« Look closely. This is not the way. »
This short novel (Valente’s first one, back in 2004) features a woman walking into a shapeshifting maze. Deprived of name, deprived of memory, she is the Seeker-After, yet wanders aimlessly – « female Theseus » deprived of her Minotaur, since the place has no center for the Beast to hide in. No past, no future for her then.
So she walks, endlessly. Tries to escape hunting, latine-speaking doors that would swallow her and lead her down to some unknown place of the labyrinth. What can you do when there’s no obvious meaning, no visible end, no beginning, no center ? When everything is moving and shifting, yet remains caught in the nowbody ?
She’s not alone in this Labyrinth. Here dwell many creatures, each developping its own philosophy to face the nonsense of the place. Thus in her desperate anti-quest she encounters strange beings such as a self-defined « meaningful Lobster », a giant talking hare, or a crocodile singing gospel. Her meeting with a fascinating queer angel finally sends her on a new path, a descent deeper and deeper into madness. But who’s to say what is waiting for her behind the last door ?
Here’s a challenging and bewildering book (oh my, I love those ^-^). The reader has to plunge headfirst into a strange, surreal place that has absolutely no link to reality as we know it, a place where language is almighty and has the power to really shape and change things, where metaphors are given life, where the inner self and the outer setting meet and merge. I would even consider it a very dangerous book with its nonsensical world, were it not for Catherynne Valente’s great sense of humor which provides us with funny interludes.
The only background we can refer to concern myths and archetypes, classic writers also. The jacket describes The Labyrinth as some « Zarathustra in Wonderland » novel : indeed, the creatures of the maze might remind us of Lewis Carroll’s characters ; I also found here and there echoes of Maldoror, of Dante, and many others. And Catherynne Valente even intertwins her most lyrical paragraphs with the voices and verses of Shakespeare, Blake, Ovid or Marlowe. But don’t expect salvation just because you grasped the references : the verbal tide might wash over your mind just as well.
I guess some readers will accuse Valente of indulging herself, of reveling in some kind of a « too much » language at the expense of a good, solid plot. Well, there is a plot, and an enthralling one if you can get past the first pages. While I made my way rather slowly through the beginning, I suddenly found myself reading on and on and on, pushed further by a feeling of urgency as the heroine and the language plunge deeper down into madness and toward an anxiously awaited end. True enough, the author has a skill with language, and she makes a splendid use of it in this canto-shaped novel ; every chapter shines with its own lyrical beauty, and yes, the risk is great for the reader to drown himself in this verbal wave. This was a very intense experience for me, like getting drunk, drunk with words, drunk with vivid, mind-striking images. And once I’d sobered up, I found myself with a lot to think about – hey, I’ve known of worst hangovers :-p
So. One might ask, is it really a novel ? Is it prose ? Poetry ? Surrealism ? Dark fantasy ? Or even mythpunk, as Catherynne M. Valente herself named some trend in which she thinks her works could fit ?* Well I don’t know, and to be honest I don’t even really care. Valente created something unique, hybrid. Her book is a monstrum, her words a maze in which some piece of me is still caught, a willing prisoner wandering around, meditating and marvelling at the strange beauty of this dangerous place…
Ready for the trip ? Just follow the White Rabbit, he’ll bring you to the beginning of the first Canto.
(And if you’d like to begin with something more accessible to us poor french-speaking readers, I’d highly recommand Valente’s last, wonderful novel In the Night Garden – a series of intertwined tales drawing upon mythology, fairy tales, folklore and religion in a wittily twisted and gripping way.)
As for myself, following my own Ariadne’s thread I walked out of The Labyrinth and straight into Danielewski’s House of Leaves. Me misera, I guess I’m lost ! :-)
* Note : In a very interesting interview by Geoffrey H. Goodwin (on the Bookslut website), Catherynne Valente explains : « For me mythpunk describes a writer who uses myth and folklore as a launch-point and then warps it with their own voice. Someone for whom language is more than a simple tool, whose use of it is sometimes jangling, sometimes melodious, often musical, always passionate. Someone who uses the basic set of authorial instruments: character, plot, setting, and the fabulous orchestra of human language in a way that challenges and innovates, changes the reader’s perception of mythology, both traditional narrative and new worlds combined and recombined. It’s more fun to write than anything I know, and more profound to read than most things I find. »
// Also reading : Jess Kaan, « Quand Lune saigne » (for saturday night’s wonder – but then I couldn’t resist the temptation to read again all Dérobade) ; Tanith Lee Forests of the Night ; The Fair Folk : Six Tales of the Fey (Marvin Kaye ed.) ; Thoreau De la Désobéissance civile ; Ted Naifeh Courtney Crumrin…