Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Review of Cosmocopia by Paul Di Filippo

Those familiar with the work of Max Ernst are aware of the dark images of the surreal which haunt his art.  (If not, see here, here, and here for a quick idea.)  Much more than meets the eye lurks in the depths of the images.  Fleeting glimpses of abstract humanity, time, and existence seem captured by the troubled dreamlike yet eerily relatable images.  Originally published as part of a package that included a hardcover novel, jigsaw puzzle, poster, and post card, Paul Di Filippo’s Cosmocopia is a work of speculative fiction that captures precisely the same response via the surreal.  Re-released by Open Road Media in 2014 as a text-only ebook, those who missed out on the package at least have a chance to discover the bizarrely engaging, fully imaginative Weird  story that binds Di Filippo and Ernst’s minds and ideas together. 

Cosmocopia is the story of Frank Lazorg.  An aging pulp cover artist who was once the darling of the genre crowd, he looks to recover from a recent stroke.  Though his virility has taken a hit, more frustrating his muse is lost—an homage to Courbet’s The Origins of the World” (warning: nsfw) sitting half-finished on an easel.  But thoughts of despair are interrupted one day when a package arrives from an old friend.  Containing a brick of red beetle dust, Lazorg begins ingesting a pinch or two every day.  His energy and creative juices slowly returning, alongwith come strange hallucinations—his dreams filled with creative images.  But nothing motivates Lazorg like learning his once favorite model Velina Malaspina is now working for his main rival, and in a fit of emotion after meeting her one day, finds the energy to complete his masterpiece.  The thing is, it’s not on canvas, rather something more 3D.  And into a rabbit hole he falls…

Regardless whether a long novella or a short novel, Cosmocopia is a smorgasbord of ideas that punches above its weight.  Lazorg ends up in a parallel universe and there he must re-discover the meaning of his life—of what he was robbed of by the stroke, and what he has to gain by pursuing his chosen lifestyle.  The parallel universe surreally different than our own, its sentiment is artistic rather than melodramatic in nature.  Di Filippo uses a glorious array of images and scenes, plot shifts and cultural behaviors to portray Lazorg’s coming to terms afresh, largely in symbolic terms.  The manner in which artists in the world conjure art from the firmament of existence, the noetics, the wacky sexual habits and capabilities (and the masked disguises of their genitalia) of its denizens; the uncanny reaches of the inter-world—all combine to make Cosmosopia a warped mirror reflecting our own.

Di Filippo crediting Michael Bishop for Cosmocopia, the dynamic imagery and humanist foundation of Bishop’s writing is evident.  Perhaps difficult to avoid when an artist is your protagonist, Di Filippo begins with the idea of Coubert’s painting in the context of a troubled painter’s life (i.e. the realist elements), drops said painter into an abyss so he must begin again (i.e. the surreal elements), and ties it all together in the end with imagery and events—rushed and overt, yes, but nonetheless imagery and events—that present the story’s agenda.  Deftly confirming and elucidating the ideas of artistic creation, the cycle of life, cosmology, and other ideas, the novel is an experience that takes the reader from their world and back again, granting a wide window into some of the grandest possible subject matter in the process.  It is truly a work of existential art.

In the end, Cosmocopia is a Weird text that grasps at the deeper significances of art, the creative act, and birth/life/death.  An immersive work that mesmerizes the reader one delightfully imagined page after another, the story of the fiery Lazorg and his experiences in the cosmocopia covers a lot of ground creatively and thematically.  Balancing quasi grotesque, quasi macabre, fully strange imagery with unpredictable story, fans of Jeff VanderMeer’s Ambergris novels will find something to love.  Interestingly enough, with the bizarre yet familiar culture Lazorg finds himself amongst in the alternate world, particularly the masks, Jack Vance’s work is also reminiscent—an idea topped off reading this quote: "Pirkle met another wurzel and exchanged aromatic scat lozenges."  (To be direct, however, Vance never attempted something in the same vein artistically, the similarity only skin deep.)  But most of all, it is the works of Max Enrst, Salvador Dali, Remedios Varos and the other dark surrealists which echo through the pages.  Visceral, haunted, surreal, strangely inviting—all begin to describe the experience of Cosmocopia, the rest for the reader’s imagination.

This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher but in no way reflects a partiality on my part that extends beyond the text.  It is a wonderful little novel.

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