Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Way He Does It

Due to the infinite generosity of author Jeffrey Ford, I now have an ARC of his forthcoming (November 2008) collection of sixteen short stories, The Drowned Life. There are also several "special features" after the stories: an interview, a piece about the book, an excerpt of The Shadow Year (which I haven't read yet, mea culpa!), and a "Have you read?" section recommending other titles. Very cool. Thank you!!

I'll be blathering on about the stories over several posts. Meantime, let me recapitulate my thoughts on three of his pieces (one of which is in the collection) which I read this year.

On "The Drowned Life," the title piece:

Hatch's "bailing technique" has grown rusty and he goes under, sinking into the Drowned World. This is the first story of the LRSF list that truly knocked the air right out of my fucking reading lungs. It's an extraordinary invention. It contains more mind-expanding newness, paragraph by paragraph, than any of the stories I've read so far, and it was emotionally arresting, a steamroller that flattened and squished me and left me arranged in a new shape when I re-assembled myself into quotidian three-dimensionality. This story contains the Other. It was so good I stopped reading it for a few moments just before the end and paced myself: You Know What I'm Talking About. It's already received multiple readings. Seek it out.

I'm pretty sure I'll have more thoughts on the above story. It just took some to "sink in."

On "After Moreau":

Ford does a lot in these nineteen-hundred words. He gives his first-person narrator, Hippopotamus Man, a distinctly telling voice that does more showing than telling. The non-exposition exposes a tightly constructed panorama in which all kinds of details regarding the aftermath of Moreau's experiments are brought to somatic life through consistent Hippo-lens.

When I started this story I was immediately cautious that Ford's prose might contain some kind of Noble Savage Message, and to my great relief it didn't. (It also didn't contain the equally odious Ignoble Savage Message.) True to form, there is no Message except that revealed by the actions and emotions presented in the story. There's a certain sense of post-modern detachment to the viewpoint construction, and Ford's version of the modified beast's Seven Precepts ("1. Trust don't Trust 2. Sleep don't Sleep" etc.) neatly inserts an existentialist note (it brought to my mind Beckett's "I can't go on. I'll go on."). The ending establishes narrative plausibility while at the same time tying the story perfectly back to those irresistible first few lines and providing emotional depth.

Ok, so Dr. Moreau is a character invented by Wells, and other characters in Wells' story are now telling us, through Ford's story, what really happened after Moreau's death, and how Wells got it wrong. There are also references to subsequent adaptations of Wells' story. But Ford has this material under such tight control there isn't the slightest sense of convolution or cutesy in the narrative framework. It goes beyond meta-narrative, since it's recursive as well. It's a genetic narrative in flux. And, like one those injections, it leaves us transfigured, a little closer to an interior understanding of Coleridge's reconciliation of opposites.

(Ford has stated in his blog that " 'After Moreau' is one of a series of stories I've been writing recently I'd like to collect some day under the title Lives of the Mad Scientists." Bring on the mutations!)

On "Daltharee":

If you ever encounter a bottled city named “Daltharee” created by the mad scientist Mando Paige, you should have no doubt that you’ve entered the zany and endlessly inventive world of Jeffrey Ford. This wonderfully evocative, chilling, hilarious story explores the origins of Daltharee and its future. One of the story’s many strengths is Ford’s use of the point of view of research scientists investigating the bottled city. By the second page, in droll fashion, we’re explicitly told: “And please, there was no magic involved.” Of course, Ford then proceeds to describe magical things in a nostalgic retro-scientific lingo that evokes the best of the pulps, updated for twenty-first century readers, but doesn’t for a second attempt to persuade us that this is not magical. This technique of negation and wink-anti-negation is perfectly suited to Ford’s dream-logic (in this story, two fundamental breakthroughs are literally gleaned from dreams). Ford excels at upping the speculative stakes. In addition, his characterization of Mando Paige is unforgettable. I can’t praise this one enough. If, as Jorge Luis Borges wrote, “Writing is nothing more than a guided dream,” then Ford is one of our best guided dreamers.
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