Matthew Binder’s Pure Cosmos Club is a satire of the New York City art scene and of new age cults of personality. His protagonist Paul is an artist struggling to get the recognition he thinks he deserves for art, like his huge crucifix made of old cell phones. He takes care of a dog named Blanche, whose hindquarters sit in a tricycle-like contraption after being injured in an accident (caused by Paul). Blanche and Paul putter around the city as Paul narrates in first person, going on multiple narrative digressions like a Tintin cartoon—or a Pynchon or Calvino novel. These digressions last for pages, paragraphs, or sentences, and are wickedly funny. (I think the last time I laughed out loud so much was when I read Fear of a Nørb Planet, though I confess that for Pure Cosmos Club I didn’t mark the pages that made me crack up. I should have, in retrospect.)
The question of sanity is at the heart of every artist’s work—whether the muse is worth pursuing, and, if so, to what extent. Binder understands and highlights this struggle without being heavy-handed as Paul breezily details his encounters in the art world, all the while juxtaposing the squalid conditions he and Blanche live in (before being evicted for non-payment of rent). One of the satellites in his social orbit is a woman named Orsi, beautiful and obviously out of his league. Despite this seeming disparity, they start an on-again off-again relationship and through Orsi, Paul meets James, the Svengali of a questionable spiritual organization called—you guessed it—Pure Cosmos Club. Here Binder nods to Heaven’s Gate, Scientology, and to Jim Jones, in the way that James promises spiritual ascension, but for a price. And James is not afraid to move the goalposts to extract more wealth from people of means.
The rhetoric of the titular cult is at once hilarious and chilling in the way it echoes modern political discourse. One resonant passage comes after Paul witnesses James having sex with Orsi, then, later, visiting a strip club—all this comes after James tells his flock that celibacy is part of his spiritual platform. Paul tells another acolyte that James’s teachings are contradicted by his behavior, leading said acolyte to state that, “conflicting evidence increases the faith of the devout.” This do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do is all too familiar, as are those who are willing to gobble it up, whether the forum is art or spirituality. Hell, maybe I gobbled it up, an example of form following function as the narrator sold me a bill of goods I was initially skeptical of but strapped in and followed to the end regardless. A neat trick, to be sure.
At once wildly entertaining and deeply thoughtful, Pure Cosmos Club is a fun ride. –Michael T. Fournier (Stalking Horse Press, stalkinghorsepress.com)