Myths of Origin Four Short Novels - By Catherynne M. Valente



“We are finished. Our smile is beatific and mouthless. We have no more body to puzzle us, and our voices multiply in infinite combinations, through the trees and stones and snow . . . ”

Catherynne M. Valente is a force unto herself, one of those quadruple threats who can burn her way into your brain with novels, short stories, poetry, or blog entries. She’s unapologetic about using a poetic style, although she’s underrated in terms of the muscularity, the toughness, the sheer bloody-mindedness of her prose. At heart, Valente is a unique member of the writers’ bestiary: a creature made of words who swims like a dolphin through pages of prose. Pure writers hardly ever come as pure as this . . .

It’s no surprise, then, that in just a few short years Valente has risen from obscurity to become one of the most important and unique fantasists of the early twenty-first century. Whether it’s the fascinating and convoluted stories-within-stories that typified the Orphan’s Tales duology, the mythic, pseudo-historical storytelling of her Prester John series, the sensuous, Decadent human landscapes of her one-off novel Palimpsest, or her most recent, based on Russian folktales, Deathless, Valente is always pushing herself and her readers toward the visionary allied with the all-too-human. Her intense education in the classics is often finely balanced against the uncompromising nature of her prose. In an era when many preach the virtues of invisible prose, Valente’s having none of it—exploding the myth that you can’t have both lush, intricate prose and accessibility for the reader.

But what might not be as clear to Valente’s fans is that she started out writing fiction just as compelling and rich as the works for which she has received wider acclaim. This omnibus edition bristles and sparks with evidence of that auspicious beginning, containing four works that provide valuable corroboration of her talent: The Labyrinth, Yume no Hon: The Book of Dreams, The Grass-Cutting Sword, and Under In the Mere.

My own first encounter with Valente’s work was that first novel, for which I wrote the introduction. As I wrote then, “Have we been here before? Yes and no—we’ve seen these mountains, those valleys, before (at least from afar), but that makes no difference. Every time language dislocates and damages us with the intensity of its unexpected beauty, and the truth of that beauty, we undergo a similar transformation—and we return so we can be dislocated and beautifully damaged once again, albeit in a slightly different way . . . That the author is drunk with words belies the control with which she uses them.”

In contrast to the continuous phantasmagorical dream that is The Labyrinth, Valente demonstrates other strengths in, for example, Yume no Hon: The Book of Dreams, which combines revisionist folktale approaches with an often generous sense of humor. Her attention to detail is exemplified by a chuckle-inducing section with a Snail “moving within his ponderous shell towards the thickest and most delicious of my vines” whose “oilskin rippled slightly and eye-stalks swiveled vaguely in my direction” when the narrator raps “imperiously on that iridescent shell.” A rich style, yes, but grounded in close observation of the world.

By contrast yet again, The Grass-Cutting Sword consists of a series of short, sharp shocks: a condensed storytelling that demonstrates Valente’s effectiveness within a somewhat smaller-scale narrative. The compression in these connected, open-ended moments is impressive: “Yet I have always wondered—what marvelous, secret things could have been woven from that wet, black thread, the thread that smelled so sweet burning?”

Pivoting yet again, away from Eastern influence and toward a re-imagining of Arthurian legends, Valente in the novella Under In the Mere that ends this book engages in a different kind of elevated language that manages to also modernize the source material: “Around me, before I could draw breath, was a town of oak-shacks and dark seal-heads floating grim in the morning, a town full of trickling wells and streets that blew dust at themselves . . . I rode into the Underworld on the singing angle of my golden sextant, eyes open, charts asplay, and yet, and yet. I suppose I ought to have known.” Journeys of both a physical nature and of the characters’ inner life permeate Under In the Mere, both stranger and more familiar than the quest in The Labyrinth and yet allied with it.

Have I given the impression that Valente is an intensely visual writer? I hope so. Painters and writers are somewhat similar with regard to style, although they Copyright 2016 - 2021