The Physiognomy - Jeffrey Ford

Reviewed for Usenet (or see Google archive).

The Physiognomy
Jeffrey Ford
Tor (UK)
ISBN 0330413198

This is a very slim little fantasy novel - only 244 pages in my paperback edition - and yet it is among the most immersive, but flawed, stories I've read in quite a while. The prose is a pleasure to read, which makes the harsh horror of the tale being told all the more startling.

As the title suggests this is a book about determining your place in society, your guilt of a crime, past or future, and much more, by examining your appearance. Your skin, your posture, your facial features, your expression - all these are assumed to be accurate metrics of the intrinsic worth and potential of individual's inner nature - disposition, mind, characters, soul.

(As an aside, anyone with an interest in the real world history of the subject could do worse than reading Stephen Jay Gould's excellent The Mismeasure Of Man, which covers this, and more recent, attempts to categorise people by misapplying scientific measurement techniques.)

Our 'hero', Physiognomist Cley, is one of the most thoroughly despicable human beings that I have ever read about. His is an honoured profession, and he holds a high place in society. He has power of judge, jury and executioner in the surgical instruments of his 'science', and the society in which he lives accords him respect for he, of course, is an exemplary specimen himself - a 'star five', worthy of respect from inferior beings. This is a puritanical man; one who requires a cold bath in the morning, an hour of absolute silence in his hotel, and yet who is in the thrall of a potent drug - 'sheer beauty'. There are hints the enigmatic Master uses this drug to control his subordinates, and the vivid visions brought on by its use segue smoothly from the 'real' narrative - a testament to the splendid strangeness of the world-building.

The idealised and highly controlled society depicted is an odd one; Cley is from the Well-Built City, ruled by The Master, Drachton Below. Cley is a personal friend of Below, and a man of some importance. Cley's highly ordered world is about to be disrupted though, as he is being sent from the City to the countryside as a punishment for some remarks, "into my pillow three years earlier". The case he is to work on concerns the discovery, in a "blue spire" mine, of an incorruptible fruit. The "Fruit of the Earthly Paradise" was discovered underground, held by a mummified corpse of something not quite human... However, the fruit has now gone missing.

Cley's search for the thief will be simple - he will measure everyone in town, and the physiognomy of the thief will be obvious. Case closed. His search for an assistant to help him with his measurement of the entire town leads to the introduction of the love interest - whose part in the plot is horrific...

I don't really want to talk about the plot too much, as I think that the gradual revealing of the story in the first part of the book is the strongest. The book is in three parts, three acts, and I think that while the author is clearly attempting something very structural and measured, it doesn't quite work. (Your milage may vary.)

Part one is terrific, a slow unravelling of a mystery set in a strange and horrific world. Part two concerns Cley's punishment for certain crimes, and again, this feels very classic - the high status figure brought low, serving his time in a very surreal prison. But part three just refused to work for me, indeed I'm not entirely sure what exactly happened - I couldn't get past the fact that while we're reading what is obviously a story With A Point (three acts, forbidden fruit, an earthly paradise, a man redeemed etc), I didn't understand why Cley changed quite so much...

In addition, the third part concerns a clash of worldviews, but while the world that Cley inhabits, and in particular its Master, remained mysterious, I couldn't really enjoy the changes... and I have to admit a bias here; there are some unsubtle digs at Cley's scientific world-view which I choose, perhaps wrongly, to read as attacks on the scientific methods themselves, and not their abuse by society's powerful figures.

Am I going to read anything else by this author? Certainly!

I had my problems with the third act, but I haven't enjoyed being dropped into someone's fantasy world, and actually finding it to be fantastical, for quite some time. The sheer strangeness of some of the setting, and the vivid cast (particularly the monkey bar-tender) make up for any over-ambitious plotting. I have since found out, by reading the blurbs of other novels by Ford, that in fact this is book one of what looks like a loose trilogy... which is interesting as I felt that this was a very satisfactory stand-alone. (As usual, the cover gives no hint of sequels.)

Posted: Mon - July 14, 2003 at 12:52 AM