If you really loved your loved ones, you’d get them Cosmocopia by Paul Di Filippo, with illustrations by Jim Woodring. It’s that rare thing: an art book that makes your brain burst.
A limited edition of 500 copies, Cosmocopia is a thing of total beauty. It reminds me of some of McSweeney’s weirder experiments, but in the service of a trippy, crazy science fiction novel. Besides the book itself, which is a sturdy hardcover with a few illustrations by Woodring, the whole thing comes in a cardboard box which contains a print of lurid illustration of the novel’s most disturbing scene. And there’s a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle which comes together to form a demented image of weird creatures from another universe.
But honestly, it’s worth the $65 price tag just to get Di Filippo’s novel (novella?), which may actually be the most demented thing I’ve ever read by him. And if you’ve read Di Filippo’s work, you’ll know that’s a tall order. I’ve been a screaming fan of his since I first read his story about Queen Victoria running off to live in a brothel and being replaced with a genetically engineered mega-newt, which is in the Steampunk Trilogy book.
In Cosmocopia, Di Filippo tells the story of Frank Lazorg, an artist who rose from a pulp illustrator in the 1940s to become a famous artist in his own right. Lazorg is a creature of pure ego, and every time you think he’s going to see something beyond himself, he reverts to type. Now an old man, he’s suffered a stroke that’s left him unable to paint… until a mysterious benefactor sends him a crimson block of crushed scarabs to use as pigment. Lazorg eats the scarab paste instead, and becomes reinvigorated, seeing the world anew through the crimson haze.
And just when you think you see where the story is going — Lazorg is going to become a drug fiend, seeing more and more fantastical things and becoming more monstrous in the process — it takes a sharp left turn, and then another. Without giving too much away, Lazorg leaves this universe behind and visits a more primitive universe, closer to the source of creation. The “Cosmocopia” of the book’s title isn’t literally a horn of plenty, it’s a series of stacked universes, with the smaller universes closer to the source and the bigger universes farther away.
In this new universe, the inhabitants all have their genitalia on their faces, and they have two brains, one in their head and one in their guts. They view Lazorg as a monster (and he is, sort of) but eventually come to accept him. But just surviving isn’t enough for Lazorg, who wants to be a great artist in every universe. Art, as Lazorg understands it, doesn’t exist in this other universe, so he has to learn the closest equivalent, which is called ideation. He eventually masters the local art form, but that isn’t enough for him: he has to bend it to his will. Along the way, he uses anyone who cares about him, including the local creature, Crutchsump, who falls in love with him.
This story lets Di Filippo ask some fascinating questions about the nature of art, and the differences between representational and non-representational artworks. (Which is fitting for an art book, which comes with lovely illustrations and is an object of beauty in itself.) It’s all mixed up with sexuality and spirituality, and the nature of that mysterious endpoint of the series of stacked universes. But in the end, the story is always about Lazorg’s raging ego, which makes him a more audacious creator than anyone else but also makes him crave fame and adoration. Is it really possible to be a great artist without having a horrendous ego?, Di Filippo seems to ask. We never quite get an answer, just like Lazorg’s final confrontation with the source of the Cosmocopia doesn’t quite settle all our questions.
In short, Cosmocopia is one of the few books-as-fetish-items that is also a thought-provoking, exciting read. If I had to quibble, I’d say I wished for a few more illustrations inside the book. And $65 might be a tad steep — although it’s a gift for the whole family. (I think the jigsaw puzzle is kid safe, if you have a weird kid.) But those are just quibbles, and honestly this is way better value for money than a few DVDs, or some nice drugs — and the effects will last a lot longer.