He's in love with rock 'n' roll (whoah!)
He's in love with getting stoned (whoah!)
He's in love with Janie Jones (whoah!)
He don't like his boring job (No!)
(The Clash, 'Janie Jones')
There's no one quite like Paul Di Filippo. His fiction is a psychedelicized,
rock 'n' roll dragster with the pedal to the floor, and it'll whisk you to some
of the strangest imaginative territory you'll ever visit. That bump you felt?
That was the driver barreling over the speed limit sign on your way out of town.
The stories in Strange Trades are everything that Di Filippo aficionados
have come to expect. They're wonderfully unpredictable and unselfconsciously
eccentric, full of striking images and deftly realized characters, and imbued
with a comic sensibility that's not likely to be mistaken for anyone else's.
There's really only one way to describe these stories, and that's to say they're
pure Di Filippo. And yes, in case you've never hitched a ride with him before,
that's very high praise indeed.
Di Filippo is often pegged as a comic writer. Fair enough; he's probably one
of the best we have, and I dare you to read "Spondulix" or the lighter
sections of "Karuna, Inc." without at least cracking a smile. Strange
Trades, however, assembles a group of stories that, collectively, find the
author in an uncharacteristically somber mood. What emerges with renewed clarity
from this collection is that Di Filippo is not only an exceptionally skilled
comic writer, but also a deeply humane writer, one whose compassion for a suffering
humanity and whose fondness for underdogs, misfits, and outsiders finds its
way into nearly every story in this collection.
Like Di Filippo's past collections, Strange Trades adheres to a loose
conceptual framework, and all of the stories here deal to some degree with that
conjoined blessing / curse of adulthood: work. Some of these stories present
work as the unpleasantly surreal and soul-sucking exercise it can sometimes
be, and wage slaves and cubicle dwellers will find the nightmarish visions of
"SUITs" and "The Boredom Factory" immediately recognizable.
In the former, an office worker finds his colleagues slowly replaced by empty
suits who eerily mimic human behavior. In the latter, the bemused protagonist
P. finds employment at a company whose only product seems to be the wretchedness
and tedium of its own employees.
If these stories summed up the whole attitude of Strange Trades, it
would be a jaundiced collection indeed. Di Filippo, however, is also interested
in telling stories about how work can be meaningful, enriching, and (dare I
say it?) even fun. Several of the finest stories here revolve around jobs of
just this kind, although (tellingly) all of them are located outside of the
traditional confines of consumer capitalism. These stories concern communes,
coops, and alternative economies, enterprises whose values place them in opposition
to the dominant corporate culture. There is a distinctly counter-cultural spirit
running through the collection, although these stories don't reject capitalism
so much as investigate how it might be different if it were based on values
of compassion and respect. The result is a quietly subversive vision of men
and women existing within a free market economy without being defined by it
or allowing it to determine the nature of their relationships.
This is one of the primary concerns of "Karuna, Inc.," a story built
around a wonderfully imagined alternative enterprise. Shenda Moore's Karuna,
Inc., is something of an anomaly in a capitalist economy: a business whose primary
objective is not product or profit, but "the creation of environmentally
responsible, non-exploitive, domestic based, maximally creative jobs."
Shenda, like many of Di Filippo's protagonists, makes her living by bucking
the system, but this time the system is represented by Marmaduke Twigg, a pathological,
amoral killer who is the embodiment of the mindless appetite and spiritual vacancy
at the heart of contemporary American capitalism. "Karuna, Inc." showcases
Di Filippo's ability to move effortlessly from comedy to tragedy and to weave
both into a story that is finely written and deeply moving.
The idea of alternative economies is also at the heart of "Harlem Nova,"
a story about culture's urge to impose an order that is neat and tidy, clean
and brightly lit. That order comes in the form of the Urban Conservation Corps,
whose well-intentioned urban renewal project hits a snag when it encounters
the intractable Sledge and his small community. Sledge's group has no wish to
join the mainstream and is happy living quietly in the cultural margins, cobbling
together a meaningful existence from the cast-off pieces of an economy built
on planned obsolescence. Those margins, however, are just what the UCC is out
to eliminate. It's an impasse with no clear solution, and the story's conclusion
is as inevitable as it is tragic.
"Spondulix" takes the idea of alternative economies to outrageous
extremes. The story is a rare gem even by Di Filippo standards, a clever, playful,
and hilarious story in which a struggling sandwich shop owner inadvertently
creates an alternate form of currency. Unable to pay his one employee, disgraced
Olympic diver and struggling sandwich shop owner Rory Honeyman comes up with
the idea of spondulix in a moment of desperation. Spondulix are initially coupons
redeemable for sandwiches, but Rory's ersatz notes quickly take on a life of
their own, circulating through series of increasingly complex exchanges. The
funniest moment of the story comes when one of Rory's friends proposes
to divorce spondulix from sandwiches. "I won't stand for it!" shouts
the enraged Rory. "They'll become nothing but . . . but money!" It's
a point that's been made before (that currency is little more than a collective
fiction) but seldom with as much ingenuity and wit. Worth, as they say, the
price of admission.
"The Mill" is probably the greatest departure from Di Filippo's modus
operandi. The story is a bittersweet pastoral that is about both the dangerous
attractions of the past and the inevitability of change. "The Mill"
is told primarily through the viewpoint of Charley Cairncross, a young boy about
to embark upon a lifetime career at the Mill, a sprawling series of textile
factories that dominate the social and economic life of the communities surrounding
it. The Mill is Charley's world, and its confines provide unchanging boundaries
to both his opportunity and experience. Those boundaries remain largely unquestioned,
but in the end Di Filippo reveals that the forces that have kept this community
in stasis are not natural but (quite literally) artificial. It's a rich and
complex story, and even as Di Filippo evokes sweetly bucolic scenes of after-work
picnics and ball games he is also revealing the ways in which the Mill's owners
distract their workers from acknowledging their own weariness and despair.
In his discussion of Strange Trades on Locus
Online, Nick Gevers points out that Di Filippo's work has always had an
uneasy relationship with SF proper, which has seemed unsure quite what to make
of him. Strange Trades, however, makes it clear that Di Filippo was one
of the major writers of the last decade, and a flurry of forthcoming work demonstrates
that he will continue to be a force into the next. Strange Trades, I
hope, will garner this talented, versatile, and wonderfully uncategorizable
writer the attention he so richly deserves.