In 1998, Jeffrey Ford won the World Fantasy Award for his second novel, The Physiognomy. Ford stated that before receiving news of his nomination he really had no idea what the World Fantasy Award was. Despite his lack of familiarity with the prize, however, Ford is no newcomer to the field. He's been contributing bold, stylish writing to the speculative fiction genre for many years. Ford's first book, Vanitas (1988, Space and Time Publications), can be regarded as a rehearsal for The Physiognomy. Some of his earlier short stories -- "The Alchemist," "Becalmed at Sea," and "Weeps" -- published in Space and Time, date back to 1989. And Ford's "Well-Built City Trilogy," which comprises The Physiognomy; the New York Times Notable Book of the Year, Memoranda; and The Beyond, a Best Fiction Book of 2001 selected by The Washington Post Book World, has been acclaimed as a masterwork of surrealism.
Broad recognition for Ford may have been slow in coming because his work has proven difficult to classify generically. In comments on his writing, he has stressed that for him and his work, genre is less important than the quality and thematic intent of the narrative. His stories emerge from his head, heart, and dreams, not from a genre. Only after the story has been transcribed and has found its way to readers can its genre be categorized. For Ford, it is the work of fiction that constitutes the genre, not the writer.
So Ford doesn't get bogged down in distinctions when writing. In fact, anything goes, and quite often Ford uses the bits and pieces of his dreams to carry his stories along. Like dreams, Ford's stories straddle the chasm between things manifest and things absurd in a realm where anything is possible. That modus operandi is delightfully evident in his first short story collection, The Fantasy Writer's Assistant and Other Stories.
A book of 16 diverse tales, including "Bright Morning" and "Something by the Sea," both written specifically for this Golden Gryphon Press collection, and the previously unpublished "Out of the Canyon," The Fantasy Writer's Assistant takes up a panoply of profound themes in ways that blur generic distinctions. The collection delves into consumerism and capitalism, religion and madness, in settings that range from the present to the far future to the never-were-nor-will-be. "Floating in Lindrethool" takes place in a futuristic world where human brains suspended in glass globes are the latest, greatest, and most cost-effective gadgetry with which to organize your life. Contemporary characters who find themselves living next to an enigmatic psychologist formerly involved in secret government projects are featured in the mysterious "Malthusian's Zombie." "On the Road to New Egypt" develops in more improbable directions as its protagonist chauffeurs a prankster Jesus Christ and an irksome Satan through the streets of New Jersey and beyond.
While Ford's stories certainly lean toward the playful and the out-outlandish, the extravagance of his fantastic premises is balanced by the palpability his characters and plots. Ford's copious use of autobiography helps to keep his stories close to real life. His self-insertions are not heavy-handed; mostly you learn about them in explanatory epilogues that supplement your take on plot, prose style, and character. They nevertheless significantly deepen the relationships between reader, writer, characters, and themes.
Ford's use of autobiography is strongest in "The Honeyed Knot," so it is unsurprising that this story teaches you the most about how his stories work. For the past 15 years, Ford has been a professor of Research Writing, Composition, and Early American Literature at Brookdale Community College in New Jersey. His students often inspire his writing with their own compositions and class assignments. In "The Honeyed Knot," no inspiration was needed. The events happened. As Ford tells it, the story is "99.9% true." He swears. And if so, there are some eerie phenomena occurring in those New Jersey suburbs.
"The Honeyed Knot" gets it title from the fifteenth-century, religio-philosophical book written by Nicholas Avramody, a text that offers the "honey knot" as metaphor for the "impossibly complex plot of human existence" and that within the knot, "all our lives touch and crisscross and bind together for good but unknowable reasons." The sweetness is that this "inexplicable mess" is God's plan for us.
Position that concept in step with a middle-aged writing student named Mrs. Apes who has a plate in her head and the inability to remember her dead daughter's name; a group of students who have stores of News of the World-type tragedies to relate; the professor, Mr. Ford, who must reason out the oddities in his classroom; and a dead, talking deer. Coincidence builds on coincidence, and strange things start affecting Ford's personal life.
