

There’s a place in me that grows weary of the adjective, that prefers the unornamented. That place was out the window – the nodding scrub and twisted near-spring branches of the landscape was the stage this city grew onto. It was perfect. Palimpsest can only be returned to for the characters by sex with strangers – strangers who have the maps of neighborhoods tattooed on their skin by their own entrances and addictions. It’s somewhere between erotic and disgusting the way it works, all this flesh and skin, and the leap to ecstasy and alarm that finds them once again in Palimpsest. 

I’ve been with the same person for sixteen years, we finally counted out one of the evenings this week, and I still dream of sex with others, usually the dream-faceless, but occasionally, with upset, someone I know. Invariably, as I feel and move, I remember within the dream who I am, whom I have made my bed and life and children with, and I panic in the dream. The dreams don’t spin to nightmare often, but it is disquieting to be someone else, to be somewhere else, in a city of dreams, and then wake up – but not often truly wake – and remember who I am. When I have nightmares where I fall and fall I often wake with the sensation that I have hit the bed. Or I run from monsters until I wake up with a charley horse and clutch my leg and writhe. That’s this book. 

I had to switch to paper after the rides north and back were completed – my house is loud and busy, and audio has no place in that – and I would fall into naps and dream the city, Palimpsest. However often my waking brain would bother itself with one too many description of smell or sound or touch, it would curl around those descriptions and play them out. For a city predicated on the vellum of monks stripped layer by layer and rewritten, leaving the trails on the skin on the eye, it was perfect. 

One last thing: this book is an intertext with The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. Though that story was referenced here, it was written after, and September and her Green Wind – good God – what a thing. I’m just shivering with what Valente did with children’s stories and retrospective adulthood and the stories we tell and are told and all of those devices, those devices that whir in our brains like damp clockwork, like maps to ourselves and others. I kept thinking of Autobiography of Red, where Anne Carson spoke of the magic of the adjective that reorders the noun, the place, and Valente’s heavy adjectives do just that. Perfect for these bones, for this skin, for this grey brain. I put out my hands to touch. Lover, come to bed.

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