One night, four very different individuals fall asleep to be inducted together into a world they each think is a dream. The four people are Sei, a 20-year-old Japanese woman who works as a railway employee on the Tokyo-Kyoto bullet train; November, a thirty-something San Fransisco woman who works as a beekeeper; Oleg, an ethnically Russian man who works as a locksmith in New York; and Ludo, an Italian man who collects and repairs old books. They have nothing in common except Palimpsest, the world they are brought to. When they wake up in their respective beds the next morning, each has a mark like a new tattoo somewhere on his or her body. It is a map of a tiny section of Palimpsest, the invisible dream city. The only way back is to find other marked people--and to have sex with them.
Palimpsest the city is like a strange sexually transmitted disease of the mind, an obsession with a brightly colored and strangely textured dreamworld where the thing each person is missing in their life can be found. Oleg can be with his long-dead sister. Ludo can find his beloved wife, who left him without explanation. November, an incurable introvert, can be Queen of a society ruled by insects. And Sei, who really loves nothing but trains, can devote her life to loving them. But the happiness lasts only the length of the night, and the "real" world becomes harder and harder to choke down for each of them upon return.
I had to look up the word "palimpsest" while I was reading--it was one of those words I thought I knew, but realized I didn't. A palimpsest, it turns out, is a page of a book (think old-style velum) that has previously been written or printed on, but has now been scraped or wiped blank so it can be recorded on again. I think this gets at the core idea of people trying to create their own stories while never quite managing to escape the residue of their pasts, or the pasts of others, which interfere with their lives. But also, the word kind of sounds diseased, doesn't it? I like to think that echo is deliberate.
The book reminded me in pieces of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities and Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale, only much sexier, given that every chapter needs to have at least one act of sex in it to transport the character from the real world to Palimpsest. While Valente's writing is certainly sensual, though, I wouldn't describe the book as erotic--there is an increasing sense of desperation in the characters' quests for map-marked partners. Valente creates some thought-provoking implications about why humans pursue what they do, and how happy it really makes them.
The writing is lush, indulgent, and episodic. I was to some extent frustrated by the source of the world, and felt like when I got to the end I hadn't completely wrapped my head around its origins or meaning--perhaps a deliberate effect of Valente's writing, since that frustration of half-grasped information feels a lot like dream-frustration, when nothing quite makes total sense.