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nataliya

nataliya

“Books are a uniquely portable magic.” 
― Stephen King, On Writing.

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"If you want to know what a man's like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals."— J.K. Rowling

Palimpsest - Catherynne M. Valente Did I, a brand-spankin'-new gynecologist, just read a book about a sexually transmitted city??? Yeah, I guess so much for that whole 'don't bring your work home' thing..."To touch a person... to sleep with a person... is to become a pioneer," she whispered then, "a frontiersman at the edge of their private world, the strange, incomprehensible world of their interior, filled with customs you could never imitate, a language which sounds like your own but is really totally foreign, knowable only to them. I have been so many times to countries like that. I have learned how to make coffee in all their ways, how to share food, how to comfort, how to dance in the native ways."Valente's trademark lush, ornamental, stylized, and vivid, almost paintbrush-stroke-like writing is amplified in this novel. Every sentence is surreal, dripping with imagery, soaking with color, saturated with emotions. The writing is melodic and lyrical almost to the absurd, to the point that you almost want to shake it off you and return to the world of short phrases and transparent meanings. Valente is excellent at weaving a gorgeous tapestry of language, zeroing in on small details and scenes and describing them with such poignancy that you feel almost trapped in the surreal world that she creates. It's wonderful to read it, but it's also almost exhausting, since everything is raw and on the edge, everything is exaggerated, everything is painfully exposed and amplified. The words swirl, and so do the emotions contained in them. The disjointed and staggering narration, fading in and out like in a dream, is both enchanting and oppressing, and I did love the combination of those.The rawness of emotions and at the same time the dreamlike quality of them is in the soul of this book. Forget the plot or the characters or any semblance of a traditional story. It's not about that. It's about the pain of love and loss and loneliness. It's the story of loss and need and desperate longing. It's a story about finding a place where you belong, where you feel alive, no matter how painful and hard and absurd the journey there may seem. It's not a story about finding a happy ending; it's about both feeling alive and just dulling the pain. It's about choice and the lack of it, desire and duty, fulfillment and abandonment.The world Valente paints with her word-strokes is weird to the extreme, surreal and dreamlike. The main character here is a dreamlike fantastical city, full of magic and life and strangeness. The city of Palimpsest, filled with living mating trains, mechanical insects, houses living as small children, rivers of clothes and milk, chimerae, and love, and death. This is not a paradise for those who manage to find it; despite it being more 'real' to them than the reality, it is still angry and dangerous and full of its own prejudices and bigotry. But it is a place for those who don't belong elsewhere - like our four characters, broken and lost and tragic and pathetic and beautiful and repulsive all at the same time; multifaceted like the city of their dreams."November has been taken, she knows this, and one does not argue with the one who takes. No one whose father was a librarian is ignorant of their Greek myth: when Hades hauls you into his chariot, you do not argue that he has been rude not to ask if you really wanted to go.""This is Palimpsest, November. This is the real world. Nothing comes without pain and death."The back cover of the book talks about a "lyrically erotic spell of a place where the grotesque and the beautiful reside and the passport to our most secret fantasies begins with a stranger's kiss..." While I agree on the 'grotesque and beautiful' part, I want to question the erotic part. Yes, this book is filled to the brim with sex (as expected, since sex with strangers is really the only way to get into Palimpsest - you sleep with strangers, you get a mark on your skin, a palimpsestic rash of sorts, and then you have an urge to pass it on, and so it spreads, infecting others like a true STD), but after a few initial encounters the eroticism and any semblance of enjoyable disappears and the characters are left with sex as a chore, a means to the end, casual past the point of enjoyment, undiscriminatory, dreaded by them, exhausting, unwanted, painful; sex as nothing more than a quick and undesired interlude on their way to their obsession. It is not erotic; it is exhausting. Like a true sexually transmitted disease, Palimpsest is accompanied by regret and pain. And I thought Valente handled that very well and showed it with grace and dignity while not softening the blows in any way. (However, my gynecologist self cringed quite a few times at all the unprotected sex that the majority of them were having - I mean, c'mon, is Palimpsest really worth gonorrhea or warts or unintended pregnancy or syphilis? Seriously, people, stop for a second to put that condom on. Please.)"But this is how you do it: through the body and into the world. You fuck; you travel. That sounds crude, and you know, it usually is. It's usually ugly, and fat, and sweaty, and lonely. Luckily, it's also usually quick. But afterwards ... we find a place where we belong."I was torn about the rating for this one. I'm a huge Valente fan, being completely won over by Deathless (one of the best books I've read this year), The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland... and Silently and Very Fast. All of those have instantly grabbed my attention and held me, enchanted, in their charms and embrace until the very last page. Palimpsest, however, was a very different experience, winning my affection very slowly, almost reluctantly, sometimes pushing me away, sometimes luring me in, but still in the end maintaining a firm grip on me - just like the surreal city of Palimpsest did on the four characters in this book."You need me," said Xiaohui breathlessly, pulling November over her, sliding hands under her belt to claw and knead. "You need me.""Don’t you mean ‘I need you'?" whispered November in the girl’s ear."No," she sighed, arching her back, tipping her chin up, making herself easy to kiss, easy to fall into, easy to devour. "You’ll see. You’ll see."I'm glad I did not give up on this book. While it has its flaws, while it's so heavily stylized that it almost throws you out of the story while simultaneously somehow immersing you in it, while endorsing choices and actions that I normally would very vehemently disagree with, this book did provide me with a very unique experience in one of the weirdest universes created on paper. It made me think and ache and sigh and long for things that lurk at the bottom of my murky soul. I loved the frequent mentions of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland - apparently written because of fans' requests after this book. And for all of that, I'm rounding up the 3.5-star rating to 4 stars. Valente's writing just has that something special that speaks to my soul, and I cannot resist it."There are no tigers for us, just a city, waiting, and it loves us, in whatever ways a city can love.""Maybe the tigers are there. Maybe they're just better at hiding than trains and tenors."