The ED SF Project

The Ellen Datlow/SCI FICTION Project, that is. We're showing the love for five and a half years of great short fiction, and we need your help! We've got over 300 stories to cover, so if you're a person who loves short speculative fiction, we want you. Go here to read the list and add your voice.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

"A Man of Light" by Jeffrey Ford: An Appreciation by Bob Urell

Every time I come across a Jeff Ford story, two competing ideas occur to me: I wish I'd thought of that; thank God I didn't think of that. There's a coolness-quotient to any of Jeff's stories that makes riffing off him so very, very tempting. Along with that so very artistic urging to theft, however, is the acknowledgement that everything Jeff writes requires more than the ordinary equation of talent and perseverance. Jeff writes difficult stories. A Man of Light is, of course, no different than any of Ford's work, which is to say, it is very different from anyone else's.

I guess I should talk about Ford's liquid, mercurial style, perhaps about the weird combination of formality and colloquialism in his syntactical constructions, about the patience with which he addresses himself to story, about the inertia that builds from dead-stop to full downhill tilt. It's the endings that always get me. Jeff Ford stories are like a Randy Johnson fastball. If you haven't seen the Big Unit pitch, imagine a lanky, scraggly man, incredibly tall, closer to seven feet than six, who looks like he should be farsighted and bedridden with mouth cancer. His entire approach to the pitch embodies a synthesis of languor and brutality; he is only graceful in motion. That is, in the middle of the pitch, his left knee coming up impossibly high, all the way to his chest then jerking down, whipping his entire body like a willow branch, back then forward, slashing an implacable path through the air, the ball coming along for the ride and then free and ballistic. That left foot winds up halfway down the pitcher's mound, Johnson stumbles, splayed out like a newborn colt, all knees and elbows and awkwardness. But the ball, she sails bright and wicked fast and straight as physics allows. Randy Johnson's pitching is like a Jeff Ford short story, brutal and beautiful and, oh so very effective.

The problem with the analogy, of course, is that one might infer that we are the catcher, the ball is the story and Jeff is the pitcher. In truth, we're all the ball, there is no catcher, and we’re headed at a brick wall going 109 MPH. I don't even think Jeff knows who the pitcher is.

Segue, stage left. Jeff isn't tall, nor is he scraggly nor lanky, though he can appear so at any number of late night/early morning after-after-after parties at the World Fantasy Convention of your choice. That's the booze talking. In fact, he's urbane and profane hard to spot now that he's shaved off the beard. And then there was the time we held hands on the National Mall and watched the sunburnt leaves shower down along the walking path. He turned to me, plaintive. "It can't be over, Bob. It just can't." He radiated vulnerability and strength then, but we were young and times, they've changed . . . . But let's get back to the story, shall we?

Of late I've been working through concepts that had never troubled me before. They're the same hoary old questions that plague everyone at whatever point in their lives they determine to stop evading them. Num quam desisto, a friend of mine says. I find my answers, or better still, my fellow questers, in the oddest of places. Such was my experience with "A Man of Light." This, more than anything, is why venues like SCI FICTION are hard to form and harder still to maintain. Places of light and beauty rarely last as long as we might wish them to.

This appreciation is, nominally at the least, supposed to be about the story I chose to write on. Well, it is, in its own way. It's about the experience of my reading, rather than about the events and import of the story itself. This is because a brief synopsis of the story would go something like: A young reporter receives permission to interview a noted recluse whose work with light is famous all over the world. Our
reporter discovers disturbing information in the process. The end. Anything else I told you would spoil the experience. Each of the revelations in the story are so tightly wound together that to prematurely unravel one is to undo the entire thing. So, this appreciation is utterly incomplete, and this I know. The other half is actually the entirety of it. That is, go read the story. Hurry, before it disappears as thoroughly as the Man of Light himself. I think you will agree, it was time well spent and that we owe Jeff and Ellen and SciFi.Com a great deal for the gift of these past five or so years filled with fiction like this and writers like that. Whatever else can be said, no matter how bitter or angry we might be over this abrupt and final closure, remember that this Darkness is only the lesser half of the story.

Link to story.


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