Cosmocopia by Paul Di Filippo
This is a short novel, printed in a non-standard but interesting layout, and packaged in a box with a jigsaw puzzle and a postmodernist, pulp-style piece of jacket artwork laid in as a full-colour print. The artwork and design is by Jim Woodring in an edition limited to 500 sets, signed by author and artist and published by Payseur and Schmidt. I have been buying limited editions for more than twenty years and, without doubt, this is one of the more eccentric to add to the collection, particularly because it will not conveniently sit on a shelf. It will have to be separately stored. This is somewhat annoying in that I collect the works of authors I like rather than collecting pieces of art in more abstract form. As I write this, I find myself resentful at having to pay so much to get the latest work of an author. This is aggravated by the fact that this is what one politely calls a short novel. Perhaps it will work out well in the longer term and, in the event I decide to shed books from the collection, I will find collectors prepared to pay out for a mint first edition. But, in general, I prefer more words for my initial cash investment.
As to those words, we find ourselves immersed in an extended metaphor about artistic creativity and redemption. The painter in question is a man whose talent is matched by his ego (or perhaps that should be the other way around). He is at the top of his profession and commands the highest prices when he chooses to sell from the works he has so assiduously salted away over the years. Now old and left weakened by a stroke, he no longer has the enthusiasm for painting. In part, this is because he has lost his muse whom he painted repeatedly. The woman who used to be his model and lover no longer seeks congress with a man who is but a shadow of his former self. This reflects an assumption about the relationship. Between artist and model, there is mutual impregnation. He may have sex with her, but she penetrates his mind. He gestates and delivers a work of art from the womb of his mind.
This may seem a somewhat flowery way of putting it, but Di Filippo spends this short novel considering the process whereby an artist produces art from his mind. It is, perhaps, a cliché that the best artists are obsessional and monomaniacal in the pursuit of perfection. If their ability to perform at the highest standards is diminished, this can be deeply frustrating. Indeed, at the crunch, the passions raised could be dangerous, if not actually, homicidal. This sets the scene for the transition of our artist into a different dimension where art is literally created by force of mind. Before leaving this second world, he creates a portrait of the woman who has come to be his wife but dies in delivering their child — a process that mirrors the delivery of art. In this, he changes to the style of Rubens, Renoir, Bonnard et al who repeatedly painted their wives. As he and his son force their way into the interstitial void between the dimensions, he is motivated by a spirit of revenge. If there is a God, he wishes to kill God for allowing the death of his wife. In this void, he resumes his status as a giant of the art world and physically acts out the killing of his hated rival in the human world. He also acquires a new partner. And then, in order to return to his own world, he gives up his desire for revenge, sacrifices his love for his child, leaves his new partner behind, and is restored to the human world. I will leave it to those who read the book to decide whether there is anything redemptive about this. My current opinion is that the human artist is a work-in-progress and another is probably using him in the role of a muse.
In this story, there are parallels with the relationship between Matisse and Monique Bourgeois. In 1941, Bourgeois both nursed Matisse who had cancer and acted as his model. They were separated by the war in 1943 and did not meet again until 1946 when, at her request, he produced what was arguably his greatest work in the Chapelle du Rosaire. The original mythological cornucopia gave the person in possession everything he or she most desired. Matisse would have used the cosmic horn for the chance to be reunited with and inspired by his muse, Bourgeois. The interest in Cosmocopia lies in seeing how Di Filippo’s artist will use his access to the horn.
The telling of the story is up to Di Filippo’s usual high standard — he really is one of the best writers of short fiction around. The evocation of the alternate world is richly imagined and the emerging love between two very different people (both culturally and biologically) is affecting. But the artist as a protagonist is unsympathetic. Even in love, he remains self-obsessed, focussing on the provision of material comforts while relegating his wife to the role of household drudge. As a father, he is happy to abandon his son to get what he wants. Frankly, I don’t think he deserves to be saved. Assuming, of course, that the situation in which he ultimately finds himself is what he would have wanted for himself. There may be a certain irony at work in the concluding pages.
So the book element is interesting and provokes some thought. I confess I am not going to do the jigsaw. I last did one as a child and have no desire to do so now, even though I am theoretically well into my second childhood. As to the package? Sad to say, I do not think it worth the money. Hopefully, a collector will disagree with me in the event that I do decide to sell.
For a review of a collection of novellas, see The Steampunk Trilogy.