Sunday, August 22, 2004


In early September, Catherynne M. Valente's deeply, gloriously strange short novel The Labyrinth will be released by Prime Books. I love this novel. It's utterly drunk on language, it's uncompromising in its vision, and it's also fun and playful and adventurous. I think it's the opening shot across the bow by someone who will become one of our major writers.

Below find the introduction I wrote for the novel.



An Introduction by Jeff VanderMeer

Flying doorways that "appear in the morning like dew-dampened butterflies, manic and clever." "Latinate clams" that clatter in the water, "their vulgate symphony of clicking nails and meaningless morse code . . . " Voices "like a rustling of linden leaves, like sand becoming a pearl." A Great hare that speaks, a "handsome golden macaque with a bodhisattva face," a decapitated Queen-all this and more awaits you in Catherynne M. Valente's small jewel of a novel, The Labyrinth. 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.

Tapping into the same wellspring of charged imagery as the Decadents and the Surrealists, The Labyrinth displays a confidence and sophistication of language rare in a first novel. That the author is drunk with words belies the control with which she uses them. The reader will be reminded of Latreaumont's Maldoror, Alice in Wonderland, and Angela Carter's more surreal fiction, but at the same time, Valente's voice is unique, her style her own. Metaphors and similes crowd the page, some literal, some figurative. Each sentence has the ability to surprise. Many have the ability to inflict damage.

Valente is certainly as fearless as any of the great non-linear, ur-logical Surrealists or Decadents-for her, language is not a balancing act, but the equivalent of flinging oneself off of a cliff, determined to sprout wings before hitting the rocks below. Most of the time, Valente does grow wings well before annihilation. Or, rather, I should say, writes herself wings.

But what of the tale? Is it secondary to the prose? No, not so much secondary as fused to the prose-this is one book where the story cannot be separated from the way in which it has been told, which is all to the good. Our nameless narrator navigates her way through a labyrinth as much metaphysical as sensual, as much dream-like as empirical (despite the sharply empirical nature of its many lovely descriptions).

Some works simply require savoring at the level of language. The Labyrinth is one of these works, best enjoyed paragraph by paragraph, word by word. So many fictions are inert at the level of language-as lifeless as an old shoe-that I found it wonderful to be reminded of the possibilities. The best analogy I can make is to a beach at low tide, rich with tidal pools. The beach as a whole is quite satisfactory, but the tidal pools, which from a distance are just mirrors of the sky, prove to be even more compelling: look into each one and you discover that each teems with life, each its own self-sufficient community. The same with Valente's fiction: each paragraph is self-sufficient and contains an entire world. You can lose yourself in a paragraph in The Labyrinth, which is, perhaps, fitting.

If, like me, you enjoy such literary fireworks, you will find much within these pages to delight you.