As Deathless so often plays with the folktale “rule of three” so, too, does this review, split into three parts. This is the third and final part; part one (“Love in the Time of War,” on the book’s foreground character story) and part two (“Nation-building,” on the book’s construction of Russia) are best read before this.The third time I follow the path set down by Catherynne Valente’s new novel Deathless, what I notice is that it is a story about stories, about the struggle for power and control over stories. As it must be. In Deathless as is often the case with Valente’s works, the recognizable story on the surface–the familiar folktale, or fairytale, or history, or in this case all three–is an entry point to the deeper fairy tales that rule the dreams of modern societies, and so become loci of conflict. By digging into the hidden kinks and power dynamics of the historical tales, Valente reconnects those tales to modern times, reconnects us with our past–and gives us a sense of just how much could still stand to change in the future.
Soviet Russia is doubly significant ground in this regard, first because of its attempt to erase stories of the past:
“Would you … get me a firebird’s feather, or fetch a ring from the bottom of the sea, or steal gold from a dragon?”
Ivan pursed his lips. “Those sorts of things are so old-fashioned, Masha. They are part of your old life, and the old life of Russia, too. We have no need of them now. The Revolution swept all the dark corners of the world away.
And Soviet Russia is equally of interest because of its founding belief in a new story of the future. “The Soviet Union was founded on a fairytale. It was built on 20th-century magic called ‘the planned economy’, which was going to gush forth an abundance of good things,” to quote the blurb for Francis Spuford’s Red Plenty–another good candidate to complement Deathless. Of course one might equally say that the United States was founded on a fairytale–of the inherent fairness of the market economy, of expansionist manifest destiny–or the same of any nation. But in addition to the self-consciousness with which it related to stories, the Soviet Union uniquely presents a modern, 20th century tale that at this point feels told, a failed and dead experiment.
Not for the last time, Valente uses the logic of folktales here as a tool to isolate just the elements of the world she wants to focus on: stories and their role in life, and in death. Much of Soviet Russia’s sweeping of dark corners involved literal death. Stalin’s purges of those who would tell a different story, political or religious; famine when the economy proved less susceptible to planning than planned: both loom unspecified in the background of Valente’s tale, but ever-present in its war against death that is “always going badly.” More to the foreground is death in the time of war, as Valente illustrates with a heartbreaking chapter on the Siege of Leningrad. And alongside these literal deaths, more sweeping of dark corners was done in the death of Russian national culture and spirit: Valente has Koschei’s brother Viy, the Tsar of Death, represent both equally. As a character who dwells in Viy’s land tells Marya:
I would never [...] be caught committing the crime of remembering that anything existed before this new and righteous regime. [...] The redistribution of worlds has made everything equal [...] Equally dead, equally bound. You will live as you live anywhere. With difficulty, and grief. Yes, you are dead. [...] But what does it matter? You still have to go to work in the morning.
Except people did remember; and eventually, in the late 1980s, people in Russia stopped going to work in the morning.
As with the relationship between nation and character in the book, Valente’s use of this historical knowledge gives the relationship between nation and story in Deathless a tight focus–enough to satisfy as a narrative, but not enough to escape the feeling that the story is not quite doing justice to the concepts that Valente has brought to bear. The dates, and the manner that the novel positions Russia on either side of the Soviet Union’s history, for example, and the way St. Petersburg is noted as returning to its old name, all make it feel like “Russia” is being affirmed as an intrinsic, irrepressible feature of the world. That it is deathless. There’s not much material on the degree that Russia itself is a story projected onto the world, that once was not; something that has changed and grown over time (St. Petersburg indeed being a relatively recent addition, in the 18th century), and something that may yet change more in the future. On how all nations are stories, often defined by conflict. And again, Valente doesn’t have much to say of those who believed in the Soviet system as an agent of life, rather than death; the hopeful Revolutionaries who believed that Communism would usher in that better world. Or at least, a better alternative to Tsarist rule. They should have seen the obvious problems, the sense of the book is. Instead, Valente here is in the unusual (for her) position of celebrating the story of the historical victors.
This, of course, is no bad thing. The years following the collapse of the USSR have been filled with works drawing remembered folktales and history out from the dark corners of the world and back into the heart of the former Soviet states. Ekaterina Sedia’s Secret History of Moscow, Sergei Lukyanenko’s World of Watches series, and Dubravka Ugrešic’s Tiptree-winning Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, to name only a few. And another excellence of Deathless is how it justifies itself in just this way. Marya and Koschei go underground, become subversive figures, quietly working for and waiting for the day when they can emerge and be told anew, when all these books can be written, when Valente can write Deathless.
Valente, as is her wont, emphasizes this by never letting us forget that we’re being told a story. Some of her techniques are readily apparent: the repeated phrases, the triads of encounters, the book within the book, the question of narration raised by the story itself. Deathless also strikes me as Valente’s strongest work to-date with common, baseline elements of story. While many of her past works focused on the inner conflicts of her characters, the addition of an external antagonist, Viy, here helps throw the plotting into greater relief, lends the telling more urgency. At the same time, the spotlight on Marya allows Valente to delve deeper into a single character study than she’s done in her previous big-press novels. (Which according to her back-flap bio are all that exist–”Catherynne M. Valente’s first novel, The Orphan’s Tales, was released in the fall of 2006 when Cat was twenty-seven”–speaking of stories that erase history.)
Other techniques that emphasize the storytelling of Deathless are more subtle. Symbols are used that excite the mind because of the commonalities in their seeming contradiction–like birds, which seem to represent both a symbol of freedom, of flying away, and also the urge to family and domesticity, nesting. (Safety is one thing I’d suggest they share in common.) Important themes may be introduced without fanfare: it’s a delightful feeling, after having finished the book, to remember the demand that the title of the prologue makes, to notice anew that the prologue depicts a trial for desertion. And indeed Valente is excellent with the timed release of information throughout. Only gradually do we learn just how alive the city of the Tsar of Life is; only gradually do we learn what kind of character Madame Lebedeva is; which all emphasizes how we are at the mercy of the storyteller.
Withholding information in this manner is in a sense a power play, and this feels very natural here. More even than in Valente’s past novels, Deathless teases out the implicit kink of storytelling. Storytellers are seducers, in a fairly obvious sense. Less obvious are the power relationships in storytelling. The storyteller might be assumed to be the dominant partner, but the reader can always stop reading; throwing a book across the room is the ultimate safe word. And writers, to at least some degree, publish in the hope of being read well, of having their writings understood. Not unlike Koschei. It makes me wonder who is who in this story? Meanwhile, reviewers of course attempt to overlay stories of their own: like, a good way to get the most out of Deathless is to consider it according to these three conceptual levels….
Which is all to say, the question of power in a story is the question of who gets to define the narrative.
The fourth time I follow the path set down by Catherynne Valente’s new novel Deathless, what I notice is that there is a fourth time, that I’ve been led off the path. The storytelling “rule of three” popularized by Russian scholar Vladimir Propp in Morphology of the Folk Tale–and often invoked when discussing Deathless–is based on patterns of two wrongs and then a right, two failures and then success. Three is the minimum number required to establish and then break a pattern. So Cinderella is the third sister, Rumpelstiltskin’s name is correctly spoken on the third night, the third bed that Goldilocks sleeps in is the one that is the right size. But Marya is the fourth daughter (it is Ivan who is the youngest of three sons); after seeing her three sisters marry three birds, the man Marya marries is not really a bird; her first three attempts at ordering her relationships all end unsatisfactorily. So there is here, one final time in Deathless, a subtle but important rejection of the usual pattern of such stories: important because it represents Marya finding her own personal path; important because it represents the rejection of a simple, neat dialectical pattern–thesis (“too big”), antithesis (“too small”), synthesis (“just right”)–in favor of a view of the world and its relationships as a series of more complicated, ongoing conflicts.
Which is apt. Deathless is not an unproblematic novel, but it comes by its problems honestly, by ambitiously melding a variety of complicated subjects, and making hard choices of focus in order to say something interesting about almost all of them–while remaining at heart a well-written, compelling character drama. For all its awareness of itself as a story I do wish that Deathless showed more awareness of the limits of its story, of what is being left out. But for the most part Valente’s newest novel has conflicts and contradictions because our world that it represents has conflicts and contradictions; because an unproblematic story is a dead and lifeless story. Far from that, Deathless lives up to its name.