Review of The Past Is Red by Catherynne M. Valente

A shortish novel from one of the top three most bleeding edge writers of fantasy in this day and age. 

I lump this author above most modern fantasy authors because of the range of her ideas and her psychological distaste for clichés. With a vast body of work already beneath her belt, her latest novelistic ventures have pushed the envelope all the way to the edge of reason and sanity. Like Cassandra Khaw, Valente hones each sentence into the type of firecracker that makes college writing students swoon. But compound this poetic aesthetic with bathetic regularity and it begins to feel like a literary enema, where the sentence structure produces a panoply of images and intricately spasming pyrotechnic wordplay, which can, at moments, lack subtext. I differentiate this style as “literary magazine polish,” as opposed to China Mieville’s functional imagery. In longer works, there are simply times when straightforward storytelling will engage me far more than your character’s clever and edgy thoughts, endlessly spewed on the page. Also present is scathing commentary, gross asides, and inane profanity. The book is steeped in social consciousness, dribbling quaint dismissals of humanity’s inner ineptitude. People are painted as demonic entities, plaguing the planet with their filthy minds and leprotic attitudes. Yet, our main character is unapologetically selfish, irreverently demonic, and sincerely unwashed. Par for the course with any dyed to the skin ecological dystopian tale. But any adult reader should realize most humans are more complex than the sum of their social media posts. Caricatures result from the opinion-dumps, and a lack of sympathy blossomed in my jaded mind.

Garbagetown, while vivid, is simply not possible. Who, in their right mind would name their town that, even if it were an accurate moniker? A lack of common sense pervades the satire. But this originates from a lack of seriousness, as in Monty Python. In this way, at least it is consistent. But that does not mean I like the details: the sanctification of Oscar the Grouch, for instance (would Sesame St. even be known in a post-apocalyptic setting a couple decades from now, and even if it were, the minor character serves as symbolic place-holder for a god the characters dismiss. This plays into the anarchist attitude of our main character, whose abuse is received and given with aplomb, verve, elan, and umph, but also ad nauseum.)

A consistent, absurdist memorable frolic through the cast-off dregs of product placement mentality, with an undercurrent of corporate despair. A haunting and aggravating jaunt through fecal favelas and morose angst.

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