by Jeffrey Ford
1998 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel
I suppose I should explain this first: physiognomy is the "art" of reading a personality through someone's physical appearance. Until a couple of days ago I thought it had effectively died out in the nineteenth century and that this kind of fraud had shifted to other things like handwriting analysis and good old astrology. Two days ago someone helpfully pointed out an article on the front page of Yahoo which explained how everything you needed to know about someone was in their facial features. I suppose the continued use of acupuncture and astrology should have reminded me that none of this trash ever goes away, it just falls out of popularity for a few years before getting revived as an ancient secret.
In the Well-Built City the power of it's dictator is focused through physiognomy. His physiognomists are investigators, judges, and executioners who find guilt in the shape of a face. The best of these physiognomists is sent to a mining town where the people who fuel the city slowly turn to stone in order to find someone who stole a fruit that may impart eternal life. What he finds there shakes his beliefs to the core and it puts him into directly conflict with the city's ruler.
In case you couldn't guess it from that brief description this is an allegorical novel. A very heavily allegorical novel. We're talking about allegory that is laid on thick and impenetrible. While Ford's technique was obvious I couldn't see a thread tying the concepts together. It's a novel designed to start arguments about what it all means and I'm not entirely convinced it all really has a meaning beyond that. There is the tale of the superficial moralist who discovers depth and complexity and yet it doesn't seem to connect with some of the concepts used.
The allegory is a tricky form to use well. Too far in one direction and you have a heavy handed, message thumping, unpleasant piece of trash. Too far in the other and you have a book that will only impress literary critics and English majors. Despite my appreciation of multi-layered stories I'm cautious when it comes to those books in the second category; too often they are so dense that the only meaning that can be found by a reader is what they carry into it with them. Obscurity is not quality and The Physiognomy leans very heavily toward obscurity.
Getting past that allegory there's a lot to like in The Physiognomy. The main character's growth from a vile tool of a monstrous regime to someone who tries to redeem himself is handled very well. Ford never provides a moment of epiphany for his protagonist; just a man who begins to feel and recover his humanity. No one else really has enough time on stage to develop; they only play off of him and yet I didn't find that to be a real problem with the novel. The focus in this case worked very well.
Also while Ford constantly spins into allegorical concepts those concepts taken superficially have their own way of grabbing the imagination. A prison colony for one prisoner run by an intelligent monkey and a man who may be two men is an interesting concept even if you're trying to work out the purpose of the duality presented in the wardens. Ford does a reasonable job in integrating these concepts with the story; it didn't come across as a random assortment of "cool ideas".
Ford's prose is a bit old fashioned and it is effective in a novel that focuses on a nineteenth century process. The narrator's voice is distinctive and helps carry the transformation of that character.
There is one more negative thing to mention. This is not something that is a result of Ford's work so I won't hold it against him, it is just an oddity that needs to be brought up. The only hard cover edition of The Physiognomy that I could locate was a large print edition. It's the kind of thing that only matters to collectors like myself.
In the end there's a lot of enjoy in The Physiognomy and if you selected a few pages at random they'll be very enjoyable. The result of the whole, though, is a bit less than the sum of its parts. I found that the whole thing didn't come together as well as I would like and for that reason I didn't care for the book. It's a good effort and I can understand why it was selected for the World Fantasy Award, it just wasn't as effective as it could have been for me.