Acknowlegdes that "the source of all suffering is desire" (106) while charting out an immigration narrative wherein the primary object of desire is not precisely defined, other than the act of immigration itself. The narrative has no need to explain, and does not explain, the reasons that everyone is so keen to get to the eponymous city--it's lacanian objet petit a
. And it drives the prospective immigrants insane, despite the lack of definition, so much so that they police their own membership for "errata," to erase publication of the city in the waking world (119).
It's not a dystopian setting--the city of immigration is presented as more or less the same as the waking world, filled however with chimera and golems and other weirdnesses. There's a "banking district" and beggars (68), degrading manual labor (72-73), disabled veterans routinely humiliated (89), anti-immigrant fascist groups (167-68), people who "eat and starve" (137), people possess "weeping catamites" (153), there's pointless religious exercise (176), an aristocracy (272), poor everywhere, dictatorial governance, and so on. It is nevertheless presented as "so much more real" (244)--the hyperreal, more real than real, a stock conceit from baudrillardan analysis.
Overarching the fantasy setting is the history of war--it's presented obliquely--but the impression is that something horrible happened, and now the city has come to a tenuous settlement, which the protagonists' immigration will upset. Though the novel ends with some proclamations regarding the state of the war, it's not developed very much.
The best indication of what makes immigration so desirable that the protagonists suffer routine abuse, in comparison with which "incest hardly ranks" (121), and submit to sexual practices that are not desired even though consent is present, apart from the fact that the place of emigration is so horrible, is that "there, everything means something" (140). In contrast with the place of emigration, which is epitomized as "ruins of ruins, the city built on its own grave" (354), the place of immigration has a cemetary for signifiers (188), and is a place "without an etymology, without origin" (251), i.e., sans arche--the pristine state described by derridean linguistics, wherein the names of all things are "erased and rewritten many times" (305). We learn, ultimately, that "there is a hole at the center of Palimpsest" (341), the place literally decentered.
Perhaps the novel gives a bit too much credence to the philistine notion that sexual interaction with another renders one "a frontiersman at the edge of their private world, the strange incomprehensible world of their interior filled with customs you could never imitate, a language which sounds like your own but is really totally foreign" (25-26). Can't see how any of that describes sex--but it does in fact describe very accurately the process of reading a challenging speculative fiction, such as this item--the reader stands on the edge of Bakhtin's svoi/chuzhoi
distinction, attempting to gain access into the significance of the text, much like the characters attempt to immigrate to the city. It's work and involves some sacrifice, not least becoming palimpsest oneself, allowing one's own to be submitted sous rature, under erasure, to the force and effect of the langauge of the other, &c. &c. &c.
Some amusing moments that ridicule the conventions of heroic fantasy--such as when the protagonists conceive of themselves as knights on a quest (148, 195, 249, 252, 314), even though all they do is screw random strangers--it's not even quixotic--more plainly it's Sloterdijk's enlightened false consciousness. Another slick joke, at Mieville's expense, when the notion that a "train might one day become bold enough to jump its tracks [...] and escape Palimpsest altogether, into the wilds beyond and the mountains" is derided "as the worst sort of fancy" (320).
Valente's writing assumes that the reader is keeping up, usually, except in those several moments where she descends long enough to lay out the encyclopedia definition of the novel's title (290)--unnecessary, I think. Nifty contrast, though, with pecia
, a concept likewise drawn from ancient manuscript culture and made manifest by the narrative, a metaphor turned into a fixture of the setting.
Recommended for practitioners of the art of bibliomancy, astrologers who just once happened to look down, and adamic, atavistic Edenites in the orgy of naming.