Catherynne M. Valente, The Labyrinth (Prime Books, 2004)
Like Carroll's Alice, Catheynne M. Valente's nameless heroine of The Labyrinth travels down, down, down. The road she follows is like the tunnel of Alice's falling, complete with talking rabbit, expansion/contraction of physical presence, and a sort of omnipresent "Eat Me, Drink Me." It's difficult, after immersion in Valente's prose, to pull out entirely and readdress reality. It's a little like waking from a dream and attempting to communicate in suddenly human tongue: the images and emotions of another state of being linger. It's like swaying a long while on a ship at sea, then trying to accustom oneself to walking again upon land. The land itself seems to move beneath one's feet after so long accommodating the rocking motion of waves.
Reading, I barely come up for air before diving into Canto the Second. Our Alice-not-Alice acquires a sidekick, a guide, a scourge, a tormentor, a friend: the Monkey. We follow now an Alice Through the Looking Glass heroine, who wings her agile, half-blind way across a chessboard realm. The Monkey comforts and torments and advises and annoys. But somehow, for all his contradictions, the journey is less lonely for his presence.
To Canto the Third, then. Our nameless heroine -- our voyaging she who fell down the rabbit hole and swept across the crystal shards littering a fractured chessboard kingdom and its oracle Queen -- finds the Minotaur (of mythic labyrinth fame) hot and heavy on her heels at last.
I can no more accurately describe the Fourth and Fifth Cantos of The Labyrinth than I can adequately describe the first three. Nor should I. To read The Labyrinth is to become immersed in a universe of beautiful language, where all else ceases to exist but words themselves. Each fragment, each paragraph, each page sparkles like a new shiny jewel or miraculous toy. It's an amazing feat that a book so non-linear, so virtually indescribable as a coherent whole, manages to keep a breakneck pace to the end. But this book requires immersion reading, and a love affair with words. Without those -- immersion and love of language -- this tale (which is more than a tale) would not work.
Those looking for a simple, solid story, a straightforward plot, characters they readily understand and tropes they easily recognize, will be disappointed in The Labyrinth. This is not a novel so much as a journey through words and space, a voyage, Alice-like, through a wonderland of images and emotion. Those looking for something more than a simple story -- for something rare and beautiful and breathtaking in its headlong flight -- will not be disappointed. This is a book you must give yourself to, rather than take in. It will leave you breathless and you won't be sorry, but it is not a tamable thing.