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Literature / Palimpsest

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Deep in the recesses of dreams, there lies the city of Palimpsest. It is a city of great terror and wonder, impossible beauty and unimaginable cruelty, known simply as home to its inhabitants. But for the immigrants, the people who come to the city only at night, it is a place so strange that the outcasts of the real world find that they finally belong.

But they cannot stay more than a night at a time. They come to the city in fours- called Quartos- folded together in spirit by an old fortune-teller so that they each feel what the other three feel when they are in the city. There are rumors that immigrants can come to the city permanently, except none of them know how, and none of the locals wish to tell them.

One Quarto set is composed of Sei Amaya, a blue-haired, train-obsessed woman from Tokyo; November Aguilar, a Californian beekeeper who orders the world into myriad lists; Oleg Sadakov, a locksmith from New York City who hears the secret yearnings of locks and keys; and Ludovico Conti, a book binder from Rome who hears his books come to life. These individuals will be drawn to the fantastical city, and as their fascination to it grows, so too does their desire to become permanent residences.

Whether or not they really should is a question each of them will have to answer.

Palimpsest is a 2009 fantasy novel by Catherynne M. Valente.

This novel provides examples of:

  • All Just a Dream: What the characters initially try to believe, but people around them both in the real world and in Palimpsest disabuse them of this notion.
  • Animal Motifs: Nerezza is constantly given similarities to an eel.
  • Artificial Human: The Lyudmila in Palimpsest. Also there is a copy of Lucia who forgives and accepts all of Ludo's faults. Ludovico calls them "Pescia", named after the copies of manuscripts monks would copy.
  • Blessed with Suck: Attitudes of people who have found Palimpsest vary. Some acknowledge that it has taken everything away from them, but believe it is worth the price. Others know that while it is supposed to be a marvel, they live in fear of it.
  • Blue-and-Orange Morality:
    • Palimpsest in general seems to have an alien code of morals. Casimira horribly mutilates November, who she claims to be in love with. She claims it is because gaining Palimpsest must be worth a little suffering, and November needs a concrete demonstration that Palimpsest isn't in her imagination.
    • The city itself counts as well. It backed Casimira to win the war not because it thought her cause was just in the way humans understand it, but because her desire was the strongest.
  • Body Horror: November ends up with two of her fingers cut off and bee stings over her face in order to obtain information of her own Quarto.
  • Broken Bird: Nerezza, after the death of Radoslav by the street cleaners and it's only worse when Ludovico was able to find his Quarto and has a 100% chance of immigrating for good even though he's getting in there by doing nothing and it's all because Casimira specifically helped November by giving her the names of her Quarto. By the end, she's downright begging November if she herself is worthy of entering Palimpsest despite everything she sacrificed.
  • Brother–Sister Incest:
    • There's something very strange going on between Oleg and Lyudmila. It's worse when you realize this is completely in Oleg's head.
    • Xiaohui and her brother also had at least one encounter as she passed the mark to him. Xiaohui (at least according to him) did it just to see if she could actually bring herself to, but November can tell that he's desperately in love with her. He claims that many immigrants get over the incest taboo because they all want to travel to Palimpsest that badly.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: The four protagonists are good at their jobs precisely because they are so obsessive. That is until they find their new obsession and stop working.
  • City of Adventure: Palimpsest has everything anybody could possibly be looking for in the way of fantastical obsessions.
  • City of Canals: Zarzaparilla Street is a cream river covered in coats that must be navigated by gondola.
  • Color Motifs: Green for Casimira: she first appears to November in a green dress, her hair is green and the uniforms for her factory are a green color. Green is a color of life and she wants to bring life back into Palimpsest by opening it up to immigrants once more and her factory brings to life all the insects and other animals that scamper across the city.
  • Cool Mask: The women servers in the Third Rail have red painted masks.
  • Cool Train: All of Palimpsest's trains are alive and filled with impossible wonders.
  • Creepy Child:
    • Casimira's house uses the stillborn child who was buried in its foundations, artificially grown to about twelve-ish, as a way to speak to people. He's cute and charming, but just a little bit off in pretty much every way. He has kept a room for you.
    • Any Palimpsest citizen who has too much money will inevitably bear children who are The Blank and in a semi-coma. They're not malicious, and there's a cure (children of poor parents, specially adopted for this purpose, ritually lick them into shape, like bears were once thought do with their cubs), but they're deeply disturbing. There's a reason Palimpsest doesn't have a lot of dynasties. Casimira was such a child. The house licked her into shape.
  • Culture Clash: It takes time for immigrants to learn the rules of how Palimpsest works. Things like making eye contact or speaking to the locals may be forbidden under very specific circumstances.
  • Daddy's Girl: November was closer to her father than her mother, as the reason she obsesses reading the same children's book over and over again is because he specifically chose it for her.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Our protagonists seek escapism for a reason.
