Jeffrey Ford has made quite an impression in the last few years, with several fine novels including the World Fantasy Award winning The Physiognomy, The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque, and The Girl in the Glass. But my favorite Ford works have been short fiction -- and it so happens that my personal favorites appear in this new collection, his second.
The title story, indeed, is one of my favorite stories by anyone from the last few years. My interest was immediately engaged by the Wallace Stevens reference, though Ford, in his introduction, disclaims any intention of alluding to Stevens' great poem. The story is about a man with synesthaesia. He becomes an accomplished piano player and composer, even as he perceives the notes he plays or composes as sights or smells or tastes. Somehow coffee ice cream causes a special hallucination: a young woman. As he grows older, he finds that pure coffee allows real contact with this woman, and he learns that she, too, is an artist and a synesthaesiac. The story climaxes as he tries to complete a major musical composition -- coming to a predictable but still quite satisfying and moving conclusion.
Another brilliant piece is "The Weight of Words." This suggests that the placement and appearance of words can affect their meaning in such mundane ways as subliminal advertising, or such more profound ways as causing death, love, or the appreciation of beauty. It's told by a man who has lost his wife and hopes to regain her by the use of weighted word -- instead he gains something quite different.
There is one new story in the book, a very long novella (nearly novel length): "Botch Town". This is a pitch perfect and rather sad evocation of childhood in a lower middle class New Jersey suburb. The title refers to a model town that the narrator's brother constructs in his basement -- somehow their sister, who is in some way brilliant but not very comprehensible, seems to use this town to reflect real happenings in their own town, including the whereabouts of a mysterious visitor who may be connected with the disappearance of a neighborhood boy.
There are many other jewels here. "The Annals of Eelin-Ok" is a tender, bittersweet, story of a Twilmish, a creature that colonizes a sand castle and lives only until the castle is washed away. "The Beautiful Gelreesh" is quite different in mood, a sardonic piece about a doglike creature with a rather extreme means of curing depression.
"A Night at the Tropics" concerns a cursed chess set and the bully who stumbles into possession of it. The story is framed in a very Kiplingesque manner: the narrator, named Ford, tells of his return to his childhood house, and a visit to a bar his father frequented, "The Tropics." It is there that he again encounters the bully, and hears the tale of the chess set. And, much as Kipling so often and so brilliantly managed, the frame ends up blending with and enhancing the central story. (And, to my relief after Ford's denial of the Stevens reference in "The Empire of Ice Cream," his introduction here explicitly acknowledges Kipling's influence.)
I won't mention the other stories, but I'll say that they are a varied and intriguing lot. The book itself is a lovely physical object, as we expect from Golden Gryphon. And Ford's introductions are fairly brief but very interesting, definitely significant value added. This is surely one of the best story collections of the year.