As with most of Ford's writing, when you're submerged, you don't wish to be released, but you still scramble to reach a story's dramatic and satisfying wrap-up. That's especially true of "The Honeyed Knot."
Ford creates many different kinds of honeyed knots in his stories. The title story of the collection uses satire to create its sweet mess. Nominated for a 2001 Nebula Award and a 2001 Locus Award, "The Fantasy Writer's Assistant" is a comedic, pointed play on writing, literature, and, as its title suggests, the genre of fantasy. Early on, it's clear that Ford is planning a fun trip, and you're bound for a chuckle or two if you're along for the ride.
Ashmolean, the author of an ever-popular series of "doorstopper" fantasy novels (Glandar, the Sword Wielder of Kreegenvale!), is more caricature than character. He's "a giant sloth whose DNA has been snipped, tortured together with that of a man's." Undoubtedly, Ashmolean's been enmeshed in Kreegenvale for far too long.
Ashmolean hires Mary, the narrator of this adventurous tale, to be his research assistant. She must peruse Ashmolean's vast Kreegenvale chronicles to ensure that his new novels' fantasy worlds are free of "inconsistencies":
There was nothing he hated more than to go to a conference and have someone ask him, 'How could Stribble Flap the Lewd impregnate the snapping Crone of Deffleton Marsh, in Glandar Groans for Death, when Glandar had lopped off the surly gnome's member in The Unholy Battle of Holiness?'
As Ashmolean tries to write the conclusion to his latest, The Butcher of Malfeasance, he discovers that he is suddenly "blind" to Glandar, cannot fathom what his next move should be. He calls on Mary to create the ending for him. Her foray into writing is as vivid as it is instructive. She experiences firsthand that words can "breath[e] life into the impossible," and gains an inkling of her own future, in the process.
"The Fantasy Writer's Assistant" is hilarious and bitingly sarcastic. As an astute observer of the genre at which he pokes some fun, Ford shows that he has the lingo down and can replicate the construct. Ashmolean's writing may be "redundant, cliché-ridden hackwork" to some -- Ford doesn't judge -- but Ford's own stringing together of words offers originality and imagination.
"Make no mistake," Ford writes, "words have magic." Ford enforces this belief in "Creation," a charming, heavily autobiographical coming-of-age fable of a boy on a quest for knowledge. Influenced by catechism lessons with the aptly named and witch-like Mrs. Grimm (would you believe Ford's own CCD teacher was a Mrs. Grim?), the boy finds enchantment in the creation story of Adam and Eve. He gets the idea to try and "confer life" to a handmade "man," which he has constructed out of branches, bark, mushrooms, and fern. Deep in the woods, the boy "practice[s] creation," and much to his surprise, his man, Cavanaugh, comes alive.
Or does he? Ford's tale defies the explicit. "Creation" is enjoyably open-ended. You decide what is you wish to believe.
A touching subplot to "Creation" exists in the boy's relationship with his father. It's mutually respectful. The boy admires his father's no-nonsense attitude and weighs carefully his anti-religion pronouncements; the father supports the boy in his strange time of need.
Touching and charming are nowhere to be found "On the Road to New Egypt." Ford's second story with religious themes returns to his more flamboyant and uninhibited style. Indeed, the two stories could hardly be more divergent. Ford admits that he often "like[s] to party" with Christ, "horn-head," and sometimes the Buddha. That may explain the hallucinatory quality of this "remix of a contemporary legend."
Christ, the Devil, and the narrator/driver Jeff get high on Carthage Red dope; cruise around in the car; and appear in Florida to collect a Mrs. Lumley, who's rumored to make sainthood because of a spate of miracles she's recently performed. Things go horribly haywire for the hopped-up trio, but the story resolves as dreamily as it begins.
As an examination of the interdependence of Good and Evil, "On the Road" is fresh but profane, and some may find its irreverence unsettling. After all, it's not too often that you read about Christ and an ex-blonde bombshell "eat[ing] of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil for a few hours and then lay[ing] back, hav[ing] a smoke."
