The 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…