The Drowned Life is Jeffrey Ford's third collection and eleventh book, and it is a treasure trove of wonder, to borrow a tired old phrase. As much as I enjoy his novels, I absolutely adore Ford's short fiction, so this book was a treat for me. Doubly so, as almost all the stories printed inside were originally published in anthologies that I didn't get the chance or opportunity to read otherwise. I'm also happy to see that this is his first collection by his NY publisher (HarperCollins, the previous two were by Golden Gryphon Press), which means a much wider potential readership.
There's something about the writing, an illusionary simplicity, an easy facility with language, that lulls the reader right away into definitively suspending his or her disbelief. The good writers do this, of course, but with Ford's prose, it's such an easy thing, as if he's asked you to come over for a beer and then rolled out this tale for your enjoyment. That sense of being invited into his confidence with a "Com'ere, let me tell you a story." Jonathan Carroll (who wrote the introduction to The Empire of Ice Cream) is one of the few other writers who also gives me this impression.
The stories range from the everyday mundane ("A Few Things About Ants") to far-future interstellar sf ("The Dismantled Invention of Fate") to the phantasmagorically surreal ("The Drowned Life"), and everywhere inbetween. And though the settings and styles may vary wildly from story to story, there is a constant sensibility throughout, Ford's confident voice, that holds the whole collection together.
As adept as he is with all of these different points along the spectrum of the fantastic, the stories that remain my favorite are the metafictional autobiographies, told in the first person, and often involving events and people from his own life. Some of these were first posted to his blog, 14theditch, and on first glance appeared to be normal blog entries. They might feature his wife Lynn ("The Golden Dragon"), his parents ("Present From the Past"), or his son Jack ("The Fat One"), with just enough real-life details to put the worm of doubt in the reader's brain, to make you think, "Did this really happen?" This confusion of the real and the fictional, always narrated by an unnamed "Jeffrey Ford," is the sly wink across the table as he spins his yarns.
Throughout the book, there is also something of a haunted quality, as if Ford is being haunted by his own life. There is a miasma of melancholy over the collection as a whole, as if he has written these stories on the cusp of his own Drowned Town, on the verge of quitting his bailing because the world is just too damn weird anymore. But I for one hope he continues taking the bucket to his own life, keeping his literature of the strange afloat, and unearthing the weird and wonderful things that we all need to be reminded of.