Catherynne M. Valente's Deathless is a problematic novel. That's hardly a damning thing to say about Valente. Even Shakespeare had his famous slough of problem plays. Nor is it any reason not to read Deathless, which is an ambivalent text with a great deal more to offer than disappointment. But the ambivalence does make Deathless a difficult novel to review—I have neither spleen to vent, nor unqualified praise to offer.
Surprisingly for a fairytale, Deathless is not only lacking in black and white definition, it's also strangely colorless. Deathless is greyscale: a bleak, politically and historically situated, almost post-apocalyptic exercise in what Valente has jokingly called "mythpunk." Its lack of easy answers and elusion of a neat summary is as much a deliberate product of the novel's sensibility as it is a problem of its craft.
Deathless takes place during the Russian revolution and after it, but is not about how Russian life and Russia's soul radically changed with the advent of communism. Instead Valente chooses to write about how these things didn't change, tracing the continuities beneath the evolution of Russian society. The book makes excellent use of its setting. It feels embedded in an exotic and different world without coming off as appropriative ethno-porn. "Text is a tissue [or fabric] of quotations," according to Roland Barthes, evoking comparisons between reading and both living flesh and weaving. With its density of interwoven references to Russian folktales, various narrative structures, and its own corpus, Deathless forms such a textile. It's something of a bildungsroman for Marya, our heroine. We follow her grim girlhood and stay with her when it shatters, as Marya is seduced by famed storybook villain Koschei the (titularly) Deathless. Marya's youth is a sensual picaresque, and we keep faith with her through her blood-soaked and bleak marriage and her life among Koschei's family, in the midst of his war on Death itself. Deathless is at turns a domestic, psychological novel and an unapologetic fantasy epic—an ambitious combination.
Marya begins the novel as a child in Saint Petersburg, which reinvents itself under the revolution during her youth, rewriting the projected narrative of Marya's life even as it rewrites its own name. Marya's once single-family home now houses twelve families. And while it's within Marya's rights as a character to feel dispossessed and somewhat bitter, the language in the early part of the novel veers into an authorial condemnation of the assaults on individual property in a way that feels lazy and ill-considered.
There were other families in the house now, of course, for no fine roof such as this should be kept to one selfish patronym.
It was obscene to do so, Marya's father agreed.
It is surely better this way, Marya's mother said, nodding. (p. 22)
Valente, seemingly silent here, allows redundant information and the very formatting, the spacing and italics, to form an ironic unframed indictment of the social assumptions behind Marya's parents' attitudes. This section is too ready to take the path of least resistance, to prestige Marya's bourgeois experience of dispossession over the experiences of families who might have gone without homes but for such allocations. An American audience is already sympathetic to Marya's horror at having to endure a flatshare, we hardly needed Valente's help to get there.
While the thought is sloppy, its delivery is so competent one hardly notices. Valente's prose generally rivals the very best narrative fiction for its rich interlaced loveliness and its offhand efficacy in saying unexpected things about the human heart. In a recounting of a fight between Marya and Koschei, we're given "You can't punish someone unless you wish to forgive them, after all. What would be the point?" (p. 96). It's slipped in, not necessary to the action, but true and wonderful. Good writing should be like that, heavy-laden with what Alan Bennett calls "Drummer Hodge" moments in The History Boys—small moments of revelation. Valente can give a simple act such grandeur: "The crust crackled under his knife, and the slice fell, moist and heavy, black as earth. He spread cold, salted butter over it with a sweep of the blade, and scooped caviar onto the butter, a smear of dark eggs against the pale gold cream" (p. 64). Her tone is invasive, overwhelming, infectious, viral—you'll catch yourself writing like her for days. Your very grocery list will contain overly sensual descriptions of the Land O'Lakes tub, which you will later feel embarrassed about. On the other hand, it will be a great grocery list.
Valente has herself good-humoredly mocked the ease with which people compare her work to poetry (or call it "dense," which sounds like a word you'd use to describe a stodgy, inedible fruitcake and does no credit to Valente's liveliness). I agree that comparisons to poetry demonstrate a lack of faith in, or knowledge of, the capacities of prose, which can be evocative, imagistic, metaphorical, structured, and deeply interested in its status as language on its own terms, without ever being "like poetry." Despite this, I would say there's something poetic in the resonating aural quality of Valente's prose, and in the obvious care with which she works with language on a micro level. Valente's work doesn't feel tedious for this, her prose is wide-ranging and free, but the fairytale passages about the protagonist's sisters, for example (Chapter 19), are "dense-not-like-a-fruitcake." Marya meets her three sisters in a format which repeats itself, each time with somewhat different details and character reactions. The egg the first sister sits on is "blue enamel, crisscrossed with gold leafing and studded with diamonds like nail heads" (p. 223), the second sister's is a "warm, freckled brown shell crisscrossed with rose-colored ribbons" (p. 228), and the third's is a "shining steel shell studded with iron bolts" (p. 231) The first kisses Marya's lover chastely on the cheeks, the second not so chastely, and the third coldly. Rich with intertextual echoes, this passage drags the reader back to examine the earlier sections for parallels and ruptures, and to seek meaning there.
