I know someone must have compared Deathless to matroyshka dolls ages ago, but the image is so damn apt I must begin with it. I loved this book at the level of theme. I love that Deathless is openly about sex, described in all its slippery, messy glory. The phrase “to see the naked world” is a drumbeat throughout, since that’s both a perfect aesthetic statement to describe Catherynne Valente’s work, and a sly-wink nod the book’s open sensuality. It’s about the difficulty of multi-partner relationships. It’s about war, and death, and how war turns women in cogs in a hideous patriarchal machine. And there’s wonderful S&M dynamics in which Marya has the upper hand for an appealing length of narrative time. Delicious.
I also love that Valente’s such a brilliant formalist. She’s a tactician with words and the structures that contain them (sentences, paragraphs, all lyric/poetic permutations thereof). Chapters 21 and 23 were particularly elegant, but all of the stories within stories count. The sisters–you’ve almost forgotten about them, even though their repetition is the hook of the intro. And then, right when they’re needed, they appear to deliver gold, frankincense and myrrh to drive the engine of plot all the way to the end. The war chapter was stunning in its withholding; Valente writes a dying child without sentimentality. And the competing stories of 21: Valente’s totally willing to let any given chapter speak its shape to her. There’s never a fear of “perhaps a reader will not make this leap, won’t understand the POV shift, won’t know why the inserted ITAL.” No. Fuck that. Story says jump, you jump. Fearless prose, every time.
Anna Akhmatova’s poetry and a primer on Russian history are the key pieces I’d need to acquire in order to do a serious critical interpretation. But for all that, this book is a gentle read, and you can love it without its demanding of you extensive additional research. More like, it invites you to plumb its depths later, but will forgive a surface read. (In this, I feel that it is the most generous of Valente’s books since Fairyland—forgiving of the inattentive reader, I mean.) Not that inattention’s possible, or you’ll miss the way her syntax tells you how to interpret any given moment. Her repetitions are always, always intentional and fruitful—when something returns, a bird-voice cries in the back of your brain: “mind the signpost, that’ll be important later.” The joy of Valente is that she always rewards attention—the content/form mirrorings unfold endlessly–see matroyshka dolls above.
There’s a way in which communism isn’t theorized in this, that that’s not what’s at stake in choosing this historical moment to fabulize. The book is interested in people, in relationships, in the social fabric of reality. The critic part of my brain goes, wa-hah? All that propaganda is brought in and held up for ridicule (affectionate, but still), and the savagery of starvation is writ large, but it both is and isn’t an indictment of the politico-economic situation that produced such phenomena. Which is so counterintuitive that I’m not even sure how she’s accomplished it. Russia in 1942 was horrific, but it was always a problem of power, not of ideology, seems to be the text’s argument. All this to say, Valente enacts the role of the artist in producing an aesthetic object. Her fidelity is to versimilitude, not mimesis, no argument necessary—that’s not art’s role anyway.
Here is the index poem of my notes:
Naganya is what steampunk wishes it could be
a critique of systems 116
Bureaucracy is a dragon 136
Reversed Red Riding Hood 154
Just like the girl in Legend 200
A desire not capitalist/anti-capitalist but of the body 204
Becoming Baba Yaga in order to survive/invoking incest
Eroticized pain 207
“see the world naked”
machine of war’s effect on women—they are rendered cogs 213
red scarf as sign of belonging
Marya repeats and rewrites her own abduction 226
reverse bluebeard 250
ekphrasis of entire narrative in mural form 265
bad luck as plot spur, perfectly placed
The Tsar of Death is blind; he must lift his eyelids to see 282
Chapter 21 is perfect: fragmented/competing/complementary narratives
Chapter 23 is perfect: war/trauma/testimony
Life is like that, death is like that, both untrustworthy always
Wife linked to death/Birth linked to death by syntax–repeated sentence structure
Competing pasts held in a body
Written truth and lies 319