Book: Fractal Paisleys
Author: Paul Di Filippo
Type of Book: Fiction, short story collection, science fiction, proto-bizarro
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Pia Zadora as a magical Queen of the Pixies. I shit you not. Di Filippo’s id is a magnificent place.
Availability: Published by Four Walls Eight Windows in 1997, the book appears to be out of print. However, you can get a used copy online at various locations:
Comments: Paul Di Filippo was recommended to me by a woman I have a passing acquaintance with in LiveJournal political communities. Once upon a time an author I discussed invoked my mental health and acted really creepy. The author is on LJ and is a peripheral part of the conservative community there, so when the unpleasantness happened of course my discussion of his book came up several times. Whenever my site is discussed in non-odd-book quarters, invariably people recommend books to me. Generally the recommendations are along the lines of, “Have you read American Psycho?” or “That Chuck Palahniuk is really weird – you should read him.” Which is cool – Bret Easton Ellis and Palahniuk are both diving boards into the pool that is weird literature so I’m glad they are on peoples’ radars, but neither are particularly helpful to me at this point.
But this time I was recommended a truly whacked-out writer and I am the richer for it. Though I suspect Di Filippo is as famous in his own right as Ellis and Palahniuk, not being a fan of science fiction means Di Filippo is completely new to me and his whacked out writing is a thing of beauty. Di Filippo is a very fluid writer and you can read his works very quickly and easily come back to them after interruptions. That came in handy when I found myself stuck at my hematologist’s office for two hours one day. I read the bulk of this book sitting in a cold office waiting to discuss my platelets. Good times! And I cop to the fact that because Di Filippo rescued me from hours of boredom I may be positively inclined toward him on that merit alone. However, I also think this collection of short stories has enough odd merit to stand tall on its own weirdness.
Di Filippo’s book forced me to create a new category – proto-bizarro. While he is not bizarro, per se, he comes the closest to being a bridge between pulp sci-fi and the current batch of hardcore, horror-infused weirdness that I have read. Basic, (mostly) Earth-bound sci-fi blended with pop culture references, fringe culture, high weirdness and elaborate plots – if Di Filippo’s book had included more gore I would consider it bizarro outright.
Most of Di Filippo’s plots can be described thusly: A person finds a thing. The thing is magical. The Magical Thing is used. There are unintended consequences when using the Magical Thing. The Lone Sane Person tries to set things straight, with varying success rates. Di Filippo definitely has a formula and while formulas can be trite, Di Filippo’s formula is sort of comforting. In the midst of high weirdness, having something familiar to fall back on isn’t a bad thing. Besides, formulaic writing is why I read writers like Stephen King. Formula is all that separates fringe from genre sometimes and while some condemn it, I don’t. If one can write well within a formula, that’s what is important, and Di Filippo can write very well within his formula.
But that brings me to an interesting situation with Di Filippo that I have not faced in a long time: There is not a single passage I want to quote here. Weird, right? I am the Queen of Long-Ass Quoted Passages. But Di Filippo is not a writer who is going to wow you with the power of his prose (or perhaps I should say his writing in this book will not wow you). These stories have consistent characters whose behaviors sort of blend into each other. The power of Di Filippo comes from the insanity of his plots. His stories are exercises in fine lunacy, so fine that his smooth, contemporary prose, his characters whose traits span the distances between urban dumbasses to southern-culture-on-the-skids clods without much delineation between the two, fade into irrelevance.
These are some seriously amazing plots. So intricate I am actually afraid to read a novel by this man for fear of what one of his book-length plots would do to my brain. The plots are worth the cost of admission. Plots so fabulous they are works of art.
But excellent plots seldom leave much to quote. So I’ll just synopsize the plots without spoiling them.
Let’s get the bad out of the way first. “Flying the Flannel” was the weakest story, employing every known literary cliche with a copious amount of random pop culture references. And to be honest, had it not involved an interstellar battle of the bands contest, I probably would have liked it more, but alas, it was the least good story in a excellent but ludicrous collection. Also in this story, Di Filippo shows his capacity to write genuinely interesting female characters is about on par to Stephen King’s, which is to say it’s not great. Not utterly sucktastic, but it should be mentioned that it’s interesting that the worst story in the collection is also the sole story to have a female protagonist.
“Master Blaster and Whammer Jammer Meet the Groove Thang” does what it says on the tin. Master Blaster and Whammer Jammer find the Groove Thang, their Magical Thing, and discover it emits some sort of wave that causes people to feel blissed out. Master Blaster and Whammer Jammer are comfortingly inept at life and how they handle the Groove Thang is completely realistic to their natures.
“Fractal Paisleys” is the tale of trailer park denizens who discover a Magical Thing in the form of Turing level 3 machine. It’s like a remote control and interacts in the world much in the way Photoshop does. It has copy, blur, cut, replace and other functions that are usable in the real world to manipulate the physical environment. Jay Dee, Tracey and Tracey’s trashy friend hit the road with the Magical Thing after using it to get some financial revenge and hijinks ensue. There’s also a cat in this story. So, you know… Cats are great.
“Do You Believe in Magic” tells the story of Beaner Wilkins, a music critic who stayed locked up in his townhouse for 20 years and only ventures outside after he sits on one of his albums and needs to replace it. He also has a big-ass phobia and revulsion for all that is plastic. Least magical story in the bunch and least interesting too, but still serviceably funny and has a sweet ending. Actually, Di Filippo would probably be fun to date in real life because while being completely insane, his stories end well and end nicely. Not a lot of angst in these stories – just a lot of silliness and some really interesting sexual id.
“Lennon Spex” makes me think I spoke too soon about which story was the least interesting. Dude finds round spectacles like John Lennon wore and they distort his vision and perception of reality. This story was likely unique before the Internet came along but since this was written I have read a bunch of similar stories. But it should be mentioned that even if this story is trite, Di Filippo got there first and is the imitated and not the imitator.
Okay, bear with me on this one. “Mama Told Me Not to Come” tells the story of Loren, a sad sack schmuck who decides to kill himself at the stroke of midnight on 12/31/1999. He meets Bacchus incarnate, who gives him a Magical Thing in the form of a horn that when blown will take him to every party that ever occurred because every raucous gathering in the history of time is linked together. Since they are linked together in some cosmic way you don’t even want me to try to explain, a toot on the Magical horn will lift you off to another party. Loren jumps from the balcony to fall to his death but before he reaches the bottom he blows the horn and finds himself at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. He manages to gather the Dormouse before he blows the horn again, and before he stops blowing the horn, he has collected an ancient warrior woman and some stoners from the 60s as he finds his way back home and it’s all completely silly. Fun story, to be sure.
“The Double Felix” is a… I don’t know. It’s science fiction with a blend of revenge and romantic love coming to fruition. A man creates a collar that can save personalities and allows consciousnesses to jump from one body to the next. His evil, slutty wife tried to kill him, the collar thwarts her and there is so much mind-shifting that happens that the plot, a small masterpiece, could be described as labyrinthine if only it were not so silly. Another funny story.
“Earth Shoes” tells the story of another southern-culture-on-the-skids sort of character Ken, whose mechanic mentor showed him a Magical Thing in the form of some sort of automotive fluid, then disappeared. Ken comes back from Vietnam to find that the fluid is still there and uses it, leaking a drip onto a mood ring. He quickly finds that the mood ring permits people to shape the world to their own tastes. This one reminded me of the Twilight Zone episode with the little boy who could control everyone around him and everyone lives in fear lest they screw up and offend him. Ken is the Lone Sane Man and eventually sets everything right. More or less.
“Queen of the Pixies, King of the Imps” is so fucking insane you really just need to read it. Hoo boy, is Di Filippo a brave writer because there is no way he is not revealing a deep lust for Pia Zadora. There are too many petite actresses he could have used in her stead that would make more sense to a modern audience for this to be anything other than a story of deep celebrity crush. Anyway, a dude is raised by a teeny tiny woman (his name is Walter de la Mare) and he finds out he is the King of the Imps, forced by hormones and surgery to grow tall so he can be hidden in plain sight because his life was in danger. He lives a lonely life because he can only get it up for teeny, tiny women (perfectly formed women, not dwarves). He meets Pia Zadora (Pia Zamora in the story), realizes his destiny, etc. Also there is a guest appearance by Danny Devito as the challenging Imp. High weirdness abounds, buy the collection for this seriously demented story.
“The Cobain Sweater” is the tale of another suicidal loser saved by a Magical Thing. This time the grubby sweater Kurt Cobain wore on MTV Unplugged. The sweater, a Turing level 4 machine, was supposed to prevent Cobain’s suicide but fails and ends up at a thrift store, where it makes its way into Junius Weatherall’s life. He’s in the middle of trying to kill himself when he puts it on and the sweater takes over, saving his life and sending him back in time to make sure Frances Bean Cobain doesn’t grow up a stunted shell of a human being.
This collection of stories really was a hoot. Like I said, this is not the best writing you will ever read – it’s not elegant and it’s not that unique in tone. The characterization is basic, though decent enough. This is simply a collection of elaborate, silly, hilarious, intricate plots. Di Filippo, from this collection, is a master of plots, and I am very glad I read this collection. I will definitely read more of his work. Fans of science fiction and bizarro will find much to love in these demented stories.
2 thoughts on “Fractal Paisleys by Paul Di Filippo”
I am honored and overjoyed by your empathy and funny prose and kindness. Many thanks!
Oh dear lord, you are so very welcome. It was a great day indeed when your works were recommended to me!