Sunday, June 22, 2008

Book #19, The Drowned Life, Jeffrey Ford



You’ve got to see the way Jeffrey Ford does it. There is little doubt that extraterrestrials have contacted him by way of an AM radio channel, and he is surely possessed by the Holy Ghost. The Drowned Life, forthcoming in November 2008 (pre-order it now), gathers up sixteen waking dreams into what may be the best collection of the year, real or otherwise.

Dreams obsess Ford. Oneirology is the scientific study of dreams—but what about their study through fiction? We need a new word for this man. Just about every story in this hallucinatory collection contains at least one reference to them, and they often form an integral part of the structure and plot. Through absolutely no fault of Ford, I fell into a gentle doze whilst reading the beautiful “The Dismantled Invention of Fate.” Nick Gevers has described this story, which Ford dedicated to Michael Moorcock, as “exotic and timeless in feel, a dreamlike, circular confection.” It is. The structure is perhaps more than circular, as if two great circles intersected and the reader was transposed from the spokes inside one to the spokes inside the other by way of a perpendicular crossing, so that by the end everything looks the same but different. As I dozed for a few minutes I found myself moving along these dream-spokes—visions of alien planets, destiny-thwarting contraptions, spiritual love transcending space and time. When I woke and returned to finish the story I wondered whether this has been part of the author’s plans.

Ford was interviewed in the June 2008 issue of Locus. When discussing his short fiction, he says:

“What I like about stories is, I put everything I have into doing them, but every time out I get to play a new game: different structures, different ways of seeing it. I did a lot of stories based on autobiography. Then I got tired of that and moved on to something else. Now I’m doing more science fiction stuff, but very twisted, almost comic-book science fiction–darkly humorous. More science-fantasy than SF, I guess.”

These impressively-crafted tales do literally contain “everything” and are without a doubt “twisted,” in multiple ways. They sample both the autobiographical and science-fantasy modes. At times the writing is so good it baffles the mind. In “The Bedroom Light” the two main characters are attempting to describe the feeling of their place of residence, and some of what they come up could easily apply to Ford’s short story writing:

“It kind of gives like flesh. Almost spongy.”

And:

“There’s a sinister factor to this place. [...] The gravity of the past that was here when we moved in. [...]”
“Like melancholy?” he asked.
“Yeah, exactly--a sadness.”

That there certainly is. It seems that whatever Ford captures, his artist’s eye naturally draws out the sepia, the grey, the specks and discolorations of longing and alienation. “The Drowned Life” may be a hyper-metaphorical political statement, but it also includes this deep melancholy, this condition of Ford’s vision, which can surely not be condensed from any specific administration. Time and again we follow him as he takes us down under in one form or another, from Drowned Town to a grotto Under the Bottom of the Lake, on a crystal submarine expedition to a cave beneath the sea In The House of Four Seasons, on and on. “In The House of Four Seasons” probably deserves the prize for meta-layering in its opening sequence, which my own dad described as the verbal equivalent of M.C. Escher.

Highlights include: “The Drowned Life,” which has just been chosen for inclusion in this year’s Best American Fantasy anthology; "The Dreaming Wind," currently a Theodore Sturgeon Award finalist; “The Manticore Spell,” a touching tale of otherworldly wizardry; “The Night Whiskey,” with its surreal and unforgettable deathberry consumers; "The Scribble Mind," an artful, compelling appeal to primordial memories and those who "remember"; and "The Way He Does it," the uproarious 2007 World Fantasy Award Nominee about unspecified gymnastics.

If there is one fault I can find with any of these stories, it is the occasional hand-waving of the word “evolution,” though perhaps Ford does not intend it in the conventional scientific sense and it too should be interpreted through the refraction of rippling waters.

Make sure to check out the author’s blog—given the numerous references to “real” things that pepper these stories (grandfather, sons, wife, clam boat, trip to Montana, etc.), it’ll make the whole experience even freakier.

Here is another early review.
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