'Palimpsest' is one of those weird, monolithic tales about a different reality that impinges on our own, or, in this case, we impinge on it. The only other books remotely like it are John Crowley's 'Little, Big', in which we learn, by insinuations, that the world of faerie is encroaching on our own, and 'Dhalgren' by Samuel R. Delany, in which the protagonist journeys through a shifting, mythic city cut off from the rest of the world. Indeed, the quote above echoes the central mantra of 'Little, Big' - "The further in you go, the bigger it gets", while the lyrical and evocative closing lines of 'Palimpsest' remind me of the iconic ending of 'Dhalgren'; if the narrative of 'Palimpsest' is not recursive, it does suggest that others will follow the protagonists' journey. More than that, Catherynne Valente's prose achieves a level of hallucinatory vividness and poetic lyricism on a par with Delany and Crowley, although her narrative voice is most definitely her own. And like those two books, 'Palimpsest' manages to weave together strands from mythology and folklore into something so convincing you have a hard time believing it's not real.
This is all the more astonishing when you consider how loopy the premise is. Palimpsest is a magical dream city that you can only visit by sleeping with someone who has already visited the city. Everyone who has visited it is marked by a tattoo of a portion of a map of Palimpsest. This is the area of the city where you wind up after your night of passion, and the tattoos of your prior lovers mark the limits of the areas within Palimpsest where you are able to travel. When people arrive in the city they are bound together in a group of four known as a Quarto, and all four people feel whatever the others do while they are in the city. The story follows one Quarto on their quest to find a way to move to Palimpsest permanently.
So far, so bonkers, but from that description you'd be forgiven for thinking this is simply a more risque portal fantasy, a sort of X-rated Narnia. However the book easily transcends such accusations, thanks both to the detailed world-building in the scenes set in Palimpsest and, more importantly, its excellent character work. In many ways, 'Palimpsest' is a deconstruction of the portal fantasy, asking what type of person would want so desperately to escape the real world that they seek to leave it permanently. Obsession, addiction and debasement are all major themes.
All four of our main characters are severely damaged. Amaya Sei is a Japanese train-enthusiast whose mother was mentally ill and eventually committed suicide; November Aguilar is an American beekeeper who was dragged through her parents' long and painful divorce; Oleg Sadakov is a Russian-born locksmith living in New York who has an intense relationship with a hallucination of his dead sister; Ludovico Conti is an Italian book binder whose wife has left him. All of them are ill at ease in the real world. However, with each of them it's not just a case of being an outcast with a tragic past finding a magical world where everything finally makes sense. The city manages to find exactly the right weak-point in all of their psyches to claw its way deep into their being; it doesn't take long for all of them to be desperate to move to Palimpsest permanently.
The interesting thing about this is that Palimpsest is not some idyllic fantasy land. It is a strange and frequently hostile and dangerous place. It is revealed early on that injuries gained in Palimpsest will not go away when you wake up in the morning, and that visitors have been killed there. Palimpsest has just emerged from a bitter war, fought between Casimira, who believes that immigrants (i.e. us) should be allowed to visit and stay in Palimpsest, and the other supernatural beings who live there, who see mere humans as inferior being who do not belong there. As a result, visitors are frequently in danger of muggings or worse. In addition, all four characters wind up having to pay a price for entry, likened to the coins placed on the eyes of dead people to allow them to pass into the afterlife. November loses her fingers and is covered in bee stings, Sei becomes accidentally pregnant, Ludo has his tongue cut out, Oleg goes through such a deep depression he almost starves to death.
For any of this to make sense, Palimpsest itself has to be vividly realised. Valente's descriptions of the dream world are incredible. Despite the danger, the city is genuinely alluring, with its heavy air of mystery, its impenetrable social rituals, its people with heads or limbs of animals and its finely crafted vermin. Valente's command of atmosphere is deft, and she is able to change the tone from whimsical to sinister and genuinely quite frightening without missing a beat.
Valente also does interesting things with the structure of the book. It is told in the third person omniscient, and devotes alternating pairs of chapters to each of the characters. In the beginning, the first chapter in the pair is set in the real world and the second in Palimpsest. About halfway through, when the characters are starting to become more and more obsessed and entrenched in the world of Palimpsest, the order switches over. The chapters in Palimpsest are written in a different, slightly more ornate font than the rest of the book, and this is matched by the language, which becomes more poetic and descriptive, at times approaching Lord Dunsany levels of floridness, at other times addressing the reader directly. By the end we learn that these portions of the book have been narrated by the city of Palimpsest itself. All these techniques serve to subtly create a solid distinction between the real world and Palimpsest.
In the end, all four characters are able to move to Palimpsest permanently. I really like that the book leaves it up to the reader whether or not this is was a good choice, or if it was worth the price they paid. At the beginning of the book, when the four characters first visit Palimpsest and are bound in their Quarto, a fortune-teller gives them each a strange tarot card prophesying all the disaster they will face over the course of the story. This being fiction, the prophecies play out, all though not necessarily in the ways you might imagine, so being able to snatch any kind of happy ending from that is an achievement. The book ends with Casimira's war finally won, the gates of Palimpsest opening, and the city itself calling all who hear to enter, which manages to underscore the triumphant and emphasise the sinister.