Fractal Paisleys by Paul Di Filippo

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

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.

Under the Skin by Michel Faber

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Under the Skin

Author: Michel Faber

Type of Book: Fiction, horror, science fiction, indescribable

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: This is a book that walks the line between standard horror fiction with a literary bent and yet is so deeply disturbing that it is odd by default. So, since I am sort of a bad parent and favor one child over the other, I am discussing it over here because oddbooks is soooo much better than her sister. But I find it pretty disturbing and by my own admittedly uneven criteria, I’m discussing it here.

Availability: Published by Harcourt in 2000, you can get a copy here:

Comments:This is going to be a startlingly short discussion. I am a person who is, to put it kindly, verbose. Wordy. I type too damn much sometimes. I know this. And if I let this tendency go unchecked in this discussion, I will spoil this entire book for you. This is a book wherein crucial plot points are revealed in layers. As you read, Faber reveals bits and pieces that make you wonder what is wrong, why the main character is experiencing back pain, why she looks odd, why she is stalking large, well-built men, and it call becomes clear about a third of the way into the book. The horror continues to unfold apace but in the interest of not ruining this book for anyone who wants to read it, I will have to discuss it in vagaries that may not show the true mastery of this book.

So I will have to do that which I hate doing the most. I will have to ask you to take my word for it. This book is cleverly written. It is full of pathos and a character who is working her way through physical pain, mental anguish, and moral dilemmas that could potentially render her life meaningless and cause her to become in her own mind the worst sort of monster. It is literary fiction, but at the same time, it is extreme horror. There are graphic descriptions of cruelty in this book that are fucking horrible. This is a novel that will give you no comfort, none at all, save for one scene where Isserley, the main character, manages to prevent a dog from starving to death.

The book begins with Isserley, driving along the highway system in Scotland, stalking men who meet a very specific physical criteria. Isserley is in considerable physical discomfort as she flashes her large breasts in an attempt to distract her prey, but until the plot reveals itself you don’t ever really know why it is that the mental picture Faber paints of Isserley seems so imbued with wrongness. Isserley’s shabby little car has been outfitted with a switch that deploys a needle full of knock-out drugs through the car seat where her hitchhiker pick-ups sit and once unconscious, she takes them to a farm where they meet a fate that is later explained in deep, horrific detail. If I discuss much more than this, or even convey my favorite passages, I will spoil this book and it is killing me not being able to wallow in this book to the degree I would prefer.

But I can safely say that if you like books with deep moral dilemmas, you will like this book. If you like books with explicit violence, you will like this book. If you like horror/science fiction crossovers, you will like this book. If you prefer books with excellent characterization and find understanding the heart of darkness compelling reading, you will want to read this book.

The horror is not as extreme as “extreme horror” and it is not a mystery though the plot unfolds to reveal hidden truths. This is not straightforward horror and it is not straightforward science fiction. And for people who like character-driven books, the extraordinary plot in this book may distract. But despite all the things this book can be said definitively not to be, the hybrid that remains is a creepy, disturbing, gut-wrenching, thought-provoking book. I recommend it highly.

Camp Concentration by Thomas M. Disch

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: Camp Concentration

Author: Thomas M. Disch

Why Did I Read This Book: I thought it would be a good fit for my odd books site. I was wrong – this is a book that is subversive, to a certain extent, but it is definitely not all that odd.

Availability: You can get the 1999 Vintage Books edition here:

Comments: It has been a while since I read a book that filled me with such visceral dislike. I can only hope that I can explain my distaste for this book without descending into insult, but it speaks volumes to me that even though I am a pretty mild person most of the time, I genuinely worry that I may not be able to discuss this book without a lot of invective.

Part of the reason is that this book was initially published in 1968 and has not aged well. But I also tend to think that the poorly-aged element of this book lent itself to a “meh” reaction, not the cold, hard aversion I ultimately felt. Though some of the ideas expressed in this book may still resonate today, I have to say, though I know it is brutal to say so, the overall terrible writing style as well as the completely unlikeable protagonist kills any societal message that may shine through to modern times.

