Palimpsest is a portal fantasy novel written by Catherynne Valente in 2009. The work received the Lambda award. The symbolic title refers to a manuscript that has been effaced to allow it to be written over, with moral assumptions being that which was erased in this case. The book addresses themes of female mobility within a constructivist mindset and the tentative relationship between hedonism and finding meaning.
Although the book has absurdist and magical realist elements, Valente classifies her work as mythpunk, a postmodern cyberpunk derivative that uses folklore re-interpretation to undermine or reexamine traditionally-held social and moral assumptions. Valente stated in an interview with Strange Horizons (Vanderhooft, 2011), “I've always considered the appending of -punk to whatever other word to indicate that X is not merely being explored or ruminated upon, but in some sense broken, harmed, and put back together again with safety pins and patches."
The book takes the perspective of four main characters, Sei, November, Ludovico, and Oleg, and many secondary ones. Non-animate objects may also become characters through personification and anthropomorphism, including: a house, trains, train rails, and more abstractly, effigized memories. Even the City of Palimpsest talks to the reader. The presence of oracles and god-like figures is remnant of the best sections of Bone Dance by Emma Bull (another mythpunk book).
I am…like a machine…made out of all the things you remember about your childhood.
The protagonists have all suffered a familial loss through death or abandonment and are in a vulnerable state of sorrow, longing for reunion. While much of this loss resulted from their character flaws, there was also a random quality to it; it’s implied one relationship ended because the woman didn’t own a yellow raincoat. The loss pulls them to reckless pleasure seeking. By committing sudden acts of hedonism, they’re transported to another realm, The City of Palimpsest, on a train that barrels down a track of its own volition, wild and outside of their control.
She would seek out passage on her train, and all these fleshly tickets would fall to her feet, used and pale.
The citizens of Palimpsest are effigies of their real-world counterparts, shelled humans, even memories of loves long lost. Palimpsest can only be accessed at night, and outsiders aren't allowed to stay, motivating the characters to explore its mysteries so they can reside there permanently. Upon return to the real world, they're despondent and desperate to get back, experiencing the mercurial falloff of someone going off the deep end while on the rebound after a breakup. One of the keys to living there forever is to reconnect with their primal nature by replacing one of their body parts with a lower animal's, though Valente isn’t trying to place moral judgment here. She writes that what happens in a dream doesn’t matter, and this dreamworld lacks meaning just as much as the real one, for like the real world it has only absurdity as its foundation. In The City of Palimpsest the absurdity is physically manifested, while in the real world it’s manifested in the perception of the characters.
People who visit Palimpsest are seen as immigrants so the story may also be viewed as a story about how wealthier countries judge outsiders and the challenges when assimilating to a new culture, but this interpretation is secondary. The amount of time developing the politics during the discussion of the great war is far less than that spent developing the psychological, romantic subplots.
The world building is fantastic. In Palimpsest, tenements are built on stilts like spider silk. Children are blank, formless until they go to finishing school around mid-puberty. They aren’t reunited with parents and can’t have family ties. Girls tie their hair together to make fishing nets and float upon the sea. The world building also makes postmodern commentary, such as in the following excerpt discussing how we vainly accumulate knowledge because we can't overcome our mortality.
In the remote west are creatures whose body is that of a Greek book with a spine of wood and glues the matter of which is like unto the blood of a man. In rage does the beast snap its covers, gnash its chapters, and should a man attempt to make end of such a one, it will spew forth the substance of its life in the form of pages without end, and he shall be overwhelmed entirely by the copious waste of the brute, and thus does the beast ransom itself from death.
A great war is mentioned that was based on moral conflict and fidelity. There’s a strong “golden age” feel to the book where this would-be Eden used to be freely accessible before empires were erected. Oddly, the hedonistic palimpsest that fulfills desires seems more ritualistic and orderly than the real world though, with directly stipulated expectations for behavior right down to the direction one’s rings face, based on their mood. Palimpsest cuts out the foreplay that is mostly manipulation anyway.
The citizens of Palimpsest are effigies of their real-world counterparts, shelled humans, even memories of loves long lost. When returning from this surreal city, the protagonists are despondent and languished and desperate to get back. This represents the mercurial falloff of being on the “rebound” after a breakup. Valente writes that what happens in a dream doesn’t matter, and this dreamworld lacks meaning just as much as the real one, for like the real world it has only absurdity as its foundation. In The City of Palimpsest the absurdity is physically manifest, while in the real world it’s in people's perceptions.
Visitors of Palimpsest are seen as immigrants so the story may also be viewed as a story about how wealthier countries judge outsiders and their experiences assimilating to a new culture, but this interpretation is secondary. The amount of time developing the politics during the discussion of the great war is far less than that spent developing the psychological, romantic subplots.