Quiet is the new Loud is the new Quiet
Let's say there are two types of Jeffrey Ford story. This is a simplification, of course, as it would be for any writer worth reading, but let's say that it's so, and see where it gets us.
Type one would be the quiet stories: the stories that sit alongside our world, or nest inside it. The prose in these stories is often deceptively simple--calm, almost languid, unfussy--and the atmosphere somehow heightened. The sense is that only one stray spark will be required for the fantastic to flare into life--
I was entranced by that painting and could sit and look at it for long stretches at a time. I'd inspected every inch of it, noticing the bend of the palm leaves, the sweep of the women's hair, the curling edges of the grass skirts, which direction the breeze was blowing and at what rate. I could almost feel it against my face. [...] The most curious item, though, back in the shadows of the bar, just before paradise came to an end by the bathroom door, was a hand, pushing aside the wide leaf of some plant, as if it were you standing at the edge of the jungle, spying on that man in the rowboat.
-- from "A Night in the Tropics"
--or that it would only take one missed opportunity to lose it forever.
Here were young people, my age, gathered in groups at tables, talking, laughing, eating ice cream--not by night, after dinner--but in the middle of broad daylight. I opened the door and plunged in. The magic of the place seemed to brush by me on its way out as I entered, for the conversation instantly died away. I stood in the momentary silence as all heads turned to stare at me.
-- from "The Empire of Ice Cream"
Wonder, in these stories, is not fragile so much as slippery. It is rarely where you expect it, and usually not in the same place for long; little surprise that many of these stories revolve around the creation or appreciation of art. In The Portrait of Mrs Charbuque, a painter in 1890s New York is commissioned to produce the portrait of a woman he is not allowed to see. He must discern her likeness from her conversation, from the stories she tells; he sits with her in her studio, and listens to her relate oddities and miracles, and then goes away to work. The novel is a mystery of equipoise; it uses art to seek truth; it feels haunted.
A subset of the quiet stories are laced with the steel of autobiography. These are traps, and they bite. "The Trentino Kid" is harrowing, a horror of lost youth. "A Night in the Tropics" is about what you find when you do go home again. And "Botch Town"--a long and brilliant novella, original to Ford's most recent short story collection, The Empire of Ice Cream--simply never ends, the detritus town at the heart of the tale persisting after the final page is turned:
As for Botch Town, it's still there, sitting in the cellar astride the sawhorses. Through the years, the clay citizens have carried on with their lives, and although the wizard's dust is deep and the sun no longer shines, they still, from time to time, stare up into the darkness, half-hoping, half-dreading, they'll see the eyes.
-- from "Botch Town"
The quiet stories, in other words, bind us to the world as we know it (or almost know it), leaving us wishing and wondering.
Then there are the type two stories. The stories where extravagance and fabulation are left to run wild. The big lies.
Beneath a yellow sky that fizzed like quinine, staring out to sea from the crenellated tower of his own construction, stood Belius, the minotaur, shedding globes of water from his eyes. Life germinated inside these transparent spheres, civilizations rose and fell in clouds of war, colors of love grew vibrant and then washed away. A million seasons raced round within the see-through boundaries, until, rolling off his snout, they smashed against the ledge and shattered.
Belius is a big, bold character in a big, bold world: a wider world than our own, in which everything is intoxicatingly alive. The talking animals are charming (particularly Thip the flea), and Belius himself, with his desperate longing to understand, to prove that he fits into the world--to invent his own cosmology--is a model of solitary nobility. Like "Boatman's Holiday", with its dismantling of myth, or "The Beautiful Gelreesh", with its astonishing slingshot ending, or like the trilogy of novels set in the bleak baroque grandeur of The Well-Built City, "The Cosmology of the Wider World" is a story to ignite, and invite, passion.
These are the loud stories, and they set us free.
Except of course Jeffrey Ford doesn't write just the two types of story. The subdued rumbles of summer thunder in a quiet story can give way to a full-on downpour; and the most beautiful, most precisely human stories can be the ones about the most astonishing characters. (And there are the pure confections, like "Summer Afternoon", in which those words, spoken aloud, shatter, and then travel the universe before returning to Earth and each other.)
Let's take one last example. It's the story that opens The Empire of Ice Cream, the story of the life and death of a Twilmish, a fairy who lives exactly as long as the sandcastle in which he has made his home. His home is as magical as Belius's tower, his life as strange, and as moving. He keeps a diary, right up until the inevitable end.
"What does it all mean?" I have always asked. "It means you've lived a life, Eelin-Ok." I hear now the walls begin to give way. I have to hurry. I don't want to miss this.
-- from "The Annals of Eelin-Ok"
That's the quintessential Jeffrey Ford moment, right there: the realisation of the sweetness and sadness of life, bound up together as the tide is coming in. Always quiet, always loud, always true.