Read The Fantasy Writer’s Assistant Online
Authors: Jeffrey Ford
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The Fantasy Writer's Assistant
and Other Stories
This book is for Jack and Derekâ
Some stories for all of the beautiful stories
you have given me.
INTRODUCTION: THE COMPREHENDING STRANGENESS OF JEFFREY FORD by Michael Swanwick
THE FANTASY WRITER'S ASSISTANT
THE WOMAN WHO COUNTS HER BREATH
The Comprehending Strangeness of Jeffrey Ford
It begins with dreams. Jeff ford tells me that he gets a lot of his ideas for stories from dreams, and I believe it. They have that feel. They float a few crucial inches above reality. They obey a narrative logic that is not that of the waking world. They have that eerie beauty that the better sorts of dreams can have.
But though the translation of even the most generous dream into a sensible narrative is a prodigious task, if that's all these stories were, I would not be writing this introduction. A lucid intelligence is at work here as well.
Consider “At Reparata.” It begins deep in the domain of Dream with Flam, titular High and Mighty of Next Week, standing on a cliff at twilight, fly-fishing for bats. This is a wonderful conceit, but a dangerous one. Immediately the story is situated so far from consensus reality that it threatens to break free entirely and float off into the empyrean of pure whimsy. Yet with craft and cunning Ford reels the story in and rationalizes it not all the way to the domain of the Real, perhaps, but certainly into the realm of Fantasy. A wealthy eccentric has established an absurdist monarchy at Castle Reparata, and there provides a haven for the outcasts and broken souls of the world. A prostitute is made a Countess, a madman becomes the Philosopher General, a highwayman is declared Bishop to the Crown. But when the queen dies, His Royal falls into a melancholy that threatens the realm, and Flam goes in search of a healer.
At this point, we all know how this story is going to play out and the lessons (about people becoming the roles that they assume, mostly) that we're supposed to take from it. Except that's not the story being told. Ford has better images and more original lessons in mind for us. Images and lessons that exist somewhere between the fluid unreliability of pure imagination and the dull predictability of the conventional well-made story.
Sometimes the dreams are nightmares.
A salesman opens his sample case to reveal a human brain floating in a bottle. “Floating in Lindrethool” is ostensibly set in our near future, when new technology has made silicon-based computers obsolete. But the hard-bitten and cynical salesmen, with their hats and cheap hotels, come straight out of Depression-era America. It is a gritty noir scenario, and it comes complete with a gritty noir love story. But there's comedy there as well. Slackwell, the Sad Sack of a salesman who is this story's hero, undergoes a series of almost ritual humiliations, attacked by a bishop, hammered on the foot by a housewife with higher-than-average sales resistance. His nightmarish situation is comic, and so is his romance. But the comedy, rather than alleviating the horror, intensifies it.
A man trapped in his job, a brain trapped in a jar, a woman trapped in her dreams. How could they possibly be worse off than they are now? Well â¦ they could lose the self-delusions that make their lives bearable. They could become aware of exactly how ridiculous they are. That, rather than death or dismemberment, is the Damoclean sword that hangs over this tale.
“Floating in Lindrethool” may be a horror tale or (for it has a perfectly unexpected happy ending) fantasy, or we can accept the initial rationalization and dub it science fiction. Ford's works evade easy categorization. Many could be fit into any of these three realms. Most would rest uneasily in whatever category they were placed. Genre boundaries melt in their presence.
In “High Tea with Jules Verne,” for example, a nameless reporter interviews not the pioneering science fiction writer, but what seems to be a physical avatar of his subconscious mind. The master of rationality is turned inside out and remade into a dadaist ringmaster of the id. His characters infest his house like mice, and like mice must be trapped and exterminated. The founding father of a quintessentially rationalistic genre is made into a Maestro of Unreason. Surrealism, recursive criticism, simple literary playfulnessâwhatever this is, it is not SF, save by the loosest of standards.
Nor is “Exo-Skeleton Town.” Though it takes place on an alien planet, whose atmosphere necessitates that humans wear protective exo-skeletons, it fails as science fiction in that it simply cannot be taken literally. I have heard Jeffrey Ford referred to as “the consummate inverter,” and here he proves the validity of that title by turning everything inside out. In a neat reversal, his people physically inhabit movie stars, living within exo-skeletal simulacra of Marilyn Monroe and Humphrey Bogart and other cultural icons. They have colonized the stars that in our world have colonized our imaginations. Their true identities have become perilous secrets. The estrangement and interminable exile of modern urban life at its worst has been literalized in the deceitful pursuit of a product that is explicitly unworthy of such sacrifice.
You could write a thesis on this story's metaphoric take on the sins of late capitalism. Or you can simply let the dreamlike weirdness of the narrative carry you away. Whatever genre this might be, it is wonderful stuff.
Ford's fiction takes you by surprise. It undercuts all your assumptions. “Creation” begins with the Baltimore Catechism, that font of doctrinal certainty, and falls swiftly through the essential mystery of life to arrive smack-dab at the Unknowable. The young narrator, acting on a compulsion he does not understand, builds a log man out in the woods. “A large hunk of bark that had peeled off an oak was the head. On this I laid red mushroom eyes, curved barnacles of fungus for ears, a dried seedpod for a nose. The mouth was merely a hole I punched through the bark with my penknife.” In a dream, a saint tells him his creation's name is Cavanaugh. Then Cavanaugh comes to life, and begins to haunt the boy.
Only, maybe not. The physical evidence is not compelling. Further, the lad is entering his adolescence, prey to subterranean ocean storms of emotion. He may be projecting his fear of a meaningless universe onto a literal stick figure. But while two separate readings of events are offered the reader, the story resolutely refuses to collapse its possibilities into one or the other. Believe what you will, the story says, in the fantastic or the workaday, in God or in Nothing, you're still looking at one and the same world.
This sort of effectâthis dance of the literal and the figurativeâis achievable only in prose. And Jeff Ford's prose is a highly idiosyncratic thing. Words come unstuck from their original meanings. The first name of Cellini's sister becomes the name of a castle. The adjective for a particular insight into the perils of overpopulation becomes an Armenian-American scientist. It is best not to pursue these meanings because they lead nowhereânot at any rate to the author's intentions. They are evocative, but what they evoke goes beyond the saying.
An extreme example of Ford's peculiar verbal alchemy is “Pansolapia,” in which time has been abolished, at the cost not only of sequence but of causality. Dreaming of his fate-to-come, a sailor decides not to travel beyond the end of the world, and so gives birth to a dream-child. Simultaneously he drowns on his return from that ill-fated journey to a place where lion-men can speak but only in a language that has no meaning. Drowning, he enters a castle. Waking, he finds himself aboard the ship. These are not separate fates but aspects of the same thing experienced all at once. He is contained within a sorceress's dream, just as she is contained in his. But dreams can kill, and their consequences cannot be contained. Elsewhere, Ford writes, “Make no mistake, words have magic.” Never more so than here.
If a lion could speak, Wittgenstein tells us, we could not understand it. More famously, he said, “That of which we cannot speak, we must pass over in silence.” If I have made Ford seem cryptic and elusive, it is not because he is trying to mystify the reader but because he is in hot pursuit of truths that are extremely difficult to put into words.