by Carol Ann Sima for Rain Taxi
Ciphers ♦ Cambrian Publications & Permeable Press ($16.95)
Fractal Paisleys ♦ Four Walls Eight Windows ($20)
Just as the forests in fairy tales are places of enchantment, the writings of Paul Di Filippo can be counted on to captivate. Never more so than in Ciphers, a mystery in which the fate of the world hangs in the balance. Probably it’s too late. But in the event the world can be pulled back from the brink, it’s rock ‘n roll we’ll have to thank. For Di Filippo, rock ‘n roll (including but not limited to classic rock, funk, hardcore, grunge) perpetuated individualism, the capacity to triumph over obstacles, and, failing that, console ourselves. In the words of Frank Zappa, quoted early on in Chapter 00000010, “Information is not knowledge, knowledge is not wisdom, wisdom is not truth, truth is not beauty, beauty is not love, love is not music. Music is the best.”
Now a word or two about that precipice on which the world is precariously poised: Information saturation is the price we’re paying for modern technology. Overload. This is the Age of Noise. Our DNA, already in the clutches of excessive stimulation, is being groomed for who-knows-what. Thematically, Ciphers is the epic of our times, exploring how we’ve come to this sorry state and options for our redemption. But Ciphers has far too much more going for it to be categorized as some sort of masterly inquiry into the state of modern man. It’s funny, comically weird, sexy, out and out lusty. Take for instance, the mighty python with primal instincts and the female Goddess with exotic taste in lovers.
As for plot: Cyril Prothero, an overeducated underachiever clerking at a record store, receives a call from his girlfriend, Ruby Tuesday. Employed by Wu Lab, she’s stumbled upon a deep dark secret. Subsequent to the call, she disappears, initiating Cyril’s odyssey–there’s no other way to put this–through a Burroughs/Calvino/Joyce/Feiffer landscape. Assisting him in this investigation is Ruby’s friend, Polly Peptide whose boyfriend, Augie Augenblick (trust me, some of these names will leave indelible impressions) has also inexplicably vanished.
The whereabouts of the missing two and their connection to the ever elusive Dr. Wu are just some of several teasers. During the course of reading, any number of things go begging for answers: How does Max Parallax, a 300-pound deaf and blind detective who never leaves his residence, manage to single-handedly get the goods on Wu Enterprises? From the far reaches of Dahomey, pausing along the way to ruminate on why Cambodia “was the only nation ever to be ruled by a man whose name formed a perfect palindrome (Lon Nol)” to the shores of the U.S.A.–”3.8 million miles of paved highway”–we are as puzzled by Wu as his second-in-command, Paddy O’Phidian, who despite years of loyal service still cannot fathom why Wu has arranged the deaths of Malcolm X, Joplin, Vicious, and Lennon. Is it the conspiracy to end all conspiracies? If so, does this amount to “a true end–or a beginning?”
At the conclusion of this 500-page novel (complete with glossary) you may well feel as I did: Wired, the pulse racing, like I’d done laps, like I wanna do more. Hock my pearls for a Harley, ditch my laptop and run with the wolves on wheels.
As further demonstration of Di Filippo’s versatility, Fractal Paisleys plays with tickle bones you didn’t know you had. Described by the author as “trailer park science fiction,” this collection of short stories is notable its overall effect of everyday plausibility. No matter how far-fetched their predicaments, the characters themselves are rooted in reality. They are waitresses, car mechanics, the folks who routinely deal in the nuts and bolts of daily life–probably the last people on earth you’d think to take a walk on the wild side in stride. Not that they are non-pulsed, far from it. What characterizes them is a matter-of-factness, a pragmatism. The double-takes are there, just not analyzed to the nth cerebral degree.
Ultimately, this makes for droll humor. Case in point: the title story. Driving an exhausted Tracey home from her dead-end job serving drinks in a joint owned by a tyrannical boss, Jay Dee collides with a not-quite-of-this-earth time traveler. No sooner does Jay Dee relieve the corpse of a remote control device than we are into car chases, three-way sex, and of course, just desserts for the boss. In the annals of getting even with the miser who holds the purse strings, the ending ranks right up there with Hitchcock at this most ironic. In “Flying the Flannel,” a down-and-out band is abducted by a birdlike creature. Purpose: Compete in a Star Wars talent show. Win, they save Earth from alien domination; lose, it’s a takeover. Pulling out all the stops, lead drummer Phoebe plays as one possessed. Perhaps she is. Mainly, it’s the absurd premise that makes this mandatory reading: and, God forbid if extraterrestrials rock with more soul.
Meant to be eaten with the fingers, these tales provide the pleasure of familiar comfort food with the wake-up zing of spices. My personal endorsement: It’s not an acquired taste. Consistently, Paul Di Filippo delivers.