THE PHYSIOGNOMY – Jeffrey Ford (1997)

the-physiognomyThe Physiognomy is the first book of The Well-Built City trilogy, and all three books supposedly make up one big novel. I won’t be reading book two and three, as The Physiognomy failed to connect with me. I am not saying this is a bad book, I am just saying it wasn’t my cup of tea. As it won the World Fantasy Award – not an award with a bad track record, with winners as diverse as Clarke, Le Guin, Miéville, Kay, Priest, Powers, Wolfe – I’m sure there’s an audience for it.

I’ve devised a quick litmus test to see if you’re part of that audience. Consider these two sentences:

I stared at some of the titles on the shelves and before long found four of my twenty or more published treatises. I was sure he hadn’t read Miscreants and Morons – A Philosophical Solution, since he had not yet committed suicide.

If you are, like me, instantly transported out of Fantasy Land into the ‘Oh I’m reading something by a self-conscious author trying to be funny’-mental mode, you’ll have trouble with suspension of disbelief. That’s is a major problem for any form of speculative fiction. A problem, but maybe not a total turn off, that is if you enjoyed this attempt at a cynical laugh.

If you can get over more stuff like it, by all means, give the book a chance. Jeffrey Ford has tons of imagination – maybe a bit too much, but that’s another matter – and The Physiognomy has a distinct surreal vibe. That vibe is only reinforced by the fact that the protagonist is a hallucinating dope fiend.

About that other matter: making up Weird stuff isn’t difficult. The art is dosage. A bit like using intravenous drugs. A lot of the weird ideas are just that: ideas only, sketches left underdeveloped. I guess that’s a legitimate choice an author can make, going for overkill in the land of plenty, but it’s not for me. It is not a coincidence professor Ford turned to short stories: the short format suits his wild imagination better, as it has built-in restraint. Similarly, side characters are all flat as flat can be.

All and all, I felt the weirdness & the attempts at wit undermined the eerie vibe this book is supposed to have – the protagonist being a kind of repulsive, amoral Severian light. Both Severian and Cley are officers of justice, set on an assignment out in the country as a form of punishment. There’s violence and blood, but I never felt the atmosphere to be threatening, awesome or dangerous. As escapist literature it didn’t work for me, a bit like Terry Pratchett just isn’t my thing.

I do have to admit I’m intrigued enough to want to try one of Ford’s short story collections – A Natural History Of Hell, Crackpot Palace or A Drowned Life. Be that as it may, it’s thumbs down for The Physiognomy. Should that litmus test be inconclusive, it’s no big effort to see for yourself: only 244 pages in pocket format…

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5 responses to “THE PHYSIOGNOMY – Jeffrey Ford (1997)

  1. Mmmmm…. Weird can be good if – as you correctly pointed out – it’s used with the same fine balance with which an apothecary doses his substances to create the perfect medicine. Too little and it doesn’t work, too much and you risk killing the patient.
    I think I’ll pass, thanks for sharing! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I read this book about a year ago I couldn’t connect with it at all. At first, I found it funny but after a while, it became way too “out there” for me. I read of of his short story and it was the same, I just don’t think I like his style.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I discovered this novel thanks to your review, and I liked it a lot. I was not put off by your litmus test passage, and in context this passage is even more acceptable as it is recounted from the point of view of the supercilious Cley, proud of his own superiority and of his wit. I was not impressed by the novels literary self-awareness or trickiness nor was I put off. I just found it a very enjoyable story. So I will go on to read the next two volumes and let you know what I think. Thanks for sharing.

    Note: I was glad to discover this as it is a short (only 210 pages!) quick read. I think I read it as an escape from Alan Moore’s mammoth-sized JERUSALEM, which I had just begun.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for the different perspective! I hope you’ll enjoy the remaining two as well. The story simply didn’t connect with me.

      I was unaware Moore also wrote a regular prose book, looks dense indeed from what I glimpsed online…

      Liked by 1 person

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