Back when I was in uni I had a bit of an affair with the short fiction of Jeffrey Ford. Though not the most elegant writer out there, his work is famously strange, wide-reaching and wide-ranging. Of his long-form work I’d only read bizarre and eerie The Portrait of Mrs Charbuque, which I remember quite enjoying, particularly as I read it around the same time as China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, which also involves an eerie portrait commission. But after listening to Ford speak on an old episode of the Bat Segundo podcast the other day I thought I’d dig up my copy of The Physiognomy, which has been sitting on my shelves since, well, uni. (Has it been five years already?)
I’d admit that I had a bit of a chuckle when I saw the cover of this book: that a book about a man dedicated to the cause of physiognomy could be quite so ugly is a touch amusing. But then, there’s a lot of ugliness in this book, so perhaps there’s a bit of a hat-tip going on here. In fact, if this book were analysed by our physiognomist protagonist Cley it would probably come out with a less than stellar assignation. Certainly not the “Star Five” designation given to Arla Beaton, with whom dour and unlikeable Cley becomes enamoured. A Star Five designation is “an appellation reserved for those whose reside at the pinnacle of the physiognomical hierarchy”: ie, those that are perfectly formed, and therefore morally superior.
Of course, as Cley begins to learn, conflating physical form with moral form has its issues, and exquisitely formed things can’t always be trusted. And perhaps that’s why this book is the way it is, with its its meandering plot and sense of hallucinogenic discombobulation: perhaps it’s pointedly ill-formed. Perhaps this is a novel asking not to be judged on its own physiognomy, but rather by the suggestions it raises. It’s garbled and all over the place, a bizarre dreamscape of drug-induced hallucinations, cross-world travel, Inferno-esque punishments and evil Hitler figures, and though its disparate elements are quite intriguingly wonderful, as a whole, it has a face only a mother could love.
The Physiognomy can be separated into distinct sections, and these almost stand on their own as separate novellas rather than as part of a wider novel. There’s just so much more going on here than a 230 page book can withstand without abdicating either sense or depth, and often that’s the case here. I was most drawn in by the first third of the book, which is a very quiet, eerie look at the arrival of Cley in an unfamiliar town full of people of the most basest of physiognomies. It’s Cley’s role to determine through physiognomy the person behind a theft of a magical fruit, and watching him assess every individual in town for the sorts of physical abnormalities that might indicate a moral abnormality is deeply chilling. Cley is utterly devoted to and unquestioning of his science until he comes across a person, “the traveller”, who meets the physiognomical requirements for perfection, yet is inhuman in Cley’s eyes…and Cley fudges his measurements accordingly so as not to afford this person an assessment of physical perfection. And then there’s Arla, who like Cley is perfectly formed, yet betrays signs of amorality. This section ends brutally and tragically, and it’s by far the most moving in the book.
The following sections involve Cley’s being sent to, quite literally, solitary confinement on an island where he’s the only prisoner, and this is where the narrative begins to get a little marshy. Though infinitely creative, full of possibly multiple-personality-afflicted prison guards and bartending monkeys, this section feels like a detour from the main story. When we get back on track with Cley’s eventual return to civilisation it feels as though we’ve missed something: the story suddenly builds to fever pitch, and there’s all sorts of madness going on that never really has enough page space to be properly explicated. It’s the bridge between the second and third parts of the book where everything starts to feel strained and messy, and I found my interest waning as I found myself beset by far too many questions about what was happening and why. Why is Cley being hooked and re-hooked on his drug of choice? What was with that whole bit about his randomly losing all knowledge of his work? Why do normal things such as coffee have irritating names such as “shudder”? Why is this all so pointedly allegorical?
However, I must give Ford props for this little riff on Sleepy Hollow:
When it was almost completely out of sight, I could barely make out that it had released something it had been carrying under one arm.
“A boulder,” I thought and began rolling over in the snow as fast as I could, there being no time to get up and run. The missile hit with a distinct noise, like a large melon squashing against the earth, only a foot or two to my left. When I was certain the demon had departed, I crawled over to it. On inspection, I found it was not a melon but, instead, the head of what I took to be poor Gustavus, Father Garland’s missing dog.”
(In Sleepy Hollow, of course, what’s thrown is presumed to be a head, but rather is a pumpkin, and Ford’s inversion here is good fun.)
I think perhaps that I might have adored this when I was at uni and enjoying the melodrama and effusive kitchensink-ness of the New Weird movement, but now that I’m old and cranky I can’t help but feel that the thick laquer of manic creativity in evidence here doesn’t quite do the job of hiding the fact that underneath things are a bit of a mess. Each of the separate parts of this book are fascinating, but I’m not sure that as a whole it works. Sort of like Mr Potato Head, who must be a physiognomist’s worst nightmare.
Rating: (not bad)
Support Read in a Single Sitting by purchasing The Physiognomy using one of the affiliate links below:
or support your local independent.
Other books by Jeffrey Ford: