As Deathless so often plays with the folktale “rule of three” so, too, does this review, split into three parts. Part two (“Nation-building,” on the book’s construction of Russia) and part three (“Storytelling,” on the book as a story about stories) are best read in sequence.The first time I follow the path set down by Catherynne Valente’s new novel Deathless, what I notice is that it is a story about the struggle for power in shaping a relationship, a household. When Marya Morevna, the youngest daughter of a bourgeois family in early-1900s St. Petersburg, sees a bird fall from a tree and turn into a man who knocks on the door and asks to marry the girl in the window, she feels that she has “seen the world naked,” discovered its secrets–even when the bird marries her oldest and most beautiful sister. After her two other sisters succumb to avian engagements of their own, Marya is primed for her own turn, one up on her sisters because “they did not know what their husbands really were. They were missing vital information. Marya saw right away that this made a tilted kind of marriage, and she wanted no part of that. [...] This was how Marya Morevna surmised that love was shaped: an agreement, a treaty between two nations that one could either sign or not as they pleased.”
So Marya waits for her bird, secure in her knowledge of what is to come and thus paying only casual attention as the world changes around her: as Tsarist Russia falls, as Leninism turns to Stalinism, as her family’s house is redistributed among eleven other families. And thus, waiting for her bird, Marya is–despite her anticipatory readiness–quite unprepared when the suitor who shows up at the door is the demonic figure of Koschei the Deathless.
There are no treaties in their courtship: Koschei wages war on Marya, tempting her mind with knowledge of the secret world-behind-the-world she had only glimpsed before; tempting her senses with food and sex and luxury; seducing her with words, and with the abjection of surrender. And surrender she does, for a time. But as Marya becomes accustomed to Koschei’s world–to the magical living city of Buyan which Koschei the Deathless, as Tsar of Life, rules; to being a center of attention rather than a fourth daughter; to pain and pleasure both–surrender becomes not enough, not right for her. Koschei will sleep with her, shower her in luxury, but he will not marry her. Nor will he share the location of his death, which he has ripped from himself as a gambit in his endless war with his brother Viy, the Tsar of Death. To facilitate the marriage, Marya must perform three impossible tasks for Kochei’s sister, Baba Yaga; to earn Koschei’s trust as his match, she must show herself to be as rapacious as he is himself, must realize her own power over him:
“If you want me, Koschei Bessmertny, tell me where your death is. Between us there must be no lies. To the world we may lie and go stalking with claws out, but not to each other. It is only fair: You know where my death is, at the point of your knife or between strangling fingers or in a glass of poison. Show me that you can rest in my hand like a chick, small and weak and knowing that I could crush you if I wished it, but that I will not, will never.”
And never she does; til death do they part, and beyond death–Koschei and Marya share surprisingly few pages in Deathless, yet those pages are ripe with the passion implicit in the nondenominational idea of marriage, of never and forever and til death.
But then, enter Ivan, and the world changes again.
There is always an Ivan in these tales. Marya has been told to expect him; has been told she must reject him; has been told she will not reject him. Always there is an Ivan, a human man who falls in love with Koschei’s bride, who saves her–in this case, from that endless, unwinnable war against Viy. Always Koschei’s bride falls in love with Ivan, too; always Ivan finds Koschei’s hidden death and kills the Deathless, again and again through history. Always, in Valente’s version of the tale, Koschei-who-cannot-die exacts his revenge by forcing his unfaithful love to labor in a factory full of unfaithful loves, producing soldier puppets for his war against Death. But these are modern times, revolutionary times in Russia, and Marya is not Koschei’s usual love. At the heart of the story is Marya’s attempt to find a third alternative, her exploration of ways to be true to both her monstrous love for Koschei and her mundane love for Ivan.
Not for the last time, Valente here uses fairly tale logic as a tool to isolate just the elements of the world she wants to focus on. Love, for one, and representation, and the link between the two. Implicit in Deathless is the question of why people love each other, and the story’s answer is largely a matter of representation. Marya appears to love Koschei, to grossly oversimplify, because he represents the secret world she had wanted to be part of since childhood, a world she felt able to know and empowered to participate in fully; she loves Ivan because he represents what she might have been, if she had never seen the secret world, never lost her red scarf, never left Leningrad and been thrust into Koschei’s war against Viy. Koschei in his turn loves Marya because she has proven herself capable of seeing the secret world, and he desires to be seen–because she represents change, and after endless failed brides, he desires change, a participant rather than a supplicant. And Ivan loves Marya, one suspects, as a matter of conquest, as what securing one such as her for a wife would represent about himself. From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs, then.
