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September 2002
 
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Books
by James Sallis

The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque, by Jeffrey Ford, William Morrow 2002, $24.95.

The Fantasy Writer's Assistant and Other Stories, by Jeffrey Ford, Golden Gryphon 2002, $23.95.

The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde, Viking 2001, $23.95.

Whole Wide World, by Paul McAuley, Tor 2002, $24.95.

Jeffrey Ford is one of that growing body of writers who seem to be stateless, nonetheless moving about at ease on travel papers issued by fantasy, the mystery/thriller, and capital-l Literature. Regular readers of this magazine will know him for stories like "The Honeyed Knot" and "The Fantasy Writer's Assistant." An earlier novel, The Physiognomy, won the World Fantasy Award. But to call Ford a fantasist can be misleading, as might be a cursory glance through earlier novels with their mysterious cities, clashes of good and evil, demons and sleeping diseases, conflation of internal and external landscapes. A fantasist, yes—but a fantasist in the manner of Gene Wolfe or John Crowley. A world-eater, a world-maker.

The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque, too, set in 1893 New York, is fantasy. It is also a mystery, a tale of terror, and an amazingly evocative historical novel recreating in texture, form, and tone the literature of its period.

Society portraitist Piero Piambo has reached something of a crisis in his career. Wealthy and successful, he is troubled by memories of the greater ambitions he once had, and of his old master Sabott. Then, from a blind messenger in the street, he receives the invitation that will lead to his next commission. He is ushered into a magnificent home of marble columns and crystal lamps. From behind a three-panel screen, a woman speaks.

"You will visit me here, sit before my screen, and ask me questions about myself. From the information I give, my voice and my stories, you will construct in your mind an image of me, which you will then render on canvas."

As Piambo pursues that image, a number of deaths occur about the city, deaths in which women appear to weep blood. Soon enough, mysterious Mrs. Charbuque is telling him of her father, a crystalogogist, a man who embalmed snowflakes in order to divine the future from them. Soon, too, Piambo has consulted another sort of diviner, one who claims to have foreseen his arrival "in the results of Monday's lamb stew" and bemoans that "People fear the truth of the chamberpot. They have no idea how old and venerable a tradition divination through evacuants is. . . . " It's all smoke and mirrors, all an elaborate dance. But the mirrors, like the furnishings of Mrs. Charbuque's home, are fine ones, the smoke, like that of the opium to which Piambo's friend Shenz is addicted, is exceedingly rich, and the pipers who play for the dance are the best in the land.

Soon enough into the dance, part smoke, part mirror, trips the supposedly dead Mr. Charbuque. Holding a knife to Piambo's neck from behind, he demands to know why the painter is seeing his wife, and at the explanation cries out: You are lost.

Every portrait, master Sabott once told Piambo, in some sense is a self-portrait. But everywhere Piambo turns—world, representation, or reflection—he sees only himself: in the connection between Mrs. Charbuque's loss of her father and his loss of master Sabott, in the work of one of his own students, in Shenz's assertion that "My talent drips off me and streams away in rivulets, my desire to paint evaporates more with each hour, my heart is cold to the whole endeavor."

For all our art, for all our intelligence-gathering, we remain, all of us, mysteries to one another, and to ourselves.

*     *     *

Publication of The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque is seconded by Golden Gryphon's collection The Fantasy Writer's Assistant and Other Stories, bringing together sixteen stories from the past eight years. Michael Swanwick provides a fine introduction.

It's Ford's range that first stands out. A handful of the stories, "Pansolapia," say, or "Something By the Sea," are dreamlike parables in the manner of Buzzati, Landolfi, or (as the final, self-referential story, "Bright Morning," blusteringly affirms) Kafka. Several such as "Exo-Skeleton Town" and "Floating in Lindrethool," though hardly straightforward, are patently science fiction, while "The Delicate" and "At Reparata" reflect the fascination with high fantasy that so informed Ford's trilogy. In others such as "The Honeyed Knot" and "Bright Morning" there's a powerful a clef strain. Here, Ford begins with feet planted squarely in his own life; only some time later does the reader look up to notice they've strayed together well off the path. Finally it's not Ford's facility that impresses, not his deftness at unspooling the story or creating atmosphere, so much as it is the sureness of his voice—and his reach. His stories, his language, refuse to do the expected, are always groping towards something larger, something ultimately inexpressible, reaching for those miracles that are the very touchstone of our daily lives.

*     *     *

In this 1985 (1984 plus 1, right?), Britain is still fighting the Crimean War, after 130 years. The Soviet Union never came into being but there's a People's Republic of Wales. There are no computers, and long-distance trips are undertaken by dirigible. Other trips, through time, are routine, though closely regulated, and people keep genetically regenerated dodos as pets. And oh, yes: the whole world's absolutely gaga over literature. There's a great black market in original manuscripts, fans reenact famous artistic controversies and change their names to those of writers (Tennyson is a particular favorite), terrorists rally under the banner of Jane Austen. The same production of Richard III has been going on for fifteen years. There is no cast; members of the audience who've seen the play so many times they know it by heart are pulled at the last moment and put on stage.

This is the setting for The Eyre Affair, a campy, whimsical, wonderfully entertaining first novel by Jasper Fforde.

Thursday Next, narrator, heroine, savior of the world, is a veteran of the Crimean War. (Her brother, who died in it, is generally held responsible for the debacle of the Charge of the Light Brigade.) As an operative for the London-based Literary Detective Division of the Special Operations Network, her job is to track down stolen manuscripts and sort out forgeries.