    • Oleg's sister died before he was born, which has left its mark on his psyche.
    • November's parents, before her father died, couldn't even stand to be in the same city anymore, forcing her to go back and forth between them.
    • Sei's mother was mentally unstable and ultimately killed herself.
  • Dead Person Conversation: Oleg's drowned sister Lyudmila appears frequently and counsels him. She is a hallucination he has when he forgets his medication.
  • Deconstructed Character Archetype: Casimira is essentially a twisted version of a usual Disney Princess. Instead of a Friend to All Living Things, she runs a factory that creates vermin. Instead of a Disney princess who doesn't have parents, she actually did, but then she got taken in to be raised by her house (which is personified as a young boy that was her stillborn uncle). She also wishes to change the status quo and thus goes to war against citizens of Palimpsest who'd rather not open themselves up to immigrants and weaponizes the vermin she creates. And she feels like she has the right to do whatever she wants because she's got Palimpsest backing her up.
  • Depraved Bisexual: What some people become in order to reach Palimpsest.
  • Deus Sex Machina: Visitors can only arrive at the city by having sex with the right people who bear tattoos that resemble maps of Palimpsest.
  • Devoted to You: Ludo really only wants Lucia. If he sleeps with other people, it is only to reach Palimpsest to find her.
  • Do You Want to Copulate?: This is the sexual attitude of most immigrants. They don't care who they're sleeping with. The person is just a way to Palimpsest.
  • Down the Rabbit Hole: What's actually going on, even though the characters experience it as a dream.
  • Dream Land: Palimpsest, or at least, this is what people think at first. It would be more accurate to call it another dimension you can only reach by dreaming. It used to be accessible other ways, but it was completely locked down after an invasion. Casimira had to start a war to open the "fuck perchance to dream" route.
  • Driven to Suicide:
    • Hester tried to kill herself when she couldn't be rid of Palimpsest. it didn't work.
    • This is what ultimately happened to Sei's mother.
  • Dysfunction Junction: The four main characters obviously, but pretty much everyone who is touched by Palimpsest has some issues. On one end, they become obsessed with it and can no longer deal with reality. On the other, they become so afraid of it that they will do anything to keep from seeing it.
  • Enfant Terrible: Yumiko fell pregnant after acquiring her Palimpsest tattoo. When her son was born, he was covered in tattooed streets - and not Palimpsest, either, but someplace else, aligned on a grid. And minutes after birth, he looked straight at his mother and said "I want to go back." She had a freak out and gave him up to a couple. In short, according to Yumiko, tattoo-bearers don't have children — Palimpsest is having children.
  • Equivalent Exchange: How payments in Palimpsest work: a finger nail can give you a train primer, a random list can give you a fancy dress, Ludovico gives up his tongue so Ululiro can be given some semblance of victory and be the key that will fully allow people to fully immigrates.
  • Everyone Is Bi: The characters we follow have little to no compunction about taking men and women for lovers so long as it takes them to Palimpsest. This trope is dear to Valente's heart, reflecting her own bisexuality.
  • The Fair Folk: The residents of Palimpsest bear a certain resemblance to them, as highlighted by November's references to The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.
  • Fan Disservice: People don't necessarily enjoy or even really want the sex they have to get to Palimpsest—it's just a means to an end—and many of the sex scenes are deliberately unsexy because of this.
  • Fantastic Racism: Palimpsest's inhuman inhabitants tend to look down on immigrants.
  • Fantastically Indifferent: Yeah, Palimpsest is weird. Good luck getting Oleg to notice.
  • Foreshadowing: During his trip at the races, Ludovico glimpses at a newspaper that has an article about the street cleaners. He later learns that these street cleaners are what prevents Nerezza from fully immigrating — as they killed the last member of her Quarto — and he will personally meet up with them near the end of the book.
  • A Form You Are Comfortable With: The Third Rail speaks in the form of a woman who, when she takes their mask off, is made to look like Sei's deceased mother, Usagi. Later it is revealed that the Pescia are actually Palimpsest.
  • Freudian Excuse: Sei has very conflicted feelings toward her mother, and mother-daughter relationships in general.
  • Genius Loci: Palimpsest is alive and has opinions. Namely, it made sure Casimira won the war, and it later screws with its own geography so Ludo can find Oleg faster.
  • Go Mad from the Isolation: This is implied to have happened to Oleg who has no friends or family. As a child he retreated from the world because American children mocked his Russian accent.
  • Happy Marriage Charade: Lucia is so unhappy in her marriage she can hardly breathe. Ludo doesn't notice.
  • Headdesk: Oleg does this on a boat when he realizes that the Lyudmila with him is just a construct.
  • I Have Boobs, You Must Obey!: Sei tries this on a man at a train station - showing her boobs and her Palimpsest tattoo at the same time. She finds his confusion refreshing.
  • If It's You, It's Okay: In general, Everyone Is Bi, but Ludovico has no sexual interest in men. This changes if the man can take him to Palimpsest.
