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Cosmocopia
Paul Di Filippo
Payseur & Schmidt, short novel & 513-piece jigsaw puzzle

Cosmocopia
Paul Di Filippo
Paul Di Filippo lives in Providence, Rhode Island. He is the author of several story collections including Destroy All Brains, The Steampunk Trilogy, Ribofunk, Fractal Paisleys, and Lost Pages. Paul Di Filippo's first novel, Ciphers, was published by Cambrian Publications and Permeable Press.

Paul Di Filippo Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Shuteye for the Timebroker
SF Site Review: Babylon Sisters and Other Posthumans
SF Site Review: Little Doors
SF Site Review: A Mouthful of Tongues: Her Totipotent Tropicanalia
SF Site Review: A Year in the Linear City
SF Site Review: Strange Trades
SF Site Review: Strange Trades
SF Site Review: Lost Pages
SF Site Review: Ribofunk
SF Site Review: Fractal Paisleys
SF Site Review: The Steampunk Trilogy

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Neil Walsh

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Payseur & Schmidt publishes more than just books; they publish high-quality multi-media art events. Cosmocopia is a fine example. It's not only a short novel by Paul Di Filippo, it's also a 513-piece jigsaw puzzle and colour poster with artwork by Jim Woodring -- the whole delightfully packaged.

Let's begin with The Origin of the World, dating back to 1866. In that year, French painter Gustave Courbet completed his famously shocking L'origine du monde. Frank Lazorg is a once-famous and now elderly fantasy artist trying to recover from a stroke. He hasn't painted in a year, and his final masterpiece remains unfinished. It was to be an homage to Courbet's The Origin of the World, but done in the antithesis of the realistic style of the original. Lazorg's work would have "distorted the female form along novel fractal dimensions, and utilized a non-representational color palette. Still despite the unreality of the mode, the force of the woman's sexuality would be undeniable. That is, if Lazorg could ever finish it."

And like Courbet, Lazorg has a model who is his inspiration. Or he did, but she's no longer interested in modeling for the crumbling old wreck of a man. Instead, she's now working with his rival and nemesis, Rokesby Marrs, self-described disciple of Lazorg. But Lazorg views Marrs as a shallow and inept imitator: "He simply learned to copy my most superficial mannerisms and themes imperfectly, like a trained ape, or one of those elephants that paints with a broomstick grasped clumsily in its trunk. He's debased everything he's ever touched. But he's never touched me."

Dried and powdered psychedelic beetles, intended to provide a unique red pigment, begin to rejuvenate Lazorg when taken internally. He becomes secretly dependent on this substance, and it seems to make him a bit mad and lead him down a path thatů well, I don't want to spoil everything for you.

Let's just say that when the first chapter ended, I thought "Oh, this is a short story collection? I was led to believe it was a novel. Oh well, that story was kind of interesting, but I don't quite get it." Then the second story begins, and it evolves into the second chapter of the novel in a moment of literary genius. It was like watching a flower opening up, or a baby being born -- it was almost that amazing.

Even the physical structure of the book contributed to the experience. Since the first page of every chapter begins with a different font size running in a different direction, you have to turn the book 90 degrees to continue reading. This mirrors the experience of Lazorg stepping from one reality into another. And it happens with each chapter to remind you that the world is still askew, and you need to adjust your angle of perception.

In the new world, Lazorg discovers that two-dimensional art is not physically possible. But as an artist, now fully rejuvenated, he finds he must fulfill his creative imperative. He therefore applies himself and becomes adept at an art form which consists of making a cut in the fabric of reality and pulling out a small amount of the substance that lies beyond the breach to create a sculpture with his mind.

He also falls in love with one of the strange, human-like inhabitants in this new world. Did I mention they bear their sexual organs on their face? Of course an unexposed face would then be obscene in public, so everyone wears a caul of some kind -- the style and fabric reflecting material wealth and social status. And the sexual organ -- "the introciptor" -- is both male and female, depending on circumstances. Yeah, it's all a bit weird, but relevant to the theme of The Origin of the World.

The portrait of Crutchsump, Lazorg's alien lover, is touchingly realized. In this very short work, Di Filippo draws the reader into a vital empathy with Crutchsump, and cunningly manages to create a sense of shock and uncomfortable eroticism paralleling that which Courbet's painting surely aroused nearly a century and a half ago. Of course, between 19th century realism and 21st century speculative fiction, you have to journey through various modes of surrealism and the pulps.

I always believed that The Wizard of Oz would have been a better film if Dorothy woke up back in Kansas still wearing the ruby slippers from Oz. Even as a kid, it was a massive disappointment to discover that it was all just a dream. Cheap cop-out! I thought at one point that Di Filippo was leading us to a similar kind of Pincher Martin-type ending, but nothing so straightforward from this skilled author. His ending is far, far weirder. And somehow entirely appropriate.

In the end, Lazorg comes full circle, and The Origin of the World, becomes precisely that. This is a thoughtful, psychedelic art trip. If I understand correctly, Di Filippo is suggesting that he is in agreement with Courbet's assertion that the artist's world is the artist himself, and with the surrealist vision that dreams are as real as any other version of reality, and with the age-old view (see several of Shakespeare's sonnets -- XVIII being probably the best known example) that art gives life to that which it depicts, and in addition that the artist's art gives life to the artist. After all, it's only their work that keeps alive today such people as Shakespeare, Da Vinci, and countless other names that would otherwise be dead to us.

I should also say a word or two about the artwork of Jim Woodring. The poster looks like a shot of an old pulp-era version of the novel sitting on a stack of other old pulps, complete with battered and bent cover depicting the mad villain and the sexy damsel undergoing something vaguely erotic but not quite kosher. The jigsaw puzzle is done in grey-scale, which makes it slightly more challenging to put together than its mere 513 pieces might lead you to believe. It depicts, in a disturbing and fantastical style, someone with a caul in the process of "painting" sculptures out of the interstitial nacre, with a wide array of creatures and objects in the background, all of which relate to the story.

Both the poster and the puzzle are evocative of the story, but each, for various reasons, is quite obviously not an accurate depiction of the characters or events -- as if the artist were poking fun at artists who haven't read the work they're illustrating. Or perhaps there are more subtle reasons Woodring and Di Filippo want to ensure that the two art forms are not too closely in sync. In any event, Woodring's two pieces are very different in tone and style, and only hint at his true range and ability. Together with Di Filippo's novel, Woodring's art makes this P&S product a true collectible treasure -- particularly since there are only 500 copies available.

On the back of the book is a quotation from the "old sorcerer" who provided the trippy beetle powder to Lazorg in the first place: "I've done nothing except set worlds in motion." Hardly a defence likely to sway any judge in sentencing a drug dealer, it is nevertheless a perfectly apt motto for a truly talented fantasy artist or writer -- and precisely what has been done in Cosmocopia.

Copyright © 2009 by Neil Walsh

Neil Walsh reads. A lot. And yet, somehow, it's never enough. Because his stacks of unread books just keep growing and growing, and taking over the house. He hopes to someday get caught up. He also hopes to win a lottery.


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