Thursday's proves quite a family. Her father is a lapsed ChronoGuard now waging guerilla warfare against the Office of Temporal Stability. Her uncle Mycroft is an inventor whose credits include a means of faxing pizzas, a pencil with spellcheck, and translating carbon paper. ("Did the memory erasure device work, Uncle?" Thursday asks at one point. "Don't know what you're talking about, dear girl," he responds.) Uncle Mycroft also invented the Prose Portal, a device capable of propelling people into the pages of books or extracting characters from same. When the Portal falls into the hands of Acheron Hades, former professor of literature gone splendidly mad, Thursday—whose aunt Polly finds herself trapped in Wordsworth's poem "I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud"—is drafted to help. Because, you see, she is not only a survivor of the Crimean War, but of Hades' classroom as well.

Following the warmup exercise of excising a minor character from Dickens's Martin Chuzzlewit, Acheron Hades next kidnaps Jane Eyre. In order to save both Jane and the novel, Thursday must go into the book—and enlist the help of Mr. Rochester.

There's much, much more: a gigantic corporation named Goliath with its own ruthless agent, one Jack Schitt; bookworms that power the Portal from the contents of books threaded into their DNA; Thesaurus Maggots; Thursday speeding backtime in a roadster to put an earlier self on alert; great names, a myriad allusions, jokes, pickle barrels of puns, shaggy dogs. The whole thing's as silly as can be, but always great fun.

Capital-l Literature? Hardly. Genre fiction? Confirmed readers of science fiction (many of whom tend towards earnestness) may throw up their arms or recoil in horror. Satire and pastiche? Of itself as much as anything (or should I say everything?) else. Here's a sandwich of epic proportions made from leftovers of high and low culture: PDQ Bach playing Mahler on piccolo, tongue firmly in cheek, Karl Marx as contestant on "Let's Make a Deal."

*     *     *

Somewhere perhaps half a decade further along, 2005 or so, in a London festooned with security cameras and overseen by "an intelligence vast and cold and unsympathetic," a young woman's murder by a man wearing a Margaret Thatcher mask is broadcast on the Internet, on www., which one character's daughter deems "the whole wide world." It's a world in which Thatcher's repression on one small island struck and caught like flint in tinder. Cuba, still sanctioned by Great Britain, is a free information country. Britain is not.

"[T]hey put in the black boxes and the RIP cutters," a friend tells policeman-narrator Dixon, "and then they passed the Internet Regulation and Content Control Act and they passed the Protection of Children Act, and I thought, it's like Prohibition. Keep your head down and it'll go away. But then the InfoWar made things worse because it gave the Decency Leaguers and the Little Englanders a real enemy, an excuse to pitch the whole country back to to 1950. Single-sex schools, chastity pledges . . . "

That same InfoWar brought narrator Dixon low. Having witnessed rape and murder on the part of fellow policemen, upon surviving he's been sacrificed to the department's image, tucked away (safely, it's thought) in a fetch-and-carry cul de sac. But precisely what he fetches and carries, Dixon decides, will be up to him. He'll bring the killer of the girl in the silver chair to justice. And in the great private-detective, maverick-with-wound-and-bow, knight-of-the-streets tradition sallies forth.

So begins Paul McAuley's Whole Wide World.

Each era, I suspect, finds its way to a distinctive popular voice, some form or mode uniquely suited to the time's self-image, deeper need and anxieties. Victorian England had its penny dreadfuls, the U.S.'s placid Fifties gave rise to subversive science-fiction films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and original paperbacks by such as David Goodis and Jim Thompson. "These novels, and the covers that illustrate them, speak of the ignoble corners of life beyond the glow of Jane Powell, 'Father Knows Best,' and the healthy, smiling faces in magazines advertising milk or frozen dinners or trips to California," Geoffrey O'Brien wrote in Hardboiled America.

Increasingly I've come to wonder if the form of the thriller, with its massive engines set in motion and grinding on far beyond personal lives and ken, provisional realities imploding page by page, and lives gone horizontal rather than vertical, may not best define and serve our time.

From the evidence of Whole Wide World, Paul McAuley may agree. Previous work has dealt with direct scientific extrapolation and with far-future environs; this one, he plays alarmingly close to the vest. The writing, too, as in this opening description of a run in the park, is up close and personal.

"Sunday, early June. The sky hazy as if bandaged in gauze, the sun burning through it like the business end of a welder's torch. According to the watch Julie had given me the previous Christmas, it was eighty-eight degrees. It felt hotter. People in various states of undress sprawled on browning grass like a horde of refugees from one of the European microwars. I was aware of the brief snags and thorns of their drowsy inattention as I ran past."

Or this description of a neighborhood bar:

"It was midweek, midevening. Half a dozen hardened drinkers clung to the bar like limpets at the edge of a tide pool; a TV hanging over the raked bottles was showing the highlights of a Slovenian tree-felling contest."

That caricature mask of Thatcher's face and the notion that people, like technology, exist only to be used, run throughout McAuley's grim and graceful novel

with its rushing, subterranean river of paranoia, its catacombs of bone beneath the too-solid flesh of tomorrow's London.

We should not be so surprised that Big Brother is watching, McAuley says. Because He can, He will; little escape from that. And it's really no great problem as long as all our uncles and Aunt Pollys are able to watch as well. Remember Gully Foyle in Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination giving up to the general populace the secret of universal destruction? That same sword-point is the fulcrum here.

Information wants to be free, Dixon's t-shirt reads when he's pulled from his run to the murder scene in Whole Wide World's first chapter—pulled like the reader from free fall, glide and distraction, pulled into a maelstrom from which neither of us is likely to recover but which, with luck and the kind of heroic intransigence demonstrated by Dixon, we may yet survive.

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