Day Two: When last did you catch an incontrovertible glance of yourself in fiction, and did you like the way you looked?
I read Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente in the last month of last year. Whenever I thought of reviewing it for Novel Niche, I felt that it wasn’t time. I felt, specifically, that there would be no way I could speak critically of a novel that had made me feel so much in love: in love with words and storytelling; in love with sexually-shared cityscapes, and in love with one of the four main characters of the story: November Aguilar, the beekeeper with a face that shows the places she has been in stark, difficult detail.
There is a way that the habits that seem most shameful or embarrassing in ourselves suddenly reveal themselves as pure, clear tenets, when written by others, or when enacted in plays we love, books we hoard. Early into our meeting with November, we learn that she loves to make lists. Listmaking seems like a paltry thing, or worse, a paranoiac one, but not the way that Valente describes it as part of November’s province.
“The keeping of lists was for November an exercise kin to the repeating of a rosary. She considered it neither obsessive nor compulsive, but a ritual, an essential ordering of the world into tall, thin jars containing perfect nouns. Enough nouns connected one to the other create a verb, and verbs had created everything, had skittered across the face of the void like pebbles across a frozen pond.”
A consummate chronicler, and a woman fiercely dedicated to preserving her private sanctuary of these lists, November makes me think instantly of the person I am and hope, in essence, always to be: that is, weird, quite frankly. Weird and by that banner of strangeness, immediately identifiable to those who were weird as I, fellow carnies, bearded ladies and sideshow freaks.
I think Palimpsest is a remarkable, ambitious work. I believe it’s written in a specific way that makes you swear allegiance to one of its main characters — it’s because we’re drawn to archetype. We can’t help it. We discerning readers know that people are more than the sum of their parts, both in fiction and on the streets, but we still love these decisions, don’t we? Which of the nine muses would we be? (Calliope.) Where would we most want the Sorting Hat to plop us? (Slytherin.) Under whose Westerosi house sigils would we bear our standards with the most pride? (The surly golden kraken of the Greyjoy sigil.) Maybe we love these distinctions as much as we do because there are precious few of them in 2012, and those most prominent are the dubious emblems of which football team we hope hoists that huge metal trophy.
I won’t say which archetype November best represents — only that for me, she is at once a mirror and a portrait, and an unforgettable woman in literature. She understands sadness, and the importance of archiving, and sacrifice. She is eerily close to the way I’d want to be held up for scrutiny in someone’s work of art. The novel is peppered with her lists, which are haunting, palatable, earnest fragments, such as this brief tabulation following an assignation with a lover called Xiaohui (the very woman whose parting gift is an inscription that November can never erase):
“Things that are left in the morning: memory, thought, snow. Light. Work. Disease. Dreams.”
How difficult it is to write a post like this — it says so much about the way you want to be seen; the way you see yourself; the things you conceal and reveal in cycles and in increments. I might look back on this post in five years, or ten, and think, “I was addicted to the notion of suffering well, and beautifully, for the sake of creating something larger than myself that had its point of origination in me.” For now, though, I love November. She feels like so many places I have been, and have yet to visit. She is beloved by those who are both compassionate and cruel. There are marks on her body that can never be erased.
Maybe it is something she learns that reminds me of what I want to imprint on the way I live and conduct my living: an archivist can be thrown out of her cavern of solitude, too — what’s more, she can flourish; she can rule there as well as anywhere else.
This post is part of a series.
Day One: Which fiction to film adaptation broke your heart into several messy, inconsolable pieces?