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Friday 5 July 2002

The Fantasy Writer's Assistant and Other Stories, by Jeffrey Ford
(Golden Gryphon Press, June 2002)

Reviewed by Nick Gevers

Call him an Architect of Dreams. Like Gene Wolfe, Jeffrey Ford writes oneirically, as if pulling his strange plots and even stranger settings straight from the dreaming centers of his brain. And like Wolfe, he is a master stylist, and his graceful, subtle prose forms fine extravagant garments for the dreams he reifies. Ford's novels — his trilogy of the Physiognomist Cley and his new masterpiece of historical magic realism, The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque — are mesmerizing, hallucinatorily oblique cathedrals (much-catacombed beneath) of meaning. Intricate cartographies of the subconscious. And now, with The Fantasy Writer's Assistant, Ford exhibits his equal skill with miniatures, yet more distilled representations of the fantastic underpinnings of human identity.

Michael Swanwick's introduction to this first Ford collection very ably sums up the "comprehending strangeness" of the author, his narrative roots in dream and the beguilingly enigmatic quality of his storytelling. Certainly one can believe that the sixteen tales in FWA are more intimately connected to the swirling interior of their creator's cranium than is customary, even in the field of fantastic surrealism. Jeffrey Ford is repeatedly a protagonist, but a dream Ford, doing dreamlike things, writing himself from the inside outwards, so that the ostensibly everyday world he inhabits is insinuatingly inverted, Otherwise. "Creation" (a gem of quiet brilliance, the eerie essentials of a Catholic childhood perfectly pinpointed) depicts the young Ford, or someone much like him, usurping from God the prerogative of Creating life, animating a golem that only a father (or Father) can restore to its rest. The golem is perceived mostly, or entirely, in dreams, waking nightmares…. And subsequently in FWA, Ford the writer avoids blasphemy, employing dreams as literary templates only, although the minor story "On the Road to New Egypt", with its vision of Christ and Satan on a raucous road trip with the adult Ford, may tread the boundary rather closely. "The Honeyed Knot", a masterclass in narrative construction telling of, well, classes in narrative construction, closely modeled on Ford's actual experience as a creative writing teacher, binds its fragments of personal mythology, dreamlike anecdote, and recondite history into a dazzling nexus of significance. But what exactly is signified? A similarly testing oneiric elusiveness attends "Bright Morning" (original to FWA), in which a Ford who is not Ford writes Fordlike fictions, and the real Ford, who is too Kafkaesque for his own good, always to his great frustration described thus by reviewers, may be nobody at all. Reading "Bright Morning", and "High Tea with Jules Verne", an author interview to exceed all others, one is apprised directly of Ford's literary influences, but they are not themselves, and all notions of creative lineage are tied in vastly entertaining knots. In the end, the reader comes to know Jeffrey Ford quite well, but the acquaintance is zanily suspect, like a meeting conducted in a dream...

Other stories in FWA are less overtly personal, but dreamscape always pokes through landscape. The title story's narrator, a young woman serving as amanuensis to a hack churner-out of barbarian-bodicerippers, hears vital life truths from sword-and-sorcery stereotypes, another's imagined characters speaking through more than just the page. Whatever his metafictional recomplications (the amanuensis is capable of deep literary artifice of her own), Ford is drawing morals: his stories have purposeful thematic statements to make, and his protagonists heed them. If their epiphanies are dreamlike, that simply reflects the necessary ambiguity and subconscious resonance of all genuine wisdom. There is no underlying evasiveness in Ford's craft, even if he occasionally is too aridly clever, as in the overly involuted "Out of the Canyon". "At Reparata" is a superb exercise in the pure fantastic, but it is also a closely reasoned course of psychotherapy for a mad King and his fancifully titled courtiers; fishing for bats and battling lethally omnivorous giant moths can all be part of a psyche's reintegration. The similarly textured "Pansolapia" — a Conanesque quest tale collapsed into a collage of simultaneous events — acts as a bizarrely acute guide to the anatomy of escapism. "Something By the Sea", one of FWA's original stories (and one of the finest short fantasies of 2002), is an astonishing panorama of dreams, dreams intersecting, cross-pollinating, ramifying, but a very concrete family portrait as well, rather like Wolfe's "The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories". "The Woman Who Counts Her Breath" is an intolerably vivid nightmare in prose, but quite circumstantial as a case study of the traumas informing everyday tics. Ford has an uncommon genius for such healing reconciliations of the outré with the ordinary. Pace his namesake Henry, Jeffrey Ford the fantasist nowhere asserts that reality is bunk...

And he also displays a deft hand at the techniques of that superficially more materially engaged genre, science fiction. "The Far Oasis", a refreshingly odd space opera and Robinson Crusoe hybrid, looks at the mechanics of forced genetic selection, with an accompanying eye to the dread shaping control of egotistical men over pliant women — perhaps a seed for The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque. "Exo-Skeleton Town", in which humans trade Hollywood's cinematic heritage for an overpowering alien aphrodisiac, explores questions of identity and obsession with sober intensity amidst the grim colorful farce of extraterrestrial adventure. "Floating in Lindrethool" is all about the agony of submission to corporate hierarchies and the ennui of the dead-end-job, even as it posits the replacement of personal computers with bottled brains. And "Malthusian's Zombie", the best of the SF entries, considers the ethics of technologies that render individual integrity a fiction, death a temporary inconvenience. If Ford writes more SF, his dream surrealism permeating further the notional objectivity and solidity of science-fictional trappings, that genre can only benefit with the sea change. These four stories are a remarkable start…

The Fantasy Writer's Assistant, a bevy of lucid dreams, is a wonderful collection, one of the most distinguished Golden Gryphon volumes so far. With further stories of note already appearing — "The Weight of Words" (Leviathan Three), "Summer Afternoon" (is this a cat?), "What's Sure To Come" (Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet) — a second book shouldn't be too long in coming. But whatever that prospect, Jeffrey Ford's short oeuvre is already one of the finest contemporary achievements in speculative fiction.

Nick Gevers, an editor at Cosmos Books, writes extensively on SF for a wide variety of publications. He produces two monthly columns for Locus, and his reviews and interviews have also recently appeared in the Washington Post Book World, Interzone (the March 2002 issue, of which he co-edited), Foundation, SF Site, and Infinity Plus. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.

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