As several of us noted in our year in review pieces a couple of months back, 2005 was something of a banner year for SF story collections, and 2006 shows every sign of continuing that trend. Here, for example, is Jeffrey Ford's second collection, The Empire of Ice Cream, including 13 stories originally published between 2002 and 2005 and one beautiful new novella, "Botch Town," original to this collection. I don't have a particularly good memory for story titles, and often have to flip through a story I'd read some time earlier to remind myself what it was all about. With Ford, this isn't a problem; looking now at the contents of The Empire of Ice Cream, every title brings an individual, sensuous, and haunting world vividly to mind, and a few — like the opening story "The Annals of Eelin-Ok" — leap forth as almost instant classics of short fantasy. This may mean simply that Ford has a talent for writing distinctive titles, but I think there's more to it than that. It may be, as Jonathan Carroll says in his introduction, that "Ford sees wonder everywhere and embraces it fully," but it's more than that, too. Ford has a terrific imagination, of course, able to find epic potential in such detritus of everyday life as a disintegrating sandcastle (the setting of "The Annals of Eelin-Ok"), but that's his job as a fantasy writer. What makes Ford such a distinctive voice — what made his brilliant novel The Girl in the Glass seem like such an effective fantasy when it wasn't really a fantasy at all — is, I suspect, largely purely literary in nature, a unique combination of sensibility and technique, and a masterful awareness of what subtle shifts in angle of vision are needed to make a story resonate. Ford is not a sentimental writer, but he's a writer of deep sentiment, and he knows how to use the techniques of sentiment to get the effects he wants.
Look, for example, at how often he uses chronology shifts to displace his narrative in time, and how this familiar technique gives different kinds of resonance to different kinds of stories. "The Annals of Eelin-Ok" begins with the narrator's memory of something he was told as a child, then shifts to a five-year-old girl finding a conch shell on the beach in 1999, then finally arrives at the central narrative, found in a microscopic manuscript inside the shell, the "annals" of the title, the magical memoir of a sandcastle fairy whose entire life is contained within the brief life of the children's sandcastle he inhabits. In "Jupiter's Skull," however, the time shifts give the story a Borgesian magic realist flavor, as the narrator recalls the death of an old woman shopkeeper in an obscure district of the city, then discusses with a local prostitute tales of the old woman and the strange skull she kept in her shop, and finally moves out of the district altogether, only to learn that no one on the outside has ever heard of it, and no letters can get through. But years later the narrator, now a successful poet, meets a stranger at a book-signing who claims to have just returned from there. "The Beautiful Gelreesh" describes a half-human, half-canine monster who uses his talent for empathy and pity to change his appearance and lure his victims to death, after which he devours their bodies. But his own history is only revealed after he's captured and tried, and the story's ending shifts forward centuries to a graduate student trying to uncover the legendary gelreesh's remains.
If there's a characteristic way that Ford manipulates time and memory, however, it's in stories with more domestic and realistic settings, often employing elements of autobiography and making strategic use of childhood viewpoints. The Long Island bar with its huge mural of a tropical beach in "A Night in the Tropics" is first described as a childhood memory, but then becomes a symbolic backdrop for what is essentially a horror tale, as the adult narrator returns to the bar and meets a hooligan from his childhood days, who in turn tells of his life of petty crime and the cursed chess set that he has unwittingly stolen. "The Trentino Kid" is in many ways a traditional ghost story, set in a clamming community in Long Island where a boy who drowned months earlier returns just as the narrator's boat is endangered by a sudden storm (though whether the ghost is there to rescue the narrator or to lead him to death isn't initially clear). And Ford's most direct celebration of his own childhood, "Botch Town" (the title refers to a makeshift model of the town built by the narrator's brother in his basement), is an almost leisurely but brilliantly textured portrait of a beloved community and family, whose darker elements seem only fodder for mystery and adventure to kids who've not yet lost their sense of wonder and possibility. In each of these tales, the fantasy element is carefully modulated to support rather than displace the sharp and sympathetic portraits of working class lives that are one of Ford's great strengths as a writer. The same is true of "Coffins on the River," in which two aging buddies, one a failed painter and the other a failed novelist, still experiment with drugs together and, in a rare moment of engagement with the world, get involved in trying to help rescue a child who's been abducted. It's as clear an evocation as I've seen of why artists persist in the face of obscurity, and of why outsider art exists at all.
In general, I think Ford's characteristic mode lies more with these stories than with his redactions of more familiar myth and fairy-tale material, such as "Boatman's Holiday" (which revisits Dante and the myth of Charon), "The Green Word" (his take on a version of the Green Man legend), and "Giant Land" (which ingeniously revisions material from "Jack and the Beanstalk") — all of which, according to Ford's story notes, were written in response to specific invitations. As Carroll says in the introduction, there's not a bad story in the book, but these perhaps come closer to traditional fantasy variations. There's a third category of Ford story, however, that lies somewhere between the auto-biographical and the redactive, and that seems to lead in directions almost unique in modern fantasy. Sometimes these are little more than literary conceits, such as the brief "Summer Afternoon," in which a phrase from Henry James gets loose in the writerly world. Others address questions of art and reality in ways that are stunningly original. The narrator in "The Weight of Words," again remembering events from decades later, describes his involvement with a lonely obsessive who claims to have devised a kind of algebra of words, enabling him to encode subliminal messages in any piece of writing. The title character in "A Man of Light" is a brilliant but reclusive artist with an uncanny talent for manipulating light, who grants an exclusive interview with a young reporter, revealing secrets that may be part cosmic myth and part simple psychopathology. And the brilliant title story of the collection, "The Empire of Ice Cream," is almost certainly the finest fantasy story yet written about synaesthesia, which here becomes far more than a neurological anomaly but a means of glimpsing an alternate reality, as the narrator — again remembering events over a period of decades — realizes that the flavor of coffee ice cream can conjure visions of a girl whose own synaesthetic experiences enable her to have visions of him. Whose reality is the true one, then? Like the very different "Annals of Eelin-Ok," this is some kind of masterpiece, and to find two such classics in the same volume is reward enough, even without the manifest excellence of the other tales.
— Gary K. Wolfe, Locus, April 2006