These characters–Koschei and Baba Yaga and Ivan and Marya–are like Harlequin figures of Russian folktale, stock characters who in different combinations act out a variety of tales. An excellence of Deathless is how Valente manages to tell a thoroughly modern version of the “Death of Koschei the Deathless” folktale while staying true to these archetypes and to most of the core tale, yet satisfying best when these characters are seen as individual people beyond their archetypes. It is easy to generalize that each character wants a sense of normality, a sense that they fit into someone else’s narrative; harder is figuring out the best fit, which consumes Valente’s tale. It is easy to see Marya’s explorations with Koschei as explorations of dominance and submission, harder to affix labels onto the characters like “dominant” and “submissive,” “top” and “bottom.” It is easy to see the movement of the book as towards polyamory, harder to affix that label to the state of the character relationships at any point in the book. The relationships keep changing, as the characters keep learning. Valente tracks this through the series of names, titles, and endearments each character is given as the tale progresses–Marya becomes Masha becomes Mashenka becomes Morevna. And the result is that Marya in Deathless is like other Maryas, but also unique; and so with Ivan; and so with Koschei: and the tale works out as it does both because of their usual traits and because of their unique ones.
This register of storytelling, that melds a modern concept of serious psychological drama with a folktale-like circumscription of motivations and possibilities, is I suspect one of the more common bars to appreciating Valente’s work. Why would a character do X? and Why didn’t they just do Y? are questions that leap from the text; why is there so often a gap between how imaginatively Valente’s characters speak and how constrained they act? There’s the temptation to tally these questions up as just poor characterization, except that the same questions are often wondered of real people in real situations, real relationships. Valente’s storytelling register, the register used in Deathless, is a way of conceptualizing–if not necessarily understanding–these decisions. It is a register that I imagine speaks most to, or most of, people most aware of the weight of stories on their decisions, people who most feel the constraint of predefined roles upon their lives. Those most aware that there’s a difference between what they feel is true and what they’re told is true, between what they feel is right versus the actions they’re told should be right.
This doesn’t mean that the character story of Deathless is above criticism. Most notably, the unique story that follows from these particular characters seems at times to be fighting with a common narrative that Valente tends to impose on her revisionist tales: the foolish but stubborn male suitor whose attempts to heroically save his beloved, in accordance with the typical pattern of fairy tales, are at best unwelcome by, and at worst disastrous for, a woman who has learned to love monsters. This narrative appears in many of Valente’s recent novels–Habitation of the Blessed and Palimpsest and both volumes of The Orphan’s Tales, without even trying to be exhaustive–but its presence here feels problematic not merely for its expectedness. Valente is a very honest writer, and when her work presents a politicized idea for consideration–such as D/s and poly relationships here–she never shies away from portraying both the constructive and destructive possibilities inherent. What’s being advocated is not so much a single specific way of life, but rather an open-mindedness towards people’s right to discover what way of life works best for them. “No one should be judged for loving more than they ought,” as one character puts it. Marya’s journey in Deathless is very much a process of discovery of how much she can love, and how best to go about it. There’s a rather touching scene when Marya attempts to define her relationship with Ivan by following the same script of control that Koschei led her through, and it fails miserably. Marya and Ivan must write their own script, what works for one lover will not necessarily work for another: these are not matters of stock roles but of individual negotiations. And yet, this ideal of open-mindedness towards individual solutions feels compromised here by the presence of what, for readers of Valente’s work, is becoming just as much a fixed narrative as the one she’s trying to subvert. It becomes not so much an open-minded narrative as a narrative that exchanges a lack of place for one group with lack of place for another: for all the pages Ivan occupies, Valente doesn’t really seem sure what to do with him–his inclusion at the end of Deathless feels less than half-hearted–and yet she is reluctant to replace him with a better model of human male. The sense that Valente is stuck on the same revisionist narrative in these types of tales, and the limited options this narrative appears to give her characters, suggests that Deathless may itself be a demonstration of the very sort of entrapment by traditional roles that the novel otherwise speaks so successfully against.
Of course, what makes this so evident is the relationship between Marya and Koschei. Perhaps it is because Koschei is not a human male, that Valente is able to introduce a deep level of personality and urgency in his and Marya’s union that’s been rare in her depictions of relationships. Valente’s writing in past books could seem distant and impersonal, due to multiple points of view; could seem languorous, with elaborate layers of structure and long lists of bling. Here, the close focus on Marya makes the story feel more personal; here, minus a short prologue, the structure is straightforward. Here, the sentences are shorter and sharper. “Punishment doesn’t mean you aren’t loved. On the contrary. You can really only punish someone you love,” says Marya, as she begins to realize that those who would sleep with monsters must inevitably become monsters themselves. And that the question of power in a relationship is the question of who gets to define the relationship’s narrative.
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