This controls the reader's pace as well, not simply inviting lingering, but interrupting the direct onward flow, dragging the reader back into cycles of rereading, weighing, repetition. This is an especially good trick given that Koschei the Deathless, and the rest of the novel's folktale characters-cum-gods, are enacting similar repetitions of their own stories, the narratives that define and comprise them. As Koschei's sister Baba Yaga says to Marya when revealing that Marya is the latest in a long line of Brides of Koschei, all with similar origin stories at their backs and similar fates before them, "That's how you get deathless, volchitsa. Walk the same tale, over and over, until you wear a groove in the world, until even if you vanished, the tale would keep turning, keep playing, like a phonograph, and you'd have to get up again, even with a bullet through your eye, to play your part and say your lines" (p. 110).
However, while Valente undeniably excels on a micro-level, at a macro-level I find Deathless something of a mess. The plot wavers between very familiar structures and turns so strange and seemingly aimless that you'd be forgiven for wondering if the book had tripped and slipped into the endless Forest of Pointless Meandering from the last Harry Potter novel. We have an enigmatic introduction, then the urban fantasy story of Marya in Pertograd, which uses fairytale structures to describe the marrying off of her sisters. This becomes the story of Marya's time in Buyan, Koschei's magical Country of Life, and her quest to marry Koschei despite the resistance of Baba Yaga (even as she discovers unsavory things about her intended which indicate that, while she can do nothing but struggle forward, the prize might not even be worth having). It then becomes a magical war story and the chronicle of an intense and imperfect marriage, then again a fairytale with the reintroduction of Marya's sisters, then an urban fantasy account of the Siege of Leningrad, then a surreal interlude in a new magical country populated with Russian political figures, and at last an ambiguous, murky road story with a soft putter of a finale. I'm all for complexity, but that's quite a lot of "then"s. Like the Russian epic War and Peace, which Valente might be consciously imitating to a degree, Deathless does the work of several types of novel, but unlike Tolstoy Valente doesn't play out the process over a thousand pages, with a cast of characters we're invested in and with a consistent degree of narrative reality.
The book's Labyrinth-esque girl-quest narrative and fairytale structures seem, both initially and when they're returned to at various points, to carry the story along a certain trajectory. I wouldn't mind the severe deviations from that story with every new Part (and sometimes even within the Parts which structure the book) if I felt these deviations were ultimately productive formal play—in other words, that they were to a purpose, that we were going somewhere with all this. The English say, when someone's having a moment of madness, or of someone generally considered senile, that they've "lost the plot," which seems a cruel but effective description of Deathless.
On the cover blurb, Cory Doctrow praises the novel extravagantly. "Romantic and blood-streaked, and infused with magic so real you can feel it on your fingertips—Deathless is beautiful." But to transcend this mere beauty and be devastating, Deathless would need to thoroughly examine the many, many themes it cards through idly and use them to some definite narrative end. What Deathless has in loveliness, it lacks in direction. With all its "then"s, with its invocations of fairytales, politics, various genres, and with its tangle of sexual questions (meditations on fidelity, lesbianism, youth versus age in love, patriarchal questions of power dynamics, and more), Deathless wants to say so much that it's difficult to hear it saying anything in particular. The novel reminds me a bit of Black Swan, or a Lady Gaga video—all three contain a riotous assemblage of plot lines, Themes with a capital T, an abundance of references and more loaded imagery than The Vigilant Citizen can giddily deconstruct, but unless you're an Illuminati conspiracy aficionado, it's difficult to see how all of it colludes in any meaningful way. The muddy ambivalence of the multiple endings left me feeling a lack of agency as a reader, and put me off. Is Valente rejecting grand narratives with her splintered endings that frustrate a more prosaic fantasy novel appreciation, or is she just indecisive?
Even her absolutes, like The Country of Death, are watered down. In this world the dead can die, and so there is some unknown state beyond death. This automatically usurps the power and mystery of Death Proper, taking it unto itself and leaving the novel's principle threat relatively empty and meaningless in an offhand phrase, shoehorned in to make the battle mechanics work without due thought for its systemic repercussions. The problem isn't so much that what has happened to the Yelenas of the Factory is unclear to me. These are Marya's imprisoned, now-soulless predecessors, who she runs into and is horrified by during her efforts to mary Koschei. Did they pass Yaga's tests and betray Koschei after marriage? Did they fail the tests and never marry him in the first place? Some mixture of these? Different things seem true at different points. The problem is that I'm not entirely sure Valente herself knows how this works. And she should know—it's her world, and internally consistent worldbuilding is the surest way to build and maintain a universe where the consequences feel real enough to care about, and where the characters affected by those consequences are contextualized well enough in terms of that universe to seem solid, and thus capable of bearing any interest or attachment we might invest in them.
Ultimately Valente's pretty, sexed-up fairytale characters and their fates are difficult to care about. If you're not here for the characters (somehow both amorphous and stock), or for the themes (can a theme resonate effectively if it neither meaningfully engages with the novel's material nor offers solid insights into the stuff of human lives?), or for the plot (certainly interesting, but lacking in form), then what are you here for? The sheer joy of the language? It's great, but is that enough to sustain you through 350 pages? That's a call for each reader to make.
But in this overreaching and these several resultant glories, Deathless performs the highest function of a problematic novel. It reveals more about the writer's technique and strengths than a polished, impregnable work might. It's brilliant that Valente has enough going on to have such salutatory problems. Deathless has made me very interested in reading her past and future works.
Erin Horáková (email@example.com) is a southern American writer. She currently lives in London with her partner, where she's doing post-graduate work in Comparative Literature. Erin blogs, cooks, is active in fandom, and works in a tea house.