Saturday, November 20, 2021

Review of The Past Is Red by Catherynne Valente

You know it. You've seen it. You've stared at it. People online, on fire about perceived and real problems in the world. You can question their logic but you cannot question their passion. There is something burning inside them, a sense of right that bursts out in emotion. One such outburst is Catherynne Valente's 2021 The Past Is Red (a novel-length treatment of her short “The Future Is Blue”).

As with such emotional displays (and in keeping with the color scheme), The Past Is Red is a fiery blast. In telling the story of Tetley and her life in garbage-world (aka future Earth filled with trash), the reader gets feminism, environmentalism, bildungsroman, psychology, surrealism, and mythpunk (a Valente specialty), all in a setting that is more satire than realist. A chipper, upbeat young lady despite the tragedies around her (trash, distant parents, unloving and disjointed society...), Tetley makes the most of things to find her own crooked way in life.

Indeed, The Past Is Red is a fiery blast of anger, humor, -isms, absurdity, charm, injustice, hope, and more anger. The flames shoot in all directions, and it's not easy to understand the source. And that's the biggest criticism of the story. It doesn't feel like it knows what it wants to be, and if it does want to be all of those things at once, they do not burst forth in complementary, coherent form.

The first incoherence the reader encounters is authorial voice. It floats around, sometimes sarcastic, other times deadly serious, and the remainder somewhere else. The setting is clearly intended to be absurd/surreal, which means the reader doesn't know how seriously to take the serious moments. Am I encountering next level sarcasm (so serious as to be sarcastic), or is this just inconsistency in style convoluting the message?

The second incoherence is the relationship between the setting and feminist elements. “Murder cunt”, “Terrorwhore”, and on and on are the names woman are called by certain characters—jagged verbiage, indeed. (Valente seems to have set a challenge for herself writing the novel: how many such names can I create?) They seem biting, angry, serious; they want me to pay attention to real injustices. But how does that fit within the absurdist/surreal setting? The trash towns are clearly not to be taken literally. Pill Hill is not a realistically presented place. It's figurative. But if I'm not intended to take it literally, then to what degree of seriousness should I take Murder cunt, Terrorwhore, etc. I think I know the answer to the question, but stylistically it results in incoherence.

The nail in the novel's coffin, however, is the final line of Valente's dedication, which reads as follows: “For surely this world is trash, but some of the trash does shine.” Really? It's an extreme view to say the least, and at a minimum one that doesn't take into account the reality of human existence as of 2021*. I'm a major fan of Valente, and I will continue to be. It takes more than such raw emotion to steer me away. But it certainly undermines the authenticity of the book. How can I take it seriously when the author has not?

And the shitty Ken Lui cover quote (“The Candide of our #@$*%?! age.”)... Really? Really??? On this novel???

In the end, The Past Is Red ultimately feels like an attempt to capitalize on a popular short story without much room to expand upon. Rather than an organic idea which reveals itself naturally, the novel is unfocused, fighting with itself, and never really seems sure of its path. Its final destination is worthwhile, however. Authorial voice may be mixed, but it doesn't stop the reader feeling something for Tetley's growth at her final destination. It's just the journey to that destination... Valente's verve for fun, splashy diction exists, which means line by line the story is more readable than the average story. Relevancy is a two-edged sword, however.  The fiery blast of opinion, emotion, and idea aligns with much of what we see on social media today, and for that is “relevant”. But the actual substance and its relevancy can be difficult for a person to put their finger on at times.

*Whenever I see such views of existence on Earth circa 2021, my immediate question is: would you rather be alive today or 500 years ago? One trip to the dentist should answer that question quickly. To be 100% clear, existence today is not perfect. There are injustices and problems everywhere, and indeed environmental issues are on the rise just as humanity is trying to sort out society, gender, etc. But the things we take for granted—democracy, medicine, technology, criminal law, etc. have made for a state of existence that is undoubtedly preferable, and by no means “trash”.

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