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The Labyrinth
Catherynne M. Valente
Prime Books, 181 pages

The Labyrinth
Catherynne M. Valente
Catherynne M. Valente was born on Cinco de Mayo, 1979 in Seattle, WA, but grew up in in the wheatgrass paradise of Northern California. She graduated from high school at age 15, going on to UC San Diego and Edinburgh University, receiving her B.A. in Classics with an emphasis in Ancient Greek Linguistics.

She is currently on hiatus from her graduate program in Comparative Literature and residing in Yokosuka, Japan, among the sushi and the geisha.

Her work in poetry and fiction can be found online and in print in such journals as Poetic Injustice, NYC Big City Lit, Byzantium, the forthcoming collection The Book of Fabulous Beasts, The Pomona Valley Review, The American River Review, and the forthcoming anthology Approaching El Dorado (Twin Dolphin Press).

Her first chapbook, Music of a Proto-Suicide, was released in the winter of 2004.

Her critical work, (The Sacrifice of Polyxena: Feminine Archetypes in Selected Ancient Greek and Roman Drama), will appear this spring in the International Journal of the Humanities. A second article in this series, Tell Me About Your Mother: Oedipus, Female Archetypes, and Parallel Versions of The Phoenician Women will be presented in Tuscany at the World Conference for the Humanities in July, 2004.

She is currently co-authoring a book on feminine archetypes in classical drama with Dr. Linda O. Valenty of California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.

Catherynne M. Valente Website
ISFDB Bibliography
Prime Books

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Matthew Cheney

The Labyrinth is the sort of book a reader will either hug to the heart or throw across the room. I'm tempted to say it's a love-it/hate-it endeavor, but that's a false dichotomy, because even someone who finds the book itself pretentious and nonsensical is likely to praise at least some of Catherynne Valente's skill with language, while even someone who adores the cascading imagery and narrative hallucinations is likely to recognize that the book has thin parts, that the entire endeavor is ethereal rather than material, more a matter of artifice than art. Perhaps it is fairest to say it is a book to hug to your heart after throwing it across the room (or vice versa).

Line by line and page by page, The Labyrinth contains more beauty than all but a very few books published this year. Each paragraph is an incantation, and the entirety is less novel than dithyramb, less story than dream. It begins with gusto:

Look closely. This is not the Way.

Up or down, I could not say, I could not say. I ate the severed halves of a Compass Rose seven-hundred-and-negative-eight miles back, covering the yellow red meat with lime skins and choking it down.

Valente's greatest accomplishment is that she sustains this voice throughout the entire book. Choose any sentence at random and, like a shard of shamanic DNA, it will sing the same song.

Page 30:
"I could stay, I could vomit galaxies into this earth and never burn my throat with light, wearing scalpels like jewelry, wrapping my body in bloody togas, reciting my own eulogy with a mouthful of cat's eye marbles and agaric mushrooms, arm jutting out awkwardly into the world."
Page 66:
"Where am I going, beneath this frenzied sky? Clinging to my knowledge that there is nothing, no Center, am I blind to the wheels of fire? Oh, what do you what do you what do you see in the sky?"
Page 168:
"Her court of mercurial trout heaped themselves still along her white thighs as she exhaled that same noose of nettle-smoke, watching me with eyes like gutters trimmed in icicles."
There is a story here, and even a few characters. There is the unnamed narrator, a woman who is caught in some sort of labyrinth, both attracted to and afraid of Doors, seeking a Center. She encounters a monkey who is both Mephistopheles and a motivational speaker, helping her find the Center in herself and leading her deeper into reveries of madness. She even meets the Minotaur, but by then she's so strung out on her own sentences that neither she nor we can tell quite what's going on.

None of the characters have much substance, but that's not necessarily a fault. Any character in fiction is a conglomeration of words, a name with actions ascribed to it, a place holder in a narrative line reaching all the way back to Chapter One. Some writers get woo-woo about the autonomy of their characters, as if prose were more substantial than a neighbor or spouse, but there's no need to trust illusionists drunk on their tricks. The real character of The Labyrinth, and the only one that matters in the end, is the language: its rhythms, its surprises, its high-wire balancing acts -- logos living large, an imaginary mouth made manifest.

Oddly, what the language doesn't manifest too often is emotion, perhaps because the prose sings at such a high pitch and seldom comes down for a quiet, simple moment, the sort of moment where feelings bloom in the shadows of what is said. The narrator tells of much emotion -- indeed, convulses in fits of it -- but her quest is so elliptical, her perception so hazy, that it is difficult to feel any sympathy or concern for her. Most such books would have trouble surviving in such a case, but with The Labyrinth there is enough richness elsewhere, enough else going on, that an attentive reader, one willing to let the rhythms and images drive the journey, will have little trouble enjoying the ride.

Not all readers are sympathetic to this sort of trip, however, and that's fine, so long as they don't pontificate about the need for "lean," "spare" language, as if writing were ruffage. Valente's prose is a vibrant purple, a color far more beautiful than plain brown or grey. In his essay "In Defense of Purple Prose", the novelist Paul West writes:

"The truth would seem to be that, so long as originality and lexical precision prevail, the sentient writer has a right to immerse himself or herself in phenomena and come up with as personal a version as can be. A writer who can't do purple is missing a trick. A writer who does purple all the time ought to have more tricks."
It may be that Valente ought to have more tricks, but The Labyrinth has enough for one book, and more than most. Her version of reality (if that's what it is) is as personal as a version can be without being gibberish, and it is not gibberish -- it is precise and undeniably original.

Copyright © 2005 Matthew Cheney

Matthew Cheney teaches at the New Hampton School and has published in English Journal,, Ideomancer, and Locus, among other places. He writes regularly about science fiction on his weblog, The Mumpsimus.

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