It is. I am. We are. We conjugate together in darkness, plotting against each other, the Labyrinth to eat me and I to eat it, each to swallow the hard, black opium of the other. We hold orange petals beneath our tongues and seethe. It has always been so. It grinds against me and I bite into its skin.
The fourth pick for my From the Stacks Challenge was The Labyrinth (2004) by Catherynne M. Valente. Valente is one of a loose circle of genre writers - almost all young, female, and American - whose work, primarily in the media of poetry and short stories, draws strongly upon mythic and fairytale forms and motifs (discussed before here and here)... a trend Valente herself has described (tongue-in-cheek) as "mythpunk".
The Labyrinth, Valente's debut novel, is brimming with many of the qualities seen in her shorter work: a heavily introspective narrative voice; a barely-there story that is as much (or more) an inner journey as an outer one; and heady, sensual language, baroque and impressionistic by turns, which blends poetry and prose in its beguiling rhythms, playing on archaisms, unusual phrasings, and visceral, disconcerting imagery:
The pancreatic morning breaks sickly and yellow.
Roads have filled me entirely, stuffed and crammed into every corner, oozing out of my body like icy caviar.
[T]he Road disappeared beneath cream-cobalt crystal, reflecting, refracting, eating the color of the sky like winter soup. It reflects the small, silent colors of sunrise onto my deepened skin, blue over black, rippling, sighing.
I walked through the forest of erect glass, mirrored in the limbs, a bleed of woman through perfected flesh.
The book is short (about 180 pages) and episodic. Its framing device is a journey through a fantastical labyrinth, which carries our narrator through an ever-changing landscape of strange sights and stranger creatures:
"Don't you sigh at me, landlubber. I am very fierce," announced an extraordinary Lobster waving a claw at me with imperious airs, a flamboyantly large crustacean snapping at the Sea air. "I sleep the sleep of manic frog-songs, reel in bright rings of my-and-your sulfurous selves, my claws click on lacquered women and sandpaper men, leave puckered scars on their pretty, pretty skins. I am a Meaningful Lobster."
It is divided into a series of Cantos, echoing the late medieval and early modern poetry that clearly went into its inspiration - Dante, of course (the opening line echoes the Inferno: "Look closer. This is not the Way"), but also Spenser's The Faerie Queene, quotations from which are interspersed through a contemptuous haranguing that the heroine is subjected to late in her journey. Besides the potent symbol of the labyrinth, the specific mythic beats are the innocent, the tempted, the fallen:
[T]hat is [...] what a Maiden does, she ever after eats the apple and the pomegranate and impales herself on a spindle, its sparkling tip emerging from the crown of her dappled head.
For it is an endurance test, of sorts: a painful quest for (self-)knowledge, a spiralling inwards that is experienced spiritually and physically. It seems to have been prompted by both internal volition and external crisis... a sense of violation, of enforced change (growing up and/or a loss of innocence?):
"I was content. I did not think about the Center, I did not care."
"Once I was like that, too," I whispered sadly.
"We all are. And then there is a day when we are broken into, like a rich house, and rifled through. Everafter we look sidelong over alabaster shoulders and know that we will never be so pure again."
The passing of certain stages produce changes in the heroine; these are marked outwardly by repeated physical transformations, as the colour of her skin alters to match the theme of the stage ("my body becomes quicksilver, shining as a trout in the river").
The object of the quest, the centre of the labyrinth, is both the mother and the self - for they are one, they are the snake that eats its own tail, consuming each other in turn and thus precipitating the next cycle of the labyrinth (and circling back to the beginning of the novel):
O serpentine I, having a tail fat with scales linked like opaline chain mail, and thus no way to give birth to this precise little cat-child, kept inside an adamant muscle wall. [...] Ambrosial blood swimming between us, the eater and the eaten and the eater again, sucking at the soil of the womb like a clear-petalled lilac.
If all this sounds rather vague and abstract, it's because it is: the story arises primarily from the language rather than the other way around, and I don't think it's unfair to say that (unlike in Valente's more recent work) the former serves the latter. Valente revels in words: her fascination, here, lies in their rhythms, sounds, and associations, in how they can be placed for their aesthetic effect. I found that it worked better when approached in small sittings; too much produces a sensation of drowning in the verbiage, however decadently beautiful it is.
So the novel is not for everyone, then, particularly since I imagine the language will border on the pretentious for some tastes (at times it does get quite impenetrable; "But it was a measurable moment ago that I was satisfied with the non-advent of nothing and its persistence, that eluding Doors had become easy enough" made me think of Dickens...). But if it sounds intriguing to you, I highly recommend it: this is a book to luxuriate in.