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The Fantasy Writer's Assistant
Jeffrey Ford
Golden Gryphon, 247 pages

The Fantasy Writer's Assistant
Jeffrey Ford
Jeffrey Ford's first novel was Vanitas. His second, The Physiognomy, won the World Fantasy Award. He lives in New Jersey.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Memoranda
SF Site Review: The Physiognomy

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka


"Jeffrey Ford -- the Bertolt Brecht of Fantasy."
Well, not that anyone asked me, but that's my snappy PR blurb for this author and his current collection of short stories. While reading The Fantasy Writer's Assistant I was struck by how Jeffrey Ford, like Brecht, often pointedly calls attention to the artifice he's created. In revealing the "man behind the curtains" who fools us while terrifying us, Ford, again like Brecht, bends reality to clarify the more unsettling aspects of the human conundrum.

Ford's characters are often writers or creators of some sort. The title story concerns how a clerical assistant to a famous hack writer of a lucrative fantasy franchise has to step in to finish a book when the author suffers writer's block. The ending -- of both the novel in the story and the story itself -- turns out differently than planned. In the short commentary that follows each of the yarns in this wondrous collection, Ford says of this particular piece, "The story is about Fantasy and genre and literature and writing, but for me it is most importantly about two individuals and their relationship... in some ways autobiographical, in some ways not." Of course, he's not going to tell us what is autobiographical or not. Even if he did, it would be largely beside the point. Take for example, the "The Honeyed Knot," a parable of how our lives inextricably entangle with the fate of strangers, in which the protagonist is Ford himself in a story he swears is "99.9% true." Whether in fact it is made up or not does not negate that statement.

In "Bright Morning," apparently written especially for this volume, a writer of "fantasy/adventure stories with a modicum of metaphysical whim-wham" complains that his work is labeled Kafkaesque (and he probably wouldn't like be compared to Brecht either) because, "At first glance, it would seem that a writer would be proud to have their work compared to that of one of the twentieth century's greatest writers, but upon closer inspection it becomes evident that in today's publishing world, when a novel does not fit a prescribed format, it immediately becomes labeled Kafkaesque. The hope is, of course, that this interpreted as meaning exotic, when, in fact, it translates to the book-buying public as obscure." This rant becomes a set-up for a series of, well, Kafkaesque events. The narrator recounts reading as a young man a Kafka short story called "Bright Morning" -- which is also the title of the story you are reading -- that as an adult he is unable to find a published copy of it. Even the narrator's mentor, John Gardner (a real novelist who taught writing at SUNY before getting killed in a motorcycle accident), noted for his encyclopedic knowledge of literature, never heard of it. The narrator meets a sailor, who takes a Polaroid of him kissing his future wife. The sailor commits suicide. On the back of the Polaroid is the last sentence of the unknown Kafka tale. The narrator becomes a successful and famous fantasy writer. Currently he's working on a short story collection (just like the one you're reading). He's also short of ideas. Why not just use the plot of the Kafka story in which a young writer makes an ill-fated bargain to get story ideas. It doesn't seem to exist, anyway, so who is going to know the difference? Besides, he's supposed to be Kafkaesque, and you can't get more Kafkaesque than ripping off the original.

Then the hitherto missing story is discovered, and with it the notion that the manuscript conveys some sort of curse to its possessor. The narrator thinks the discoverer is a former childhood friend, but the man denies ever knowing him. The story is put up for auction. There is only one other bidder, "a big, oafish lout by the name of Jeffrey Ford. You might have heard of him, perhaps not. A few years ago he wrote a book called The Physiognomy which by some bizarre fluke, perhaps the judges were drugged, won a World Fantasy Award."

Now at one level, this is just a sort of Twilight Zone story. (There is, by the way, a story Ford says was an explicit attempt to write an episode for the famous TV series -- "Floating in Linderthool," one of my favorites in this assemblage.) But, on another level, this is a writer and teacher of fiction pondering the strange twists, turns and coincidences that spark the creative process to unforeseen ends.

One of the reasons why we read stories is to figure out what we are doing in the creation we find ourselves in and whether that creation was an intentional design of some superior entity or just a happenstance collision of random events. Or whether it matters if we know one way or the other. That's one of the themes of the lead story, "Creation," in which a boy tries his hand at duplicating the events of Genesis as recounted by Mrs. Grimm (great name for a Sunday school teacher and, according to Ford, the actual handle of his catechism teacher) and seemingly succeeds. But, in an act of cowardice, the boy casts his creation into the woods to fend for itself. It is only through the intervention of his Father that the boy discovers what he has wrought. The theological question becomes, "To what extent does that intervention depend upon the actions of a superior being, of whose motivation we can never be sure?" (Ford's take on Christian mythology isn't always so subtle -- see his "On the Road to New Egypt" which features a strange pair of hitchhikers -- a Camel-smoking Jesus Christ on his way to his girlfriend's house and, if not the Devil himself, at least the Devil of the Jersey pine woods.)

One doesn't always need a god -- or even just a father-figure -- to take a hand in creation. We are constantly inventing ourselves, taking on multiple identities to fulfill various social expectations, sometimes willingly, sometimes not. Sometimes we can feel trapped in skins we feel are not entirely of our own making. Ford explores this notion in the marvelous "Exo-Skeleton Town." A planet of bug-like organisms manufactures a powerful human aphrodisiac. They are willing to trade the aphrodisiac for copies of early Earth flicks such as Casablanca and Citizen Kane. To further entice the natives and keep business as brisk as possible, human visitors wear pressure suits, "that hugged the body like a second skin... in the guise of the actors of the old movies."

A down-on-his-luck human in a Joseph Cotton suit is contracted by one of the bug creatures to seek out Gloriette Moss, a woman who possesses a copy of a rare film in which her persona has a starring role. The investigator finds the woman, but complications ensue, not the least of which is that they forget that neither are exactly the people they portray. Ford notes that this story "got turned down more times than my Visa card" until it was finally published in the premiere issue of Black Gate magazine. That other editors would pass on this is probably the most unbelievable story in the entire collection.

In "High Tea With Jules Verne," an interviewer asks the famous French speculative writer the banal question typical of the insufferable book tour about whether the characters are drawn from real people:

"Nothing is drawn from real life when it come to my characters. I forge them in my mind from the raw material of nothingness. I torture blobs of the stuff into shapes larger than life and then inject them through the nasal cavity with animation. For the most part, they follow my command. Occasionally, one will get away off the writing table and hide in other rooms of the house. Then it is no end of trouble hunting the rascal down and squishing it..."
When Verne describes the trick of Marlu the Manipulator -- in which the magician appears to be lifted off into the sky by doves, but in fact the birds are levitating a wax figure -- as an inspiration for his art, Ford, through the imaginary character of a real-life author, seems to be saying, "So it is with all art -- only clever illusions that we illusionists create." But in making his way out of Verne's home, the interviewer comes upon an object that hints that perhaps even illusions contain real-life dilemmas.

Which, of course, it does. And which this collection of fantastical tales aptly illustrates.

Copyright © 2002 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

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