  • Innocent Fanservice Girl: Lyudmila has been wearing a child-size red dress since Oleg met her as a child. She's grown now. It's a very small dress.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Nerezza may be bitter at Ludovico but she's not wrong in that Ludovico basically has done nothing to find the rest of his Quarto. It was all November's doing as Casimira's champion that had her go out to find him and direct him to retrieve Oleg.
  • Land of One City: As far as anyone can tell, this is what Palimpsest is.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall:
    "There are some theories. You know, no one really knows. It's not like there's a manual. A couple of times, I heard that someone wanted to write one, publish it as fiction — but we would know. We would see right through all those made-up characters and silly little narrative twists. We would know what it was: a primer."
  • Leaving You to Find Myself: Lucia flees her marriage to Ludo which she says stifled everything about her true self.
  • Little Bit Beastly: Many of Palimpsest's inhabitants appear to be humans with some animal parts—a frog's head, a giraffe's neck, etc. This is due to them taking a surgery to fight in a war against Casimira's own army of vermin.
  • Longing for Fictionland: What drives the story. One dream of Palimpsest is all it takes for the desire to take root in your heart.
  • Long List: One of them is used to described everything that was buried in the foundations for Casimira's house.
  • Lust Object: Each protagonist has one. Not all of them are human.
  • Maybe Ever After: It's implied that despite finding a pescia of Lucia who forgives him of all his flaws, Ludovico might pursue a relationship with November.
  • Misunderstood Loner with a Heart of Gold: Casimira, who is only doing what she can to let people enter Palimpsest once again.
  • Moon Rabbit: Sei encounters one on the Train making mochi.
  • Mother of a Thousand Young: Casimira is the "mother" of all the vermin of Palimpsest. They see everything and report back to her.
  • No Antagonist: Ultimately if the characters are struggling with anything, it's their own psychology. The creatures they encounter in Palimpsest actually want them to come. The closest to a Big Bad is Nerezza, hoping to kill Ludovico because she can't stand the idea of him meeting up with his Quarto to immigrate for good while she will never be able to (because her final Quarto member was killed) and Ululiro, a veteran of the war who despises immigrants and teamed up with Nerezza to prevent Ludovico and his Quarto from entering at all.
  • No Medication for Me: Oleg doesn't refuse his meds so much as fail to take them as he should.
  • Obsessed Are the Listmakers: November makes lists about anything and everything, not all of them categories most people would even think of.
  • Our Ghosts Are Different: Lyudmila. Actually a vivid hallucination caused when Oleg refuses his meds.
  • Parental Abandonment: Casimira was raised by her house after it opened up for her and only her.
  • Polyamory: Nerezza and her two lovers. Justified because without the last member of their Quartro they can't possibly immigrate to Palimpsest for good and this is as close as they can get.
  • Purple Prose: Fitting with the dreamlike atmosphere of the story. Even the real world portions of the text have a certain purple tint to them.
  • Rail Enthusiast: Sei loves the trains of Japan — not just where they can take her, but the mystery and beauty of the trains themselves. Her normal job is working at a ticket kiosk.
  • Rotating Protagonist: The book switches between Sei, November, Oleg, and Ludovico, as well as switching from their normal lives to their Palimpsest adventures.
  • Saw "Star Wars" Twenty-Seven Times: November has read the first book in the Fairyland series, solely because it was the book her father picked out for her, thirty-two times.
  • Sexually Transmitted Superpowers: The ability to enter Palimpsest always starts by having sex with someone who bears a tattoo of part of the map of the city.
  • Show Within a Show: November is obsessed with the first book in a children's series because of how her father picked it out for her.
  • Sibling Yin-Yang: Xiaohui wants to share Palimpsest with as many people as possible. Her brother puts a lot of effort into keeping any hint of Palimpsest off public forums.
  • Single-Target Sexuality: Oleg is Lyudmila-sexual and will only have sex with others if it'll make him see her again, same with Ludovico and his wife, Lucia.
  • Talking in Your Dreams: Characters run into people they know on the other side frequently. In Palimpsest, people will understand you regardless of what language you speak.
  • Tarot Motifs: A tarot reading is drawn for the protagonists early in the story.
  • Tongue Trauma: Ludovico asks Ululiro to cut off his tongue as payment to let his Quarto pass.
  • Threatening Shark: Ululiro has a shark's head and she's willing to do anything to prevent people from immigrating into Palimpsest.
  • Trapped in Another World: Once you have entered Palimpsest once, you will go there whenever you dream, whether you want to or not. Even refusing to have sex won't help—you'll just only go to the area mapped on your skin. The only way to not go is to drug yourself so hard you don't dream at all.
  • Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: Ludovico isn't exactly ugly, but he's certainly nobody anyone would look twice at. Lucia on the other hand is a very attractive, very sensual woman.
  • Unreliable Narrator: All of them. All four narrators are probably a little mad.
  • The Voiceless: Those who underwent the surgery to obtain animal parts were condemned to a vow of silence in honor of their sacrifice. Ludovico becomes this too after he asks Ululiro to cut off his tongue to become the key to let him into Palimpsest.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Lucia chews Ludovico out for being a terrible husband before she leaves him forever.