Here’s a brief synopsis: Louis Sacchetti, who clearly fancies himself the smartest man to ever live, is put in jail for being a conscientious objector. He is treated reasonably well in prison but one day is transferred to a different prison. One underground, a sinister prison where the government is testing a drug on unwilling prisoners. This drug makes the prisoners super intelligent, which actually has far fewer applications in the real world than one might think, but the drug also kills them eventually. Louis finds he has been infected and he was such an arrogant, self-impressed bastard that the reader has a hard time telling the before Louis from the end Louis. All the geniuses try to commit a God-defying act of alchemy that ends about as well as you think it might. Louis was asked to document his time in the prison, typing it out in a typewriter that fed to different people who read his reports and he documents until he dies. The end.

Okay, I am being a complete bitch and I know it, but let me support my utter dislike for this book with text that shows that I have concrete reasons for hating it, though as always, your mileage may vary.

After musing pointlessly and somewhat fatly on the sexual antics of the men he shares space with back at prison one, Louis finds himself in the corridors of the second prison. This is his first encounter there with another inmate:

“Beauty,” he said solemnly, “is nothing but the beginning of a terror that we are able barely to endure.” And with those words George Wagner heaved the entirety of a considerable breakfast into that pure, Euclidean space.

It’s hard to put into words why these two sentences filled me with despair reading this book, but let me try. First, Disch has a mentally ill man quoting Rilke. If that wasn’t a cliche then, it certainly is now. Second, I really can’t believe that Louis, the narrator and through whose eyes we see this arrogant and at times pretentious mess, looks at a man puking and immediately thinks of the clean, geometric lines into which the man is horking. Louis is a writer though, and as a result, he thinks very writerly things. He can’t just speak or write. He expounds. He is a hammy stage actor on paper and it hurts reading his thoughts and then thinking about the implications of those thoughts.

He meets a black prisoner named Mordecai. You know Mordecai is black because he uses the word “mammy” to describe his mother. As did all black men in 1968, one assumes. Evidently Mordecai is ugly too, and mispronounces words a lot because he has only ever read them and never heard them before because as a black man, of course, he never had a deep, substantive conversation before he was given the drug to make him super-smart. Or at least that is how I felt after reading about Mordecai through Louis’ description. His mispronunciations give Louis an even more unearned sense of superiority, for you see, Louis is not just a writer, but a poet, and he knows words, man does he know. His mental corrections of Mordecai’s pronunciations alone killed any sense that I wanted him to continue telling the story. Here are a couple of examples:

“You’ll have to excuse my athanor. It’s electric, which isn’t quite comme il faut” – pronounced by Mordecai, come-ill-phut–“I’ll admit, but it’s much easier this way to maintain a fire that is vaporous, digesting, continuous, nonviolent, subtle, encompassed, airy, obstructive, and corrupting.”

(I know, you, dear reader, totally think I am making these sentences up, don’t you?)

Poor Mordecai cannot even pronounce the word God to Louis’ satisfaction. In a conversation about God wherein Mordecai compares the Holy to Eichmann in a fit of genius that causes Louis to put down his intellectual foot, Louis begins to record Mordecai’s accent as he hears it in a way that is utterly grating.

“We can turn our eyes away from the charred bones of children outside the incinerators, but what of a Gaud who damns infants–often the very same one–to everlasting fires?”

Poor Mordecai. Not even able to say “God” to a pedant. Also, if this is what Disch thinks it sounds like when people made into intellectual giants talk about metaphysics, all I can say is that every drunken freshman at Clark Hall at UNT must have been fucking geniuses.

Also, Louis’ opinions on homosexuals don’t help this book’s complete lack of modernity. And while I am not one for temporal relevance, the fact remains that in the 1960s, there were plenty of people who did not think that VD and promiscuity ran rampant among homosexuals any more than they thought all blacks had mammies. It’s hard to like many of the characters in this book and their pronouncements on minorities certainly don’t help matters.

And while Disch knows words, the problem is that he doesn’t know how to use those words to show characterization, especially when characters speak. I give some passages to show that no one in this book speaks differently from anyone else, despite the large disparities in cultural and professional backgrounds. They have incredibly similar social references, similar educational references and even the tendency to slip from formal language into informal, as if to show how that underneath it all, aren’t we all just too jive for conversational consistency?

Here is Dr Busk, a psychiatrist in her 30s:

“And then think of what happens if genius doesn’t rein itself in but insists on plunging on head into the chaos of freest association. I know any number if psychiatrists who could, in good conscience, have accepted Finnegan Wakes (sic) as the very imprimatur of madness and had its author hospitalized on its evidence alone. A genius? Oh yes. But all we common people have the common sense to realize that genius, like the clap, is a social disease, and we take action accordingly. We put all out geniuses in one kind or another of isolation ward, to escape being infected.”

