Palimpsest by Catherynne Valente
Between life and death, dreaming and waking, at the train stop beyond the end of the world is the city of Palimpsest. To get there is a miracle, a mystery, a gift, and a curse -- a voyage permitted only to those who’ve always believed there’s another world than the one that meets the eye. Those fated to make the passage are marked forever by a map of that wondrous city tattooed on their flesh after a single orgasmic night. To this kingdom of ghost trains, lion-priests, living kanji, and cream-filled canals come four travelers: Oleg, a New York locksmith; the beekeeper November; Ludovico, a binder of rare books; and a young Japanese woman named Sei. They’ve each lost something important -- a wife, a lover, a sister, a direction in life—and what they will find in Palimpsest is more than they could ever imagine.
There's not really anything I could say that can do justice to this book, but bear with me and I'll do my best.
Catherynne Valente's Palimpsest is a world you want to bathe in. Valente has a genius for true sensuality of place, and each and every scene is the expression of a desire. Her prose is heartbreakingly beautiful, and intricately dense. I found that, every few chapters, I would have to put the book down and stare into space for a while. She weaves a tapestry of dreams within dreams, and as a result everything and everyone is dreamlike. Sex is a spell, a sacrament, a flippant prayer, and she creates new magics for her characters to obsess over: bibliomancy, cartomancy... This is truly a love letter to every deep dreamer and great lover of words.
However, Valente is also unafraid of addressing the darker side of desire. The futility of possession is a recurring theme, and she clearly links it to the disease of obsession, and all the destruction that can come in its wake. Those who have been to Palimpsest are irrevocably marked, and though they all deal with this in different ways, every one of them allows it to steer the course of their life. Sometimes their decisions, their thoughts, their passions are frustrating for the reader. This does not steal from the beauty of the book, and perhaps this is Valente gently showing the reader how easy it is to become attached to one's own desires for other people.
Reading Palimpsest is a journey and, I suspect, one that is difficult to forget. Valente's characters are larger than life--easily and unapologetically queer, kindly and sweetly deviant--but they are human, and they could be us. It might be impossible to parse, in the end, whether to take their story as the fulfillment of wishing, or as a cautionary tale. Either way, Palimpsest is an experience you shouldn't miss.