The Labyrinth, by Catherynne M. Valente – book review by Fred Patten.

by Patch O'Furr

Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.

The Labyrinth, by Catherynne M. Valente. Introduction by Jeff VanderMeer.
Germantown, MD, Prime Books, April 2006, hardcover $29.95 (181 [+1] pages).download (3)

The introduction and blurbs emphasize this slim novel’s surrealism. Publishers Weekly reviewed it as, “…a female Theseus details the bizarre landscape of the Minotaur’s maze and its unique flora and fauna. […] Readers who luxuriate in the telling of a tale and savor phrases where every word has significance will enjoy the challenge of this fantasy. Others may find its maze of language an impenetrable mystery.”

You can put me among those who find its maze of language an impenetrable mystery. The jacket-flap blurb is, “A lyrical anti-quest through a conscious maze without center, borders, or escape–a dark pilgrim’s progress through a landscape of vicious Angels, plague houses, crocodile-prophets, tragic chess-sets, and the mind of an unraveling woman, driven on by the mocking guide who seeks to destroy as much as save.” The book’s murky cover by Aurélien Police fits it wonderfully. Can you tell what this is about?

But The Labyrinth is undeniably richly anthropomorphic. The nameless (or manynamed) narrator wanders through a maze filled with Doors. Each opens into a different dimension that threatens to sidetrack her from the Labyrinth’s end. And many are inhabited by an anthropomorphic animal.

“An enormous Great Hare sat calmly on a patch of thick grass and wildflowers, as though guarding a corn-maiden’s tomb. I marshaled language like reticent troops in my dappled head, so long had passed without another Voice but the echo of mine. Her nose twitched, staring with liquid eyes, chewing industriously on the lip of a daisy.

‘Did the Door and swifter than I could. Was it a nice Door? Was it soft and delicious? Did it lead to a sweet thicket? Will you see its teeth when it comes like a hound? Silly girl-thing, why not stay and flower-eat? Wait and they will come. You will travel well enough.’

The Hare stretched her long feet as though trying for a marathon. She nibbled at a toe, yawned. Nonplused, I reached out a hand to scratch her head, and she leaned warmly into my palm.” (p. 29)

“And I could see it then, scaled knee sunk into the pitch, mouth gaping like a cellar Door. A swath of green hyphenating the Doorscape, glittering coldly and savagely in the brittle sun, still slick with the waters of some distant marsh. His great tail slapped the air, thumped the earth with enthusiasm and abandon as he, a monstrous Crocodile, clacked his feral jaw and winked, launching full force into his sermon, quivering in every green claw, gesturing with fat scaled fingers.

‘A MAN WALKS INTO A BAR! Hallelujah, child, hallelujah, I say! Say it up and say it down, say it east and say it west, say it diagonal, child, say it out loud! A MAN! WALKS INTO! A BAR! A! MAN WALKS! INTO A! BAR! A! MAN! WALKS! INTO! A! BAR! A MAN, child, sing it, AMEN, glory on high, walks into a bar, and do he ever walk tall! A man walks into a bar, my child. Do you hear what I say? He walks and he walks slow, he walks like paint drying, my friend, but he walks straight up to that bar and it’ll only be the best brand for this one with his five-day-beard and better-seen-day jeans! […]” (pages 47-48)

“‘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 their pretty, pretty skins. I am a Meaningful Lobster.’

His lithe shell was aquamarine and crowned by such deeply indigo claws rimmed in copper, drumming and clacking those fabulous non-opposables.” (p. 56)

“It is not long in coming, the breakfast-strangeness. Obligingly a creature darts out of its sanctuary, making for my tiny Bo with determined speed. A handsome golden macaque with a bodhisattva face, clever twisting hands, his gleaming fur bristled with excitement, clapping wildly and slapping his palms on the stone slabs. He stops short an inch from my face and sniffs sharp and greedily at my shimmerings of blue. I have not moved, and how we must seem like Temple statues, the Monkey and the Deva, sea-blue and still as time.

‘Who are you?’ He inquires on an intake of breath, words riding air like a camel.

‘I am the Seek-’

‘Ssst!’ He interrupts me with a venomous hiss between enormous teeth. ‘I know all that. Who are you?’” (p. 66)

“‘It’s none of my nevermind, of course,’ the Grasshopper chirped, ‘have to take company as you can get it around here. Two’s better than one with Doors about, eh? But she isn’t well, not at all well. You don’t want to catch it.’

She waved her antennae at me thoughtfully.” (p. 83)

The Snail lisps. The Bear is bloody. And the narrator does not stay human:

“I was not human any longer, my lithe serpentbody green as grave-grass, long arms like birch saplings, lips like anemones. And my terrible eyes, almond-shaped emptiness, plain green stones set in my chameleon-face.” (p. 126)

Yes, there is a point to all this. The Minotaur does appear. But as with all true Road tales, it is not the final destination but the journey itself that is important. You may not like the ending; you may not like much of the journey; but like the narrator, you will become addicted to finding out what is behind the next Door. They are not all talking animals, but there are enough talking animals to make this a worthwhile read for furry fans.

– Fred Patten

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