(Please note, this review is for the novelette “Empire of Ice Cream”, not Ford's collection of the same name.)
Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game is one of the great pieces of literature. Like a mobile, it is an artistic presentation of how ideas which superficially seem distant can, in fact, be interlinked at some level. Synesthesia a neurological condition that manifests such seeming impossible juxtapositions in reality, it is not strange to find vanilla and powder blue bedfellows. Jeffrey Ford’s 2003 novelette “The Empire of Ice Cream” is precisely this kind of story.
The novelette is the first person recollection of William, a young man born a synesthete. The era unaware of the condition, little William, an only child, is shuttled by his parents to therapists and psycholigists in an attempt to cure him of what they, and everyone else, believe to be hallucinations. Growing up sheltered, William is misanthropic save for one aspect of his life: music, and he composes with crayons. Eventually freed from his parent’s ignorance, his new found freedom takes him to places, literally and figuratively, he’d never imagined. But it’s the girl he sees when eating coffee ice cream that attracts him the most and demands an explanation.
Interweaving sensuality and concept, pathos and logos, “The Empire of Ice Cream”, like Hesse’s novel, constructs a multi-dimensional story. Ford focusing on creativity, muse, and inspiration rather than attempting to create any overriding universal paradigm, William’s life takes on added degrees of interest the more his freedom allows him to explore the rays of possibility emanating from his condition. Written in precise first-person, the flavors and emotions, sights and feelings stirred within him by the world around him reveal a side of life the tiniest percentage of people truly experience, but the reader is able to easily imagine through the fertility of Ford’s pen.
In the end, “The Empire of Ice Cream” is a high quality novelette from one of the past decades most important voices in fantasy literature. An amalgam of the supernatural, synesthesia, and creative vision, the colors, scents, and reactions fall naturally, sensually into place with Ford’s focused yet vigorous prose. Tales of similar import have been told before, but none from such a perspective, and for this, it is worth a read.