This Strange and Mercurial World: Jeffrey Ford’s Crackpot Palace

After talking so abstractly about criticism last week, I felt that delving into a book was necessary for this week’s column. My choice is Jeffrey Ford’s Crackpot Palace, a book about which I am sure I could pen a lengthy thesis. It is his most recent collection of stories and demonstrates his versatility as a writer, ranging from SF and heroic fantasy to unsettling surrealism and earthy realism. To show my bias from the start, I think it is one of the best short story collections of the year, even though a few of the stories fell flat for me. Ford applies his prodigious writing skills to the creation of stories whose fantastical elements seduce and disrupt the reader’s expectations. Ford can read like great American literature or SFnal pulp, but there are always shadows and depths that run through his tales, and they can be treacherous or enlightening as you fall into them.

Regardless of any genre affectations or fantastical content, life is inherently strange in Ford’s stories. One of Ford’s great strengths is that his writing slyly leads you to embrace what is happening, not by normalizing the strange and marvelous but by creating a tone that makes the fantastic inseparable from the seemingly innocuous writing. To be anchored to the illogic of the world presented, the reader must not merely see through a character’s eyes so much as coalesce how they experience and shape the story of the world being told. A sense of place is channeled through the characters’ actions and responses to be felt and assembled by the reader. This is not a unique method of creating a feeling of being elsewhere in a story, but Ford is particularly masterful at its execution.

A good example of this channeling can be found in Ford’s story Sit the Dead, which has the classic contours of a story of discovery; we see the strange world that exists within “our” world come into focus through the main character’s experience of the veracity that supernatural creatures exist. What he thinks is a simple ritual of sitting for the dead becomes both a dangerous and tragic episode that changes his perspective about the world he knows. While the story is not Ford’s most inventive it shows one of his primary techniques for bringing readers into the story; rather than relying on detailed setting or worldbuilding it is the moving of characters through the world that fills it out for the  reader and entices them into entering the story more fully to find out what else lies within.

Ford does this with greater facility in The Wish Head and Relic. In the former story we journey through a tiny corner of 1930s America with the protagonist, an ill-trained coroner with a missing foot, and we learn about this place, and the unnerving mystery he is investigating, by traveling with him. In Relic we learn about the effects of place on people through sermons and encounters between people trying to guard or obtain the titular item. In both, the narrative’s resolution is not complete, and what a reader finds in these stories is that the journey through them is what is more important than the objective that the story is supposedly about.  We discover the moments of wonder and sadness with the characters, and it is those discoveries of what make the characters human that is the treasure hidden in the story, not the solving of the mystery or the hero’s victory. These moments can ambush a reader as Ford often uses prosaic details and a gentle progression to lead the reader to a revelation or disjuncture.

Partiality and uncertainty run through many of Ford’s stories. They are not examples of intensive scene-setting or speculation, but leave much to the reader’s imagination, and count on the ambiguity that approach generates to keep he reader’s eyes on the characters. When Ford doesn’t do this his stories are less engrossing. The first story in the collection, Polka Dots and Moonbeams, is anchored in a nostalgic, jazz-inspired setting that becomes fantastical and tragic quickly. This is one of the stories that did not work for me, because the narrative’s foreclosure of possibility and the odd finality of the ending curtailed where the reader could go with the story. The characters had fewer choices and seemed more trapped in their world. It is a closed story in a setting without much of the loose edging found elsewhere. Rather than unfolding the world through the characters, it presumes the world and entraps them, which for me was much less effective than most of Ford’s other stories.

This doesn’t mean that all characters move freely through their worlds. On the contrary, their actions are constrained and attempts to exceed the limits of that world can have harsh consequences. This is beautifully demonstrated in The Hag’s Peak Affair, which takes the ideas of government conspiracies and experiments-gone-awry and uses them to talk about one women’s story of transformation. Her attempts to keep external forces at bay, to rebel within, are  brutally altered by events around her, but her persistence alters our view of that world and its effects.

These constraints are tested even further in After Moreau. The characters here, including the narrator, a hippo-man, have been profoundly changed and are losing their sanity. But their world does not control them and their struggle is to remain human and to find some pleasure or purpose in the world. Even to completely become animals would be better than their transitional stage. The narrator chooses to make his way as easily as he can in his doomed state; if he cannot change that, he at least tries to enjoy what is within his grasp. This is a recurring theme in Ford’s stories: that we cannot change the world around us, but we change how we see it and interact with it and thus change our lives.

What intensifies this theme is how Ford links a character to their world. As I noted in a previous column:

In The Double of My Double is Not My Double, Ford plays with the idea of identity as influenced by the different experience of the world his own double and his double’s double go through. It seems to be ‘our world’ and even features Ford and his wife as characters, but we quickly realize that there is no ‘one world’ but that we each live in our own world and share it in odd moments with other people. The world not only impacts each of us differently,  but we literally make different worlds for ourselves, even if an exact duplicate of us goes through life in the same world we think we inhabit. This is taken to a wider, more surreal extreme in 86 Deathdick Road when ‘Jeffrey Ford’ again seems to exist in our world but finds a very different reality just down the road, one which he is powerless to influence and which changes his life in a seemingly uncaring fashion.”

I usually dislike the technique of inserting the author’s identity directly into a fictional story, but Ford uses it deftly to simultaneously increase the playfulness of the narrative and to eliminate the need for character development that might detract from the world being constructed. Ford uses himself to situate the narrative in “the real world” and create assumptions about the story’s setting that he can then quickly undermine. There is no sense of ego in his use of his own identity and often he is self-effacing when writing these stories. The point is that even the real world looks different from each person’s perspective and that strangeness is all around: in our neighbors, in the woods around the house, in corners where we often do not look, in the madnesses we are driven into by the world’s miracles and supposed normalcy.

The whimsy of the world and its capacity for weirdness in even the most prosaic moments is what enlivens these stories. The world does not bend to our will and it does not wait for us to decide the best course of action. The unexpected could be right around the corner, or it could so saturate everything around us that we are continually confused and upended. Sometimes we can learn something in the process of dealing with that, and sometimes we are destroyed by it. Life is what happens in the struggle between those two outcomes.