Tangent Online Review

Jeffrey Ford. Say the name aloud. Let the syllables roll off your tongue. This is a writer's name, with worthy prosody and pleasing phonology. The Fantasy Writer's Assistant and Other Stories. Another name, this time a title, with a certain engaging modesty to it. Also modeled on good principles of rhythm and sound. Settle comfortably into those two ideas, name and title, and open the book.

The Fantasy Writer's Assistant was a pleasure to read and review. Some stories I cared for more than others, and a few were stellar. I had read perhaps a third of this collection in the pieces' various original appearances, so seeing them was like encountering old friends — "The Honeyed Knot," "Floating in Lindrethool." Others were new to me, bursting into my consciousness like fireworks — "Something by the Sea," "At Reparata." But one stands head and shoulders above the rest — "Creation," which originally appeared in the May, 2002 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. At the moment, that is hands down the best story I have read this year, and on the very short list of the best stories I have read in my life. (My wife, who reads little genre fiction other than my own, and not much of that, was impressed with the story when I forced F&SF upon her.) Editor Marty Halpern chose to open the book with "Creation," a clash of cymbals that echoes all the way through and on out into life. The collection goes on through a diverse territory, the texture of Ford's imagination reflecting the colors of the reader's own.

So say the name again. Go on. "Jeffrey Ford." Now say "Creation." See how they fit together? Now read it, and the rest of the book, including the fine introduction by Michael Swanwick. I dare you to say I am wrong.

Having said so much about this story already, I'll pass lightly over it in detail. "Creation" is an excruciatingly fine example of what I call shark-in-muddy-waters world building, where vast and important facts are revealed to the reader through the little slivered cracks of detail. Like a shark, brushing by you in muddy water, so you are left only with a scrape upon your leg and the memory of rough-textured skin from which to extrapolate monsters. This is a story about the strangeness of the quotidian world, how children cannot tell eerie for ordinary, and what happens to the things in which we believe, all told with a stunning economy of prose. And the father is a hero for us all.

"Out of the Canyon" is, perhaps unconsciously, a lovely slipstream homage to Heinlein's "By His Bootstraps." Not quite as close-ended as Heinlein's seminal work, "Out of the Canyon" concentrates on an ancient curse that is active across improbable stretches of time and coincidence, spiraling in on itself at a mysterious southwestern omphalos of the world.

A disarming conceit permeates "The Fantasy Writer's Assistant," one that from a less deft writer might have been a screaming telegram from the false modesty division. Stories about writers writing about writing are hard to write with any worthy sensibility, but Ford does it. For my money though, the howlingly funny excerpts from the (hopefully) mythical fictional land of Kreegenvale are the true gem of this piece.

You call it Go, we call it Maize. Cast within a brief scholarly frame tale, "The Far Oasis" tells of love gone so bad that it has evolutionary consequences, all in the context of an abstract, powerful game called Maize. The bitter power of lost desire and homesickness permeates this story like a parable for every divorce, every breakup, every petty vengeance ever wrought by one lover upon another.

"The Woman Who Counts Her Breath" sets the reader up to despise a character, then walks through her backstory until we reach a détente with our own expectations. This story is as sly and bitter as "The Far Oasis," told with the sensibility of John Updike rather than James Blish. And, as Ford tells us in the story notes, a dash of Freud.

Guy Gavriel Kay has made a career out of writing mannered high fantasy about excruciating courts, blood intrigue and moonlit affairs. "At Reparata" is a piece at slantwise with that tradition, stretching from E. R. Eddison to Kay, a modern fairy tale with a helping of dispossession. At Reparata, a court fabricated from an empty hazelnut and generous portion of funds, one's role in life stands in place of one's inner meaning. Reparata's end, death by moth, drives the courtiers out of their roles into their true meanings. I take it as a story of hope.

"Pansolapia" is a difficult piece of flash fiction, winding in on itself like the original Labyrinth, or perhaps the original Gordian knot. Theseus has not come with Ariadne's string, and Alexander and his sword are absent, so the reader struggles with some astonishing prose and vivid imagery to wonder what was at the center? Or like an onion, is there only another layer.

