Review — The Fantasy Writer’s Assistant by Jeffrey Ford

The Fantasy Writer’s Assistant and Other Stories by Jeffrey Ford.  Golden Gryphon Press, 2002

“Creation” is about what it says it’s about: A young boy undergoing religious training gives in to an impulse to create as God did, and succeeds…after a fashion. The rest of the story concerns the aftermath and the young boy coming to terms with the implications and responsibilities of his action. It’s one of Ford’s better known stories, and I’ve even heard claims that it “transcends genre fantasy.”  Sorry, no. This is what fantasy does. It’s the fun-house mirror that we hold up so we can see ourselves more clearly, and “Creation” does it very well. As for the “genre” part, well, genre is a marketing category, and to say something “transcends” a marketing category is pretty much a meaningless phrase. “Creation” is a damn fine fantasy story, and that’s more than enough.

“The Fantasy Writer’s Assistant.” Title story of the collection and one of Ford’s best known stories. A bookish young woman goes to work for eccentric fantasy writer “Ashmolean” (otherwise known as    ) despite the fact that Ashmolean wanted someone with mad proofing skills but no imagination to speak of. What the writer said he wanted and what he actually wanted turn out to be two different things, as his famous characters make direct contact with his assistant with their own agenda, though again things are not quite as they seem. From there the resolution shows the structure of a story turning into an ouroboros, essentially devouring its own tail as the meta-fictional elements close the circle on itself.

“The Woman Who Counted Her Breaths.” Ford in his afterword said the inspiration for the structure of this story was Freud’s case files, and that understanding goes a long way toward increasing the reader’s appreciation of this piece. That said, with that structure what we have here is an extended character sketch that reads a lot like a psychological study of a woman who, on our first acquaintance with her, is not a very sympathetic character. Yet as the piece progresses, Ford turns that perception on its ear as we learn why she is the way she is, and our sympathies shift, if not 180 degrees, at least significantly. As a story, it doesn’t quite work. As a character sketch, it’s marvelous.

“At Raparata.”  An unlikely assortment of the downtrodden, fringers, and mentally disturbed form their own kingdom and assume nobility, under the leadership of a wealthy eccentric, all finding the home and the sense of belonging that they never had out in the so-called “real world.”  But when their king’s beloved queen dies unexpectedly, grief threatens to devour their kingdom, first metaphorically and then literally. How the denizens attempt to deal with the threat, what does not work and what, finally, does work and the cost to be paid is only what happens. The story itself is about the people, and what they make of the changing situation,

There’s no way I can give every story its full due in the space I’m taking here, hampered by my own limits and my attachment to linear time. Just know that Ford likes to play with things like linear time and the complexity of human relationships, and you see that in several stories, notably “Pansolapi,” “The Honeyed Knot,” “The Delicate,” and “Something by the Sea.” You’ll also find meta and self-referential stories like “The Fantasy Writer’s Assistant,” “Bright Morning” and “Malthusian’s Zombie.” You’ll find relatively straight-forward stories like “Exo-Skeleton Town,” “Creation,” and “On the Road to New Egypt.” Whatever story you read, it’s informed by Ford’s uniquely complex vision, often paired with a deceptively simple style of execution. These aren’t stories to read once, because you won’t get more than half of what’s there at one reading. If you haven’t read Jeffrey Ford before, this is a pretty good place to start. If you have, then you don’t need me to tell you what a treat this book is.

Note: Full disclosure—The Fantasy Writer’s Assistant was a nominee for the World Fantasy Award in the single-author collection category in the same year that my own book, The Ogre’s Wife, was on that list. Ford beat out me and every other nominee to take the award. Try as I might, I can’t hold it against him. He’s a nice guy. Moreover, he’s just that good.