Is Ford disclosing important insights about belief systems in these two stories, which turn "Judeo-Christian mythology" upside down and inside out? Perhaps. Yet in Ford's world of writing, there's not necessarily a link between the literal and the figurative; this off-the-wall weirdness comes straight from his head.
Weird doesn't begin to describe the characters and peculiar chicanery that takes place in "Exo-Skeleton Town." Ford tells this creepy-crawly tale in the "melodramatic fashion of the black and white movies" he watched as a kid. It's a "creature feature" of outrageous proportion, and while reading it you just might get the feeling that bugs are tickling on your skin.
On a very out-of-the-way planet, a giant flea-like entity named Stootladdle is mayor of Exo-Skeleton Town, the "dung-rolling capitol of the universe, where the sun never shines and bug folk barter their excremental wealth for Earth movies almost two centuries old."
What? Dung as commodity? Yes. But wait, there's more. This "freasance" has cashé back on Earth. Scientists discover that, when ingested, the freasance proves to be an unbelievably effective aphrodisiac for earthlings. A twenty-year, government-operated, mutually beneficial trade-off of bug dung for Earth's ancient Hollywood films of the 1940s develops. Things get dicey when the earthlings reach the limit of the '40s movie library and they try to peddle films themselves. As you might expect, rules are broken, black markets crop up, and crackdowns on illicit dealings follow.
To reach the bug planet, an earthling must embark on a year's journey in a spaceship and be outfitted in an essential, protective "exo-suit." Improvements to this ill-fitting gear occur throughout the years, so that now earthlings can arrive at Exo-Skeleton Town in an "exo-skin" that looks exactly like any Hollywood star of choice: Rita Hayworth, Clark Gable, and, of course, Bogie. It's a clever little trick being played on Stootladdle and the Beetle Squad.
However clever the trick, it has unhappy consequences for the people who play it. Human lives have no real significance in "Exo-Skeleton Town." If you must hide your identity -- your true self -- behind a preconceived image, then freedom is just a dream.
While Ford's "Exo-Skeleton Town" draws on the negation of the human spirit in a world where its inhabitants are "strung out on loneliness," "At Reparata," the collection's fairy tale, reclaims the human spirit by invoking harmony, a dedication to benevolence, and fellowship. Ford exchanges dehumanization for re-humanization, and the effect is provocative and incisive.
At the Palace Reparata, in a kingdom created by the generous and gregarious Ingess (or His Royal, as he insists on being called), the practice of "equanimity" is its very "soul": No one who stands and beseeches before the palace gates is ever turned away. Therefore, Reparata is populated by a "royal retinue" of wandering outcasts -- prostitutes, lunatics, assassins, highwaymen -- whose lives are transformed by the whimsical titles they receive from His Royal and the communal responsibilities that go with them. The grace of Reparata is threatened, however, when the queen Josette dies and His Royal becomes completely unraveled by grief. The courtiers, especially the thoughtful "High and Mighty of Next Week" who narrates the story, seek out a cure for His Royal's sorrow. They discover the harsh price that must be paid for his restoration: only by sloughing off the old can the new be welcomed. Yet, in the way of fairy tales, when they sacrifice all they have gained, they recover themselves and their beloved Ingess.
The Fantasy Writer's Assistant, a powerful and solid collection, astonishes with its knots of strangeness, humanity, and inventiveness. While attempting to unravel these tangles of the inscrutable and the uncanny, Ford takes you on odysseys through time and space. He formulates a kind of complex circularity where reality and fictional creations depend on one another and may become impossible to tell apart. But, have no fear; Ford is not elusive. His brand of fiction is accomplished with an original voice, a satirical wit, and a reverence for human emotion. The Fantasy Writer's Assistant rates as a superb accomplishment in fiction. It underscores Ford as one of today's finest writers.
Amy O'Loughlin is an award-winning book review columnist and freelance writer. Her work has appeared in American History, Worcester Magazine, The Boston Book Review, Calyx, and Moxie. She is a contributor to the anthology of women's writing Women Forged in Fire and the upcoming reference work The Encyclopedia of the World Press. Her previous publications at Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive.