Tiny Review: Catherynne Valente

I’ve been reading a lot lately.  I set a goal for myself to devour 120 books this year, 10 books per month, and I’ve been keeping solidly on track.  I’m even a little bit ahead.  

Among these readings have been quite a fair bit of work by Catherynne Valente.  A friend recommended Palimpsest to me perhaps a year, year and a half ago, and since reading it in May, I’ve tried to inhale Valente’s entire body of work.  This is no mean task.

I’ve also deeply approached Le Guin’s Steering the Craft for the first time, moving beyond the beginning exercises to come to a better technical understanding of my craft.

These two things go hand in hand, I think.   Laying side by side notions from Steering the Craft, especially on the topic of verb tense and my general disdain of “purple prose” I began thinking on why I found Catherynne Valente’s Palimpsest and Six Gun Snow White so damned compelling. Valente’s prose is rich like a dessert, but her subject matter begs for it; she’s working with dreams and their peculiar juxtapositions, she’s working with myth and fairytale. Valente goes from easy past to present tense in Six Gun Snow White, and these are tricks Le Guin warns writers of.  They are deep water.  They are difficult to pull off.  And yet, coming from Valente’s pen, none of it feels distancing or awkward to me.  I think it’s because of the fairytale nature of the story, I think it is because instead of functioning like a passive filter between the reader and the story, it makes the reader aware of the third person voice narrating it, the engaging present tense of a story told around a campfire.  It suggests a narrator, a narrator that has characteristics the reader can discern based on cadence and word choice.

 I find Valente diabolically good, with a steady hand for prose that would be just terribly wrong in any other context. She has an ability to make angular words, sharp and jangly phonemes, fall right into place.  She has an ear for the rhythm of sentences that makes me-the-poetry-reader quiver in delight. I think that’s another thing with “purple prose”: most people using it seem tone-deaf to me, breaking cadences to get in a particularly ponderous bit of language, instead of sneaking them in when the rhythms ask nicely.  Valente seems to know those rhythms well, and her prose joins the dance.

So, if you’re looking to pick up something to read, I’d point you at these.  I honestly can’t think of better right now.