After the first couple of pages of Palimpsest, I said to myself “I think Ms Valente must be a poet writing a novel.” Flip back to the “about the author” and there it says that she has published five books of poetry.* Lots of writers do both, but I’ve always felt like there are poets who write novels, and novelists who write poetry. Based on something a lit professor once said to me, I’ve always thought of William Faulkner as a “[failed] poet who wrote [really good] novels.” Anyway, the attention to the flow and musicality of the prose that you get here is a clear sign that Valente is the former.
Valente follows four different characters in four cities. Sei rides the trains around and through Kyoto; the beekeeper November returns to San Francisco; Oleg is a locksmith in New York haunted by the ghost of his sister Lyudmilla; Ludovico is a bookbinder in Rome. Each has a sexual encounter that transports them to the dreamlike city of Palmimpsest. They then find part of the city tattooed on their bodies and learn that they can return to the city with further sexual experiences. The city itself is so addictive that the characters go out of their way to return.
As you can almost guess from the characters’ occupations, the novel is rife with symbolism. I think it’s ultimately a book about relationships, and the longing and loss that attend them. We also see sex/love (Valente does a great job showing how muddled those two things can be in relation to each other) as an addiction itself. There are several evocative passages, especially the alternating scenes set in Palimpsest itself, though I can’t say that I ever grew too close to any of the characters. I don’t know if this was because I simply don’t have an affinity for the lost dreamers that Valente focuses on here, or if the lush, poetic prose created a barrier between me and the characters. I did feel at times that I was too occupied by the words themselves to care about what they described.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with a poet writing a novel. And I could certainly see this being many people’s favorite Hugo nominee. Personally, while I found the prose very enjoyable from page to page and greatly appreciated the larger tapestry, I missed the plot and character hooks that propel a great novel forward. I enjoyed the journey more than the destination.