Saturday, March 19, 2011

Catherynne M. Valente - Ventriloquism

The first story in Catherynne M. Valente's Ventriloquism, Reading Borges in Buenos Aires, bends reality, the light of a dozen worlds reflecting on the story's lone immutable details: someone, in Buenos Aires, is reading Borges, and the reading and the person and the city are all shaping one another. In one paragraph the reader is old, in the next young. Facts, pasts, and the characters around the reader dissolve and are rebuilt, changing from page to page. In the final story, 13 Ways of Looking at Space/Time, scientifically analyzed creation myths are balanced with the affecting story of a certain unnamed science fiction writer, and possibilities are given birth and then die as timelines coalesce: I am writing the word and the word is already published and the word is already out of print. Everything is always happening all at once, in the present tense, forever, the beginning and the end and the denouement and the remaindering. (p. 328) In between those two stories, six years of Valente's fiction bring thirty of those permutations to life, thirty different tales united by that unnamed science fiction author's vision and sprawling across genres and years and narratives.

Valente's prose unifies the disparate tales found here. Her writing is baroque and dense, sentences composed of tightly packed imagery that rolls over the reader, such as a childhood described in La Serenissima: Never since I was a girl did my feet grace a stair but that the embroidery of my shoes was soaked through, red thread to black, green to black, blue to black: rain-sodden, rimmed with street-mold (p. 67) or the opening of A Dirge for Prester John: We carried him down to the river. It churned: basalt, granite, marble, quartz – sandstone, limestone, soapstone. Alabaster against obsidian, flint against agate. Eddies of jasper slipped by, swirls of schist, carbuncle and chrysolite, slate, beryl, and a sound like shoulders breaking. (p. 23)

It's true that the storm of images is imposing, occasionally even overwhelming, but that's not to say that Valente isn't a versatile writer. She's capable of bringing the same richness to almost any emotion and the same vividness to almost any place. She shows us bitter self loathing in Milk and Apples: I had been wicked, yes, because I had borne a dead daughter, I had squeezed a little pale corpse from my body as though I were nothing but a fat coffin, and buried it in the snow-hardened fields. (p. 147) She shows us sinful opulence with Gobulash's decadent wine: This is a wine that swallows light. Its color is deep and opaque, mysterious, almost black, the shadows of closed space. Revel in the dance of plum, almond skin, currant, pomegranate. The musty spike of nutmeg, the rich, buttery brightness of equine blood and the warm, obscene swell of leather. The last of the pre-war wines – your execution in a glass. (p. 278) And she shows us, too, levity, dry wit, and grandiose plans in How to Become a Mars Overlord: No matter what system bore you lifted you up, made you strong and righteous, there is a Mars for you to rule, and it is right that you should wish to rule her. (p. 300)

Valente's love of language is evident in more than just her prose's richness. In Ventriloquism, writing has the power to change the world, and Valente's protagonists spread awareness through slyly delivered pamphlets (The Anachronist's Cookbook) and through writing on pregnant stomachs (The Harpooner at the Bottom of the World) while Valente delivers the same messages through her tales. Many stories here are almost as concerned with how the story is being told – with its writing – as they are with what the story itself is. The Days of Flaming Motorcycles is shaped and titled by the cover of the notebook the narrator is writing in. In The Secret History of Mirrors, the narrator becomes the center of attention due to her tale, and her contempt for those around her who don't speak for themselves is plain: Ah, but they pound so upon the door of my cell, and demand their sides be told! Have you ever heard of such disagreeable folk? As if this was the first manuscript written from within our hexagonal chambers! As if vellum and gall were so rare as to the hunted across the fields like harts and hares. (p. 218) It's true that not all of the first person stories have such central frames, but even those that do not are filled with identifying flourishes, the narrators eschewing banal "My name is…" introductions for proud declarations such as, from The Dirge for Prester John: And after all of these, feet bare on the sand, skirts banded thick and blue about her waist, eyes cast downward, walked Hagia of the Blemmyae, who tells this tale. (p. 24)

In his introduction, Lev Grossman says: You will encounter those stories in a new way here. You won't recognize them at first, when you meet them. they will have taken off their glasses, and let down their hair. And you'll lay, like the old boss says to his secretary in the soap opera, in surprise and wonderment: Good heavens! You're beautiful! They will smile. And then they will rip your heart out. (p. XII) It's hard to think of a better way to describe Valente's fiction, her self-proclaimed mythpunk. These stories start out enchanting. Opulent, yes, but seemingly innocuous. They show you fantastic things and let you revel in glorious new places, and then, sometimes slowly and sometimes suddenly, they grow dark and twisted. There are no spell-breaking shifts here, no contrived tonal changes. There are, instead, revelations, the reader realizing that they've allowed bright lights and sweet aromas to blind us to misery all around us.

This is shown no where better than in the second of the novel's two Hansel and Gretel tales. A Delicate Architecture begins with a fairy tale world, a girl living with her father, the greatest confectioner to ever live, and living a life where everything is made of sweets. As the tale progresses, however, the price of such sweets becomes all too clear, the proof of the father's words: He told me very seriously that I must always remember that sugar was once alive. It grew tall and green and hard as my own knuckles in a far-away place, under a red sun that burned on the face of the sea. I must always remember that children just like me cut it down and crushed it up with tan and strong hands, and that their sweat, which gave me my sugar, tasted also of salt. (p. 83-4) The narrator is harvested for the sweetness that she can bring, and, while the tale's initial flights of fancy are still present, it's plain that such paradises are not for everyone.

Hidden costs lie underneath almost every story here. Valente manages to both show us the fabulous power of such dreams and, devastatingly, their painful realities. Amid the wonder of airships, The Anachronist Cookbook's protagonist writes: What you do not see are the Children who wind the Gearworks, stoke the Fires, load the Aerial Bombardments, pack Powder and scrape Bird Offal from the Engines. (p. 58) Such sentiments abound in fairy tales told by side characters and villains, in flights of fancy only held down by their cost, and in tales of heroic struggle cheapened by those it carelessly destroys.

Admittedly, not all of the collection's tales are equally powerful. Valente's prose is a dominating thing, and it can, at times, overwhelm the reader. Some stories, such as The Anachronist's Cookbook, are interesting ideas that lose their power through digressions. In that story, the messianic protagonist fights a battle against a cruel world through her stealthily disseminated pamphlets, but the drama of the story is waylaid by an excess of those pamphlets, and the conclusion is unsurprising. Other stories also occasionally lose the grand picture for the power of the details – and yet, if you're going to pick a reason for a tale to fail, I think excellence of prose and description is a pretty damn good one. No, I would not say that every story in here is a masterpiece. But I will say that there is no story in here that you can ride with half an eye, no story that won't drag you into its every depiction, and no story that is a safe tale that one has read before and has no interest in reading again.

Catherynne M. Valente is a distinctive author, a unique voice. Every tale in this collection asserts her style within the first page, the first paragraph, the first sentence, and any limiting genre indicators never manage to assert themselves until long after the reader is swept away and shore is no longer in sight. Valente's fiction is like the delicate wines of Golubash or the handcrafted sugars of A Delicate Architecture, and I think I'm going to be savoring choice tales and discovering new layers for a long time. 

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