24 May 2004

"Rabbit Test" by Jeffrey Ford

Jeffrey Ford has perfected a form of fiction that could be described as autobiographical fabulism: stories that clearly use elements of his own life, including narrators named "Jeff Ford", but do so to tell an essentially fictional tale. In one of the best of these stories, "Bright Morning", collected in The Fantasy Writer's Assistant, the narrator describes his novels as "fantasy/adventure stories with a modicum of metaphysical whim-wham that some find to be insightful and others have termed 'overcooked navel gazing'", a description that could even more easily apply to this particular strand of Ford's short fiction, though "overcooked" is not a term I would think of for these stories, and if there is navel-gazing, it's a superficial element necessary to the overall effect.

Such a blatantly autobiographical approach is not original to Ford (James Patrick Kelly's 1987 story "Daemon" is just such a story, and other writers, in and out of the world of speculative fiction, have used the same or similar conceits), but Ford has made it a habit or hallmark, and to good effect. More than anything else, it was reading "The Honeyed Knot" and "Bright Morning" that made me decide to read SF more faithfully and more consistently than I had in many years, because here, it seemed, was a writer capable of new wonders.

"Rabbit Test", recently published at Fantastic Metropolis, is another story in the mode of autobiographical fabulism, and though its metaphysical whim-wham is less mind-bending than in some of Ford's other stories, nevertheless it is a strange and affecting tale, one which could easily have been published in a mainstream literary magazine (indeed, I often wonder why The New Yorker hasn't snapped Ford up, as he'd be a perfect fit for their pages).

Readers new to Ford would probably not realize the story uses elements of his life, but anyone who has read his earlier work will notice a few details suggesting this is another story in the series. I don't think it particularly matters for this story -- certainly not in the way it does for "Bright Morning", where the entire premise of the story plays with, among other things, the duality Borges pointed out with "Borges & I" -- but it does give an extra and even painful verisimilitude to the events, though for all I know the central problem for the characters could be entirely fictional. The more we wonder "what is real?" while reading the story, the more satisfying it is in the end, even if the question extends beyond the fictional reality of the narrative and into the reality of the author's life, creating an ambiguous membrane between the actual and the possible. It's an unsettling effect.

(Pause for a quibbling grammatical tangent: The first sentence of the story is, "I didn't remember until that morning when I was laying on the pull out couch in the living room, my eyes closed, listening to the rain." Do you see the problem? "Laying" should be "lying". [update: It now is.] Ford is a well-educated man who is also a teacher, the editors at Fantastic Metropolis are all brilliant and incredibly sharp-eyed (I know from experience), and so I'm giving them all the benefit of the doubt and assuming the mistake was intentional, to signify that the narrator is a normal everyday guy, since most people these days don't know the difference between "lie" and "lay" (one's a transitive verb, the other intransitive). But to put it in the first sentence ... ugh, it's probably just my own pet peeve. A novel I'm currently reading and will even write about soon hit my one other big grammatical pet peeve with at least two sentences along the lines of "They gave the zap gun to Jeffrey Ford and I," which should be "Ford and me", since "they" is the subject. There are days when I think it would be better only to know the very basic rules of English grammar, because then I'd be blissfully ignorant of other people's essentially inconsequential mistakes (and my own -- it can be torture to read old blog entries). I'm a fan of split infinitives, I think the silly non-rule about prepositions at the end of sentences is bunk, I frequently begin sentences with conjunctions, and even though I have a fairly clear idea of how I think commas should be used, I'm willing to be liberal. But lie/lay and I/me drive me nuts. Must get therapy.....)

There are many things Ford does well -- he consistently writes magnificent endings to his stories, ending which are seldom predictable and if they are then are so because they are perfect; he has a masterful ability to put just the right amount of ambiguity into a story to make it haunting; he often creates situations and settings that seer themselves into your memory -- but what I most admire in his autobiographical stories is his ability to make them feel informal, off-the-cuff, even chatty, when in reality every sentence is integral to the whole. Read "Rabbit Test" twice and you'll see that various details you didn't pay much attention to the first time all contribute to the story's progression and themes.

Such efficiency and perfection is not always what I value in a story, and I certainly wouldn't want all fiction to be efficient (what of Sterne, what of Stanley Elkin?!), but with Ford's work it is admirable because it is a kind of authorial legerdemain -- the reader is lulled into thinking less is going on than actually is. (This effect reminds me of some of Tobias Wolff's best stories.) Too many mainstream writers have tried for a similar effect, thinking they are either emulating Chekhov of Joyce (the idea of "epiphanies"), ultimately ending up with less than the sum of the minimalist parts, but Ford succeeds again and again because he hollows out the world around his characters, he decenters their realities, letting the stories hover over in the uncomfortable realm of perhaps.... By utilizing fantasy to explore both the mysteries of reality and the human tendency to seek meaning in coincidence, Ford is a kind of American M. John Harrison, but his view of life is much less bleak and menaced.

I'm not sure how much more Ford can do with his autobiographical fabulism, as he seems to be falling into a bit of a formula, particularly with the more recent stories, which are less metafictional than the earlier ones. The formula seems to be: The narrator experiences a problem or loss, there are mysterious objects or people or coincidences that pop up in the periphery, and the resolution of the problem (or emotional resolution of the loss) suggests a possible but not certain connection to the mysterious elements. It's not a bad formula by any means, but I expect once he has exhausted it Ford will write even more breathtaking, surprising work, and I look forward to it.

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