I frequently bemoan the days when collections were more than just a jumbled pile of stories tossed together in any old order. Jeffrey Ford seems determined to revive those days, and he has crafted this collection (his second) with the same care and attention that he brings to crafting his individual stories. There are several distinct themes, each addressed with the quietly melancholy signature style that has sometimes led me to comment that Ford writes in the genre of sorrow.
The collection starts out somewhat slowly with "The Annals of Eelin-Ok," a minor-key lullaby that would benefit considerably from losing the lugubrious introduction wherein the narrator waxes lyrical on the taxonomy of sandcastle-dwelling fairies and his discovery of one such creature's autobiography. Once we get into the writing of Eelin-Ok himself, however, the pace picks up and we get an encapsulation of love and loss, adventure and contemplation, all in delicate miniature. Ford lets himself be an idealist here, granting Eelin-Ok all the nobility that seems to have been leached out of the king in "The Green Word"—another fairy tale, but one that falls ever so slightly flat in its stark contrast of aggressively paranoid castle-dwellers with the peacefully, lovingly vengeful people who live and work their green magic in a nearby forest. Both stories seem slightly uncomfortable with the nakedness of their morals, but for younger audiences or those willing to set aside deconstruction for a moment, they provide pleasant interludes in simple, right-and-wrong worlds.
Then "Jupiter's Skull" comes along and yanks the needle off the record with a different sort of allegory, a tale of a pair of archetypal roles that take on a life of their own as hungry, ravening beasts: chewing up and spitting out one couple after another, driving a woman to madness and a man to exile after a night of forced passion where they find themselves involuntarily speaking other people's words and acting out other people's lusts. No more Mr. Nice Author; no more nobly tragic deaths after a long life well lived, nor appropriately wretched demises of undeniably wretched people. Instead we get life at its grimiest, full of poor decisions and haste and pain and, again and always, sorrow. This cycle of desire and fear is balanced out by the Escher staircase of "Giant Land," a weaker and trippier recounting of people trapped in the parts they play. Every step is foreordained. Everyone is affected by the actions and decisions of those around them. Everyone is at someone's beck and call.
Manipulation, in fact, is the order of the day here. In "The Beautiful Gelreesh" people are manipulated by a strange creature into condemning the innocent and liberating the guilty. In "The Weight of Words" people manipulate one another with subliminal messages tucked into individual, carefully calibrated words and phrases; in "Summer Afternoon" anthropomorphized words manipulate people all on their own. In "A Man of Light" and the exquisite Nebula-winning title story, people with strangely altered minds manipulate the creations of their imaginations (or perhaps of their diseases and delusions). In "The Boatman's Holiday" Charon meets the writer of his myth and learns ways to manipulate the tale in which he was formerly only a character. Stepping back, all these could be read as metaphors for the author's craft: the characters are puppets and the writer has the strings, but the writer is also caught in his own spirals of theme and voice and what Elizabeth Bear calls the ur-story, the story that a writer cannot help telling over and again. Ford's ur-story is the ur-story. It is a testament to his talent that one can read and reread collections of his work and remain fascinated by all the different ways that he analyzes analysis and self-references the self-referential.
Ford’s hallmark autobiographical stories are present in full force. In "Botch Town," a substantial novella and the only previously unpublished piece in the collection, we see the narrator as a child, wide-eyed and curious and skeptical of so-called reality while wholeheartedly certain of things an adult might scoff at. The story is rich and subtle and layered, and despite its length, it feels very much like a small excerpt of a life and leaves the reader wanting a great deal more. Fortunately, there is more to be had. In "The Trentino Kid," Ford draws on the experiences of young adult life, a time of fumbling around in search of direction while surrounded by people who all seem to have made the wrong choices and ended up trapped and unhappy; in "A Night in the Tropics," he vividly recalls the entirely different awkwardness of an older adult coming home and encountering people who never escaped the confines of their small town. All three perspectives are drawn in clear and honest lines, with deliciously authentic dialogue and such subtle magic that one is never entirely sure whether the supernatural elements are genuine or merely in the heads of the characters.
The final story, "Coffins on the River," is a nightmare of a tale that takes a harsh look at the life of a writer whose creative well has gone dry. Like many of the others, it leaves you wondering how much of what you just read is the objective truth and how much just a drug trip gone deeply strange. That's rather the point, though. As this collection (and much of Ford's body of work) drives home over and over again, there is no objective truth; "real" and "in your head" are just two terms for the same thing. It's like an endless literary reiteration of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, reality as a sandy beach perpetually rearranged by the tides of observation and perception and belief.
Notes between the stories, deliberately invoking their real-world inspirations and publications (and incidentally cataloguing Ford's impressive array of awards and honors), give the reader a place to gulp fresh air before plunging into the next ocean of unreality. In direct opposition to the escapist majority, Ford makes sure you never forget that you are a reader entering into a peculiar transaction with an author, and he insists on obtaining your explicit consent to having your world turned inside out and upside down. Once you make the deliberate decision to turn the page and begin to read, you have placed yourself in his hands and all bets are off; but the existence of that first moment of choice makes it all the more poignant to become immersed in these strange and sad tales of people who make uninformed choices or have no choices at all. With eyes wide open—or open wide, in wonder and delight—it is a thrill and a joy to make this pact, to say yes and dive in again and again, and to emerge shaken and moved and satisfied.
Rose Fox is the result of a genetic experiment to create the perfect writer. Having escaped from the laboratory, she now roams the streets of New York, looking for inspiration in gutters and rainbows.