(By the way, it is Louis, who is typing all of this conversation up for his reports to the prison officials, who inserts that (sic), pedant that he is. He can’t even retell a conversation without simply correcting a common mistake – no, he needs to show the error and also show that he knows the error is an error. And this trait is not due to Disch deliberately creating a shitheel. No, Disch likes Louis, you can tell, because Louis is a man for whom we are supposed to feel some sort of fond feeling or kinship as he discovers dark secrets and suffers himself. I assert that Disch no more realized what a tiresome didact Louis is than Louis does.)

This is Louis himself, and note the high level language that descends into street talk, just like Dr. Busk. Also note he is talking to himself about his own poem, addressing himself as Louis I as it is a different part of the whole complexity that is Louis (sigh…)

There is no God, there never was, and never will be, world without end, amen.

Would you deny it, old Adamite, Louie I? Then let me recommend you to your own poem, the poem you claimed not to be able to understand. I understand it: The idol is empty; his speech an imposture. There is no Baal, my friend, only the whisperer within, putting your words in His mouth. A farrago of anthropomorphism. Deny it! Not all your piety nor wit, my boy.

And O! O! those precious, fawning poems of yours, licking the ass of your let’s-pretend God-daddy.

Well I will give credit where credit is due in the next quote–at least Disch mixes up the formula a little. In this one the inconsistencies are spread out, not high-falutin’ falling into the gutter, but rather a more even mix, but the trademarks are the same. This is Mordecai speaking.

“Anyhow, to get back–the two broads would bring up those hoary arguments about the universe is like a watch and you can’t have a watch without a watchmaker. Or the first cause that no other cause causes. Till that day I’d never even heard of the watchmaker bit, and when they came out with it, I thought, Now, that’ll stop old Donovan’s Brain. But not a bit of it–you just tore their sloppy syllogisms”–another foul mispronunciation–“to pieces.”

In this one we get not only Mordecai waxing Louis-like, but we also get another helping of Louis’ being unable not to comment on how badly he thinks Mordecai speaks.

I wanted to think that perhaps all the similar dialogue occurs because Louis is recording all of this and the speech of others gets filtered through his brain. But Louis makes it clear several times he is recording things exactly as they happen or are spoken. He is not filtering. Everyone just talks the same way in this book, high level conversation with words even the most well-versed of readers will have to look up combined with an earthy tang of street language and slang.

Okay, get yourself past the fact that the style in this book is terrible and everyone talks the same. Let’s just look at some of the sentences in this book, shall we? Even if Louis is a poet, even if he is a genius driven mad, there is a desperate sense in all he says that he wants us, the unseen reader, to know how amazing his intellect is, and it gets tiresome, each sentence struggling to be more erudite than the one before it, each turn of phrase straining in verbal calisthenics.

Have read “Portrait of Pompanianus,” which is better than I’d expected, yet curiously disappointing. I think it is because it is so controlled a tale, the plot so meticulously elaborated, the language of such a concinnate beauty, that I’m disgruntled. I’d hoped for a cri de coeur, nonobjectivist, action writing…

But wait, it gets so much worse. This passage comes after Louis is finished writing a play called Auschwitz: A Comedy.

In the first giddy moments after I’d written Auschwitz, when I could suddenly no longer tolerate these bare walls, richer in horrid suggestion than any Rorschach…, I stumbled out into the hypogeal daedal of corridors, happening across the hidden heart of it, or its minotaur at least.

He stumbled into the hypogeal daedal? I hate it when that happens but have been told some soda water will get the stain out. Sorry about that but when I am forced to read words this haughty, I get sarcastic. I’m a pretty good word-slinger myself. Always have been. I appreciate an author who does not insult my intelligence and uses words one may not commonly encounter. Caitlín R. Kiernan is an erudite writer whose erudition does not alienate me. But this is too much. It’s Disch showing off via Louis and it is tiresome as hell to read.

Here’s another example of Louis’, and by extension Disch’s, ridiculous verbiage:

“You’re a bit early,” Haast told her. His emissile good fellowship retracted like a snail’s cornua at the sight of Busk–in a suit of gray and chaste as any flatworm, epalpibrate, grimly mounted on her iron heels and ready for battle.

