“A Dirge for Prester John”
Catherynne M. Valente
I have to admit I went into this story with a general feeling of dread. I have read Catherynne Valente’s work before, and even heard her read aloud. I had formed the opinion that she writes with more attention to how words sound than what they mean. Style over substance. And this story certainly supports those earlier impressions. As far as phantasmagorias go, “Dirge” gives “A Map of the Everywhere” a run for its money: style-heavy, ponderously lyrical and at times just plain freaky. Both her vocabulary and her menagerie of mythical monsters are daunting. I’ve noticed, in this and other of her works, a strange, obsessive romance with words for gemstones; in particular an unhealthy appreciation for ‘onyx’ and ‘chalcedony’. She also seems to like things that are creepy-crawly and erotic at the same time. Can’t say I’m with her there, either.
That said, having struggled past her decadent, indulgent prose and nightmarish, erotic imagery, I was pleasantly surprised to find quite a depth of meaning in “A Dirge for Prester John”. I find it has a lot of the same innocently predatory sensibilities of Through the Looking Glass, but with a less tyrannical protagonist, who ends up getting destroyed by his fantasy world, rather than destroying it. And, you know, a little bit of poignant sex between a priest and a lady with no head thrown in for flavor. A medieval holy man, lost in a hellish world of illuminated manuscript marginalia-come-true, finds comfort in the familiarity of ritual. Hell’s fantastic citizens pity him his inflexible worldview while doing their best to accommodate it. And from that perspective–that of an alien culture observing the tragic collapse of the lonely imperialist–the decadent prose really does serve the story’s purpose. It makes the world surrounding John seem even stranger, and allows us to react to his slow adaptation simultaneously with sympathy and disbelief. This story fills me with newfound respect for Catherynne Valente–and I think those of you who shared my original opinion would do well to give it a try.
…though I have to admit I still don’t get the section headings. Some kind of astrological reference? No idea.