Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Paul di Filippo: The Emperor of Gondwanaland

This time, before writing a review of a book, I went in search of the author's web site (if any) first. And Paul di Filippo has one. Boy, is it ever weird. But then, if you've read his short stories, you would kind of expect that.

Mind you, once you get over the surprise of finding that the home page of Paul di Filippo's web site has some strange collage-encrusted envelopes on the front of it (a different one very time you visit), you find that the inner pages contain a great deal of fascinating information.

Paul is best known, I think, as the author of short stories, and I have been reading his latest collection The Emperor of Gondwanaland. Essentially, Paul is a writer of science fiction/fantasy/speculative fiction (though he tells us that he has no training in science). But that categorisation is not a lot of help, really, apart from indicating that you should not expect the orthodox.

The Emperor contains 18 stories and it is, he says in a short introduction, his first non-themed volume. In other words, there is a bit of everything with no obvious connection between the stories. Well, there's no harm in that. Some charm in it, actually, and I read them all without difficulty.

Overall I was impressed. This man has terrific range and versatility. Take, for example, his story Observable Things. This features the young Cotton Mather as narrator. And if the name is vaguely familiar but you aren't quite sure who he was, the answer is that Cotton Mather was a seventeenth-century minister of Boston's Old North church, and was heavily involved in the Salem witchcraft trials. Paul di Filippo also introduces into this story 'a fictional hero from the canon of Robert E. Howard'. And the whole thing is related in convincing first-person seventeenth-century prose. See what I mean about range and versatility? Plus a thoroughly uninhibited imagination.

The prose style of the other stories is often equally startling and proficient, but there are, I think, two weaknesses. First, some of the plots are rather mundane and uninspired; and second, for my taste the author gives us too much information from his own position as story-teller. Yes, I know that no less an authority than R.P. Burnham tells that this is perfectly acceptable as a narrative technique, and I dare say it is, in principle. But in practice I prefer stories in which the necessary backstory is provided painlessly and neutrally, so to speak, in the course of dramatic scenes. This preference comes of having a sensibility which is corrupted by too much television as a child.

Paul di Filippo frequently makes use of real-life characters. There is, for instance, an excellent story about Albert Camus. Who? Gosh, you are young. He was famous once. Another famous literary personage to appear in these pages is Robert Frost. Of his choice of Frost as a protagonist, Paul says this: 'Grab a poet as your leading man or woman, and you've instantly got a wealth of human feeling, and likely also some dizzy, unconventional lifestyles to play with.' I agree: Mr Swinburne has served me well more than once, in three short stories, a play, and a novel.

In addition to his hundreds of short stories (of which there are about eight collections), Paul di Filippo has also written some novels which, judging by the covers, look to be seriously interesting. I know, I know, but the cover is at least something to go on, right? I might be tempted by those.

In one of the interviews available on his web site, Paul tells us that he is a self-taught writer; he has never been on any creative-writing courses. Isn't it interesting how interviewers automatically ask this question now? And the next one usually is, Where do you teach? And by the way, just as an aside, I have had an email from Bruce Holland Rogers in which he mentions that, when he took a university course on The Poetics of Fiction, the class was required to read some 'recent masters of literary obfuscation', and also had to produce some paintings. Yup. Paintings. Two of the three 'term papers' were required to be paintings. Go figure.

Finally, before I forget, Paul di Filippo is also the author of Lost Pages, a volume of stories about some twentieth-century literary icons. Of this, Harlan Ellison said 'I swear on the grave of my sainted mother that Lost Pages by Paul di Filippo is nothing less than an imperial read.' I have a copy, which I bought and read two or three years ago. But I think I might just read it again.

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