The Past is Red, by Catherynne Valente
It’s pretty obvious that I love Catherynne Valente’s work. Just last week I recommended one of her most recent “mythpunk” (her word) novellas, Comfort Me With Apples. I truly enjoy when she takes a known tale, or a known trope, and puts her unique spin on it.
But I really fan gurrl out when she does something completely original – such as her newest novel, The Past is Red. It’s simply amazing.
Born out of a short story penned for Jonathan Strahan’s 2013 collection Drowned Worlds (“The Future is Blue”), Valente imagines a post-apocalyptic world where all the land we know is now under water, and humanity exists on an enormous floating mass of societal detritus known as Garbagetown, made up of dedicated places such as Scrapmetal Abbey, Toyside, Pill Hill and Candle Hole. Is such a future possible? It doesn’t matter. To the people that inhabit The Past is Red, it’s all they know so it’s all we see – and it’s astounding. The people of Garbagetown are close enough to the apocalypse to know at least by anecdote the world we think of as real, but far enough away from it to put a strange, almost naïve and often bitter (the people from pre-apocalyptic society – you and me – are almost always referred to as “Fuckwits”) twist on life.
But the true delight of this slim novel is the central character, Tetley. She is, in a word, a hoot. She loves Garbagetown, often calls it the most beautiful place there is, and for her, the world shines, despite how it uses and abuses her. Her optimism, despite the ruin and savagery that surrounds her (Valente calls her “a kind of postapocalyptic Candide, always seeing the disaster of her existence as the best of all possible worlds”) reminds us that life is what we make of it, even as the effects that define the environment we find ourselves in may be out of our control. (Or is it?)
Candide, not Pollyanna. There’s an important difference there. Tetley can definitely show anger, and can lash out; she’s not unfamiliar or uncomfortable with violence or cruelty, but she’s also not chained to hate or a particular ideology, no matter how comfortable falling in line and joining the masses may be. And gosh darn it – she’s funny. Truly charming, even as you shake your head over what she encounters, over what befalls her, at what she accepts and what she holds unto herself as precious.
The Past is Red is yet again, a unique book. One that will deceptively make you think and feel even while you enjoy just blasting through it. Even while you appreciate the turn of phrase and laugh at the strange yet wholly genuine perspective. One that will stick with you, in all the good places.
In other words, just like you can expect from an author such as Catherynne Valente. Amazement – and delight. Simply too good not to read.