Palimpsest

Palimpsest coverOh, this is a cold book. Its main characters, our four guides who contract the passport to the fantastical city of Palimpsest, are broken individuals all; there is almost no warmth in the very frequent sex they all engage in; and the closer they get to achieving their dream of permanently moving to Palimpsest, the clearer it becomes that for all its wonders, it is like everywhere else a place to live, not an answer. Reviews — Matt Denault, Dan Hartland, Deborah J Brannon, Annalee Newitz — rightly talk about how penetrating the novel is on the relationship between the real and the fantastic. I’m a little surprised that words like possessiveness and selfishness don’t crop up more often; they seem to me necessary to capture the full desolation of the desire that the Palimpsest virus induces, an addictive need to make a place ours, to make it us, to fill ourselves up with it: an need familiar to readers of fantasy that the novel at first mocks, with its absurdly imaginative glimpses of a city that refuse to become a whole, and then, towards the close, seems to concede. The great weakness of Palimpsest, as Dan is most forceful in articulating, is that to this end its characters are tools, not players, and they can feel a little thin, not to mention hapless (perhaps particularly the two men; the two women felt more sharply defined to me throughout). All four are victims of the story, not shapers of it — a feeling reinforced by the highly structured, highly stylised nature of the book, which clinically cycles between the characters, forcing more direction onto them than their individual lives ever seem to contain. But perhaps this is a final chill irony: an unresolvable struggle between the irresistable artifices of stories and something more fluid, less satisfying, that we have to try to recognise as life.

11 Responses to “Palimpsest”

  1. Lois Tilton Says:

    I have come to distrust books with covers showing a woman’s decorated back.

  2. Niall Says:

    Well, in this case there is a plot reason; when you sleep with a carrier of the Palimpsest virus, the visible confirmation of infection is that a tattoo appears somewhere on your body, a miniature map of the part of city you can travel to. As you sleep with more carriers, you get more tattoos (and pass yours on), and become able to access more of the city.

  3. Lois Tilton Says:

    Yet this could equally have been depicted as a tattoo on a man’s chest or butt, I should think.

  4. Alexander Says:

    Although I wouldn’t say this merits dismissing the book, quite often publishing groups are stupid and sensationalist in their form of promotion.

    On the actual work, I liked it quite a lot, it made an interesting juxtaposition to Mieville’s The City & the City–in that the inhabitants trying to repress the strangeness, with Palimpsest the characters obsessively seeking the strangeness and thereby exposing their own emptiness. Quite an impressive accomplishment all things considered.

  5. Niall Says:

    Yeah, it’s been a good year for speculative cities. If you liked Mieville and Valente, I recommend The Other City by Michal Ajvaz — which for my money explores some of the same ideas as Mieville’s book, about personal and collective urban environments and about otherness in cities, more interestingly. (But we know I’m one of the like three people who didn’t think The City & The City was a heartbreaking work of staggering genius.)

  6. Adam Roberts Says:

    Who are the other two?

  7. Niall Says:

    Dan and Jeff VanderMeer, I think.

  8. Matt Denault Says:

    Lois, Palimpsest is in many ways the antithesis of the clichéd tramp-stamp mode of urban fantasy. I don’t know if whoever picked the cover knew this and had a strong sense of irony, was trying to tap into a current hot market, or maybe a bit of both. There’s a lot of sex, but little angst over romantic pairings; systems manipulating individuals more often than the reverse; a woman who is strong not because she knows kung-fu but because she commands armies, whose power comes not from demons but from industry. When I was thinking of how to frame my review of the book, Palimpsest as anti-urban fantasy was one approach I seriously considered.

    Indeed that’s one of the reasons that Palimpsest is one of my favorites of 2009: I can imagine writing so many interesting reviews of it. There’s the review that I did write; there’s the anti-urban fantasy take; there’s the one that focuses on gender and sexuality; there’s the one that compares it with Chris Barzak’s The Love We Share Without Knowing, two works written by 30-ish authors who have spent time in both Japan and Ohio, that deal with meetings of cultures, subcultures, despair, and (out of all that) a somewhat ambiguous sense of belonging.

    Of course my other favorite 2009 release so far was The City & The City. I really need to find the time to write something about it. Partly, its staggering genius is of course that its ideas are far more broadly applicable than just to cities; partly it’s what it does as a meta-mystery, which has tended to be under-appreciated by SF&F fans; partly it’s what it does with the general idea of story, which I think is where the most fruitful comparisons to Palimpsest could be made.

    As opposed to cities, I wonder if we could instead say that it’s been a good year for meta? I mean, I haven’t even read Yellow Blue Tibia yet (later this month!) but there was Berry’s Manual of Detection, Palimpsest, The City & The City….

    Or maybe it’s just that I have a tendency to see meta in anything I like.

  9. The Books of 2009 « Torque Control Says:

    [...] only from a small press). Some novels, certainly, left me underwhelmed – Catherynne Valente’s Palimpsest, Adam Roberts’ Yellow Blue Tibia, The City & The City and perhaps Joe Abercrombie’s Best [...]


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