And this is where I take my gloves off. This quote is everything that is wrong with this book – big words that evoke nothing and when they do manage to evoke something, the image is meaningless. A flatworm is not chaste. It reproduces asexually. Had to look up “epalpibrate,” which evidently means roughly lacking eyebrows or eyelids. So, Dr. Busk is dressed like a prudish gray worm, without eyelids or eyebrows, yet ready for battle. Worms and those without eyelids are not notoriously good in battle. And why would a woman in a chaste, worm-gray suit sans eyebrows need to be mounted on anything? None of this makes an ounce of visual or metaphorical sense and all those five cent words were written to be impressive, not to convey an image or an idea.

And again, let me say that the narrator telling us all this is Louis and we are meant to have some sort of sympathy for him. Initially I wondered if perhaps I was meant to loathe Louis, but at the end of the book, there was a scene that gave Louis some humanity, a pitiful scene that would have emphasized a gain of humility for a pompous man, but Louis is beyond pompous. He is despicably obtuse and when he falls, I felt nothing. I have no idea what Disch was going for here. The only way for the ending to have strength, we needed a protagonist whom at the very least did not alienate us. Because of who Louis is, the ending, which should have been a saddening, horrible look at a smart man on his knees, physically and mentally spent, is rendered powerless. That’s a dirty shame because in all this verbal showing-off, an interesting plot and many questions of medical and judicial ethics get lost. The only point that gets driven home over and over is how useless genius so often can be and I knew this before I read this book.

In the event that anyone is left wondering if I recommend this book, the answer is no. But let me leave with this final quote from the book:

“Oh dear, oh dear. They’re very late. Are you good with riddles? Why did the hyperdulia pray to the Pia Mater?”

“Why is a raven like a writing desk?” I mumbled, beginning to be annoyed with my guest.

I can’t think of a better summation of this novel. A pointless riddle with no answer – you could take some time and try find answers to why this novel had to be so obtuse, and like Lewis Carroll’s desk riddle, come up with all kinds of answers when there really isn’t one, at least not one intended by the author. Just verbal burlesque, forcing the reader to jump through hoops for no reward beyond the knowledge that you will at least know the meaning of the word “epalipibrate” when you are finished with this book.

Disch seems to have had a dedicated following and I perused his LiveJournal, especially the entries before he died at his own hand, and saw little of the preening one sees in this book. Was this book a juvenile offering, the sort of book an intelligent young man writes before he takes his intellect in hand and creates art instead of impressive words? I am unsure but I always give writers two chances before I declare them off my reading list. If you’ve read Disch and like him, feel free to recommend another of his books for me to try. But if you are unfamiliar with Disch, I suggest you give this book a miss, despite the admiration this book seems to have in the sci-fi community.

A is for Alien by Caitlín R. Kiernan

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: A is for Alien

Author: Caitlín R. Kiernan

Type of Book: Science fiction, short story collection, erotica

Why Did I Read This Book: Because CRK is one of my favorite writers of all time, full stop.

Availability: Published by Subterranean Press in 2009, you can get a copy here:

Comments: Caitlín R. Kiernan is a writer whom I have a hard time assigning to any specific genre, though she is a writer whose work generally has some form of slipstream in it, slipstream as defined by Bruce Sterling when he said, “…this is a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility.” Kiernan’s prose always makes me feel strange and everything I have read from her is undeniably dark even when good prevails because there is still so much more bad out there waiting.

This collection is mostly science fiction and I am notably not a fan of the sci-fi genre, but I read this anyway because Kiernan wrote it. I’m glad I read it because only two of the stories were not to my tastes. Much “hard” science fiction eludes me for the same reason I never found A Clockwork Orange to my liking – I get too distracted by the verbiage, which is often beyond my ken, and the story gets away from me. So I am at a loss to determine if any work of hard science fiction is good or not, though I am not someone who condemns a genre just because I do not like it. Two of the stories in this collection said little to me, so I was tempted to skip reviewing it, but the point of this review site is for me to review literally everything I read that does not end up on I Read Odd Books. So no chickening out.

This collection contains eight stories, some hard science fiction, some science fiction combined with erotica, some transhumanist analyses, and plenty of dystopia to last even the most jaded of readers for a long time. I admit that I prefer CRK when she is writing works that tilt more in the vein of horror – Alabaster and Daughter of Hounds are both in my list of Top 25 Books of All Time. But her essential themes remain even when her genre differs, and that is what matters I think.