Sunday, January 3, 2016

Review of Memoranda by Jeffrey Ford

There are many complaints and expectations in mainstream media these days about the weakness of bridge novels in trilogies.  Gary K. Wolfe even goes so far as to posit they are unnecessary; the first and last book in a trilogy can be read with nothing of significance missed in the stop-gap.  But what is implied but never stated in these statements is the inherent linear nature of the series under discussion.  What about those series wherein the author chose to think laterally, to move their story in unexpected directions?  M. John Harrison’s Viriconium novels are an artistic statement about a setting, it’s plotting and characterization the opposite of contiguous throughout the four books.  Jeff VanderMeer’s Ambergris stories individually earn praise, but again, the major point binding them together is setting.  Jeff Ford’s Well-Built City series, as its title indicates, deserves mention in the same breath.  Memoranda (1999), the second in the trilogy, is anything but a standard bridge novel.

The Physiognomist the macabre tale of the man Cley finding ‘the light,’ Memoranda opens with him living in a small town, putting his medical talents to use as local surgeon, midwife, pharmacist, and whatever other medical talents are requested of him.  A huge mechanical bird landing in the town square one day, it explodes, filling the space with a toxic yellow mist that puts the townsfolk into a deep sleep.  Knowing the evil Drachton Below must be the mind behind the mass slumber, he heads to what remains of the Well-Built City to find him and extract the antidote—by force, if necessary.  But what he finds is a nightmare of the most sublime proportions.

As atypical a hero’s story as they come, Memoranda is an examination of the mind of evil—literally, then figuratively.  Rife with colorfully rendered symbolism, Cley’s trip into the dreams of Below is one of the reasons to read fantasy.  Beautifully and fittingly imagined, not all is bats and demons, hellfire and brimstone; Drachton Below evil, he nevertheless remains a fallible man.  Wrapped up in self-delusion, dishonesty, and many other traits that make us all human, Ford effectively portrays the mindset behind malevolence in vividly sketched scenes.  The floating Fetch, the receding beach, Dr. Hellman’s basket trip to collect an ‘ocean’ sample, the physical manifestation of sheer beauty—all float vibrantly in the mind while reading, making the best part of Memoranda perhaps Ford’s insistence never to resort to insipid imaginings. 

The narrative voice maintaining a distance throughout Memoranda, the reader is never forced to empathize with either Cley or Below.  Rather, they are brought to an understanding of the novel’s import via symbolism and allegory.  This distance is largely achieved by pacing. Brisk and abrupt, Memoranda moves at the relatively quick speed of The Physiognomist.  Never allowing proceedings to become maudlin or trite, something that easily could have happened were Ford a less aware writer, the result is another bildungsroman but of an entirely different hue.

Zigging where much of fantasy these days zags, Memoranda is an atypical second novel in a trilogy, to say the least.  Possible to be read on its own, in fact, its connection to the novels which precede and follow is limited—important in the larger context of theme, but not dependent in terms of plot.  Ford’s imagination continues to prove itself not only capable of producing vividly realized scenes and characters, but a singular story comparable to other works in the field by theme only.  Looking ahead, the final novel, The Beyond, possibly cements the Well-Built City series as one of the best of the modern fantasy era.

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