It was the best of books; it was the worst of books. First, the "best" part. Valente writes beautifully, poetically, lushly, adjective-ly.
[November] could never escape the feeling of strange Spanish holiness that California bestowed--the cities named for saints, angels, benediction. The capital itself a sacrament. Like communion wafers she tasted the places on her tongue, the red roof tiles blood-vivid.
Clearly November's a person who wants a mystical depth to her everyday reality. Her every breath and encounter offers the opportunity to transcend her humdrum existence as a beekeeper. I mean, only a morbid religious poet would think the following while waiting to cross the Bay Bridge: "How we are willing to wait... like a line of penitent adulterers at a white altar, to be allowed into the city." November's the perfect candidate for immigration to a dream city--Palimpsest--entered only by sexual contact with other meaning seekers. Citizenship as STD? Brilliant! Instead of warts or sores, a black tattoo of a partial map of Palimpsest appears somewhere on your person. Our serious and committed friend November ends up with a disfiguring face tattoo that makes Mike Tyson look bland by comparison. Clearly for Valente, attaining the deep life requires gut-wrenching, painful sacrifice. Transcendence requires debasement. And between our heroes Ludo, Oleg, November, and Sei, there's enough misery and dysfunction to punch an infinite number of tickets to Palimpsest.
Valente's comparison of Palimpsest to Jesus' Beatitudinal vision of the divine Kingdom is also interesting.
'These are the folk who may pass into the kingdom of heaven: the grief-stricken, lovers, scholars of a certain obsessive disposition. Brute beasts. Women who have become as men and men who have become as women. Writers of books with long titles. Only those knights who have failed to touch the Grail. Industrious women. You, and I, and a boy named Oleg, and a girl with blue hair.'
Not nearly as captivating to me as Jesus' vision of the upside-down kingdom, but an interesting reinterpretation nonetheless.
Now to the "worst" side of the equation. There's great complexity and density to Valente's writing. The avalanche of adjectives and imagery confused me at times. The longer pauses in narrative arcs made me forget what came before, forcing me to flip back 50 or 70 pages to reread what happened last we saw a character. I didn't always get it. To better understand Valente's point, a reread or two would be required. But I'm not kidding when I say that immersing myself in the grotesquely beautiful world of Palimpsest
was sometimes a miserable experience for me. I don't have the stamina to read it again. Besides, I can't figure out why anyone would choose to live in such a place, especially considering the personal degradation one must endure to visit Palimpsest. Are rivers of cream, racetracks of black pearls, and unpredictable mating trains really so appealing to restless spirits? Not to this restless spirit! Thanks, but I'll keep plugging along here.
By all means, read Palimpsest
for the lush imagery. Poetic souls will find plenty to like about the book. For me, it's adjective fatigue and low grade confusion. Oh well.