Thursday, May 04, 2006

Still searching: Jeffrey Ford's The Empire of Ice Cream

The latest Litblog Co-Op rave is a collection of stories by Jeffrey Ford. Rather than read anymore of the blog's weightless encomia (weightless because it lacks the work itself), I read an online story instead: The Empire of Ice Cream.

First, I should admit that part of the reason for reading it was down to the title. It's allusion to Wallace Stevens famous early poem (the slight difference escaped my notice until I was corrected). I wanted to see how the story related back to the poem. But that was soon forgotten as I read on. The story is interesting enough in itself. I also forgot that it is hosted by a science fiction website. There's William Shatner in the top left corner! He's not usually the guarantor of top quality fiction.

That's the joy and distress of reading though isn't it? The known world fades away to be replaced by another, richer, more hopeful, more meaningful world. The Empire of Ice Cream itself represents this with the young male narrator's apparent hullucination of a young woman. He becomes addicted to the visions. And it's here, in the confusion of worlds, that the connection with Stevens becomes clearer. No matter how much we wish to isolate fantasy from the rest of our lives, it seeps in. It is part of what reality means; it is the finale of seem.

The Empire of Ice-Cream is a satisfying, stimulating story, reminding me of Nabokov's awesome Signs and Symbols. What I found lacking, however, is the very local pleasure of both Nabokov and Stevens: the inventiveness of language. Ford's narrator is nothing if not a cliché-monger. Only one paragraph separates the lines "I was subjected to by a veritable army of so-called professionals" and "she was a veritable genius at teaching me to allow myself to enjoy the sounds I produced."

And immediately after that, explaining further about the sounds: Enjoy them I did, and when I wasn't being dragged hither and yon in the pursuit of losing my affliction, home base for me was the piano bench. In my imposed isolation from the world, music became a window of escape I crawled through as often as possible.

Over the length of the story, such prose rather numbs the senses - even if it doesn't spoil the story - whereas Nabokov and Stevens reanimate them.

A varied vocabulary is often assumed to constitute the entirety of the distinction between 'literary artist' and mere storytellers. You can always count on the 'literary' writer for a fancy prose style. Yet while both Nabokov and Stevens add to the language, add to the world, they also make that addition double-edged, glorious and problematic, part of the story.

Daniel E. Blackston's extraordinary essay on Ford's The Empire of Ice Cream demonstrates how deceptively simple it is. Yet the remarkable range of reference he uses rather whitewashes the banality of the prose (in that regard, it reminds me more of HP Lovecraft). This seems to be the blind spot of genre fans. They either ignore terrible writing or go overboard for indulgent lyricism.

Blackston himself is engaging with what he sees as SF editors concern to gain 'literary respectability', whatever that is. He says Ford's style:
represents a brilliant literary accomplishment not relegated, through popular disinterest, to the status of an intellectual curio, for specialists only.
(Of course, he means 'uninterest'). I've never understood this rhetoric about appealing to a mythical public. We are, each of us, specialists in ourselves; a reader inevitably separate, if not also alone. The chatter about the need to speak to wider audience is really only a discomfort - an embarrassment even - with literature itself, a discomfort which, as I have said, both Nabokov and Stevens work into their writings, such is their exceptional artistry.

Blackston wants to mitigate literature's tendency toward isolation by invoking political imperatives:
In times of turmoil, with our actual world facing global-political and environmental catastrophes, war, poverty, and an explosion of technology-driven moral and ethical questions, it would seem natural that Speculative Fiction would resonate more explosively with its potential audience (which is, incidentally, anyone who can read) were it to pursue an immediate idiom – one meant to provide a universal, rather than ontological or aesthetic, catharsis.
Well, yes (I liked that 'actual' in there!). But when were we not in a time of turmoil? And how can a writer know that an 'immediate idiom' has been achieved? How soon will it fall into irrelevance? Five years? Five weeks? Five minutes? And surely 'anyone who can read' can also read the most esoteric of works if it is also written in English? Why patronise them by calling for something less than is necessary for catharsis, if that's what you want? And how can one tell the difference between ontological, aesthetic and universal carthsis? These are just fancy words to me. What would such univeral catharsis look like anyway? And how might explosive resonance manifest in a potential audience?

It seems that concern for answers to all these questions requires one to turn a blind-eye to The Empire of Ice-Cream, a story one reads in a quiet space the story itself conjures out of thin air, and then leaves you there, still searching for the finale.


  1. Anonymous11:56 pm

    Minor quibble. The book we nominated is "The Girl in the Glass," a mystery novel -- not a collection of short stories, although Ford does have a new one coming.

  2. Yes, sorry. I thought it was a collection. It's all very confusing what with the proliferation of posts and recommendations there at the moment.

  3. Anonymous12:42 pm

    Why did you delete my post?

  4. Because I had to change the post accordingly and it would have made no sense in that context. It would have been more appropriate to email me.

  5. Anonymous1:23 pm

    OK, sorry.



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