Remember "Town Without Pity?" It's the old Perry Mason theme song. Hum a few bars and set it running through your mind before reading "Exo-Skeleton Town." Maybe stick a gat and fifth of Jack in the drawer and tug down your fedora. This is science fiction qua Raymond Chandler, with a heaping spoonful of William S. Burroughs and bugs, by God, all over me, get them off! Joseph Cotten guest stars in the Hellstrom Chronicles. It damned near defies description and is a striking story to boot.

"The Honeyed Knot" is a complicated story that is deceptively simple. Ford, the English teacher, writes about Ford, the English teacher. According to the notes, story-Ford's experiences parallel writer-Ford's experiences. And he pulls simple sadness and ordinary evil ("a sinister Dutch-boy haircut") into a meditation on how synchronicity permeates all of life.

Leonard Cohen said, "All men will be sailors until the sea shall free them." Humans sail the seas of story, our every waking thought woven into narrative. Ideas aren't as simple as propositions and resolved thusly we shall debate. "Something by the Sea" tackles this premise at a deeper level, weaving story together across frames of tale and into the life of Math the dog (also the name of a mythical Irish king) and the crew of the good ship The Mare. Who escapes, and into what, resolves indistinctly into a haze of violet smoke and the blood of Neptune's Daughter.

"The Delicate" is Ford's vampire story, written small in the town of Absentia and as a study for Ford's award-winning novel The Physiognomy. There is a great deal of human stupidity in this story, and some lovely prose.

"Malthusian" is a strange name for a character, given the specific meaning of the word. "Malthusian's Zombie" is even stranger, given Malthus' associations with death on the grandest of scales. Only an economist could be so grim. Or, in Ford's world-of-story, a psychologist who spent his working life deep programming killers in the name of Cold War security. There is a clever but ultimately unexplained transition at the end that steps outside the nominal bounds of the story's level of realism, but it was a satisfying read.

Christ and the Devil and some guy driving a car meet an old woman with tentacles and an anger management problem. Absurdism rampages through "On the Road to New Egypt," along with some trenchant observations about salvation and life in suburban New Jersey.

When I first read "Floating in Lindrethool" as a reviewer, for its original appearance at SCI FICTION, the story dogged me for a long time. It has more of Ford's quirky world building, and a deep sense of the pointlessness of everyday endeavor — Death of a Salesman over and over, supported not by middle-aged incompetence but by a genuine, certifiable Establishment conspiracy. Even the name bothered me, and I spent hours on the Web trying to parse out "Lindrethool," until Jeff Ford told me he'd just made it up. In a post-Enron world, or maybe at a later read, the story has shifted some of its meaning for me, but lost none of its power.

Another bit of rampant absurdism, "High Tea with Jules Verne" races through a brief encounter with the Great Author and his little pest problem. It's a love note to the past, to pulps and Golden Age science fiction and the things we all care about as genre readers, even if only as history.

"Bright Morning" is the final story in this collection, and it's another Ford-on-Ford story. This one is Ford-the-writer writing about Ford-the-writer from the competing point of view of Ford-the-writer. In a sense, it's a response to nitpicking editors and small-minded critics and dense reviewers and irritated readers. In another sense, it's a response to clever editors and perceptive critics and thoughtful reviewers and grateful readers. It's another story whose central conceit is so permeated with hubris that only a writer of Ford's astonishing understatement can pull it off. Frankly, it's not quite as smoothly done as "The Honeyed Knot," but it ends better.

The Fantasy Writer's Assistant and Other Stories
by Jeffrey Ford
Golden Gryphon Press, Urbana, IL, August, 2002
$23.95 (US), $35.95 (Canadian)
ISBN: 193084610X

— Jay Lake, Tangent Online, Posted on 2002-07-15

*All Content Copyright Tangent Online 1997-2003*


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