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, April 26, 2006

"Floating in Lindrethool" by Jeffrey Ford: An Appreciation by Trent Hergenrader

Imagine Tony Soprano as an eloquent philosophy professor.

That was my first impression of Jeff Ford when I met him in June of 2004, when he and Kelly Link taught the last two weeks of the Clarion Writers Workshop. Jeff arrived in the midst of a critique session Monday morning and wasted no time in sharing his honest, intellectual, and astute observations on our stories.

In a thick Jersey accent. Punctuated with plenty of colorful language.

That morning was the first time I'd heard "Gabriel García Márquez" and "fuck" used in the same sentence. The amazing part? He made it work. I learned a lot those last two weeks, and I laughed a lot. I hadn't read a lot Jeff's stuff back then and I think I could be forgiven for assuming that most of his stories were both unapologetically crude and hilarious.

And I would have been flat out wrong.

Because if I had to use a single word to describe Jeff's stories, that word would be "delicate." Not in sense of being weak or fragile--far from it. Rather because his stories are characterized by fine workmanship and great sensitivity. He is as exacting and precise with his words as a master surgeon is with a scalpel. When he cuts, he cuts deep. But it's for our own good. Really.

I could blather like this all day but luckily for you I'm supposed to talk about a story: Floating in Lindrethool. I couldn't have picked a better one for an aspiring writer to take a turn at the knife. So let's slice into it and study the entrails, shall we?

Perhaps you're wondering what makes it worth studying. The answer is stuff like this, taken from the story's opening:

Eight men in black rain coats, white shirts and ties, and the company issued, indicative, derbies. They fanned out across the grim industrial cityscape, the soot falling like black snow around them. Each carried a valise in one hand and a large case with a handle in the other.

Forty-nine words, three sentences, and a world is born.

Soon we meet the dispirited, pantsless Slackwell sitting in his hotel room with a bourbon and cigarette, practicing his spiel that has, as his boss describes it, "all the allure of a drooping erection." We pity the aptly-named Slackwell, but no one wants to read a story about a door-to-door salesman crying in his beer. Ford knows this all too well, and we immediately see what Slackwell is selling:

The black metal carrier bulged at the sides as if it housed an oversized bowling ball. The front panel opened on hinges, and he reached in and brought forth a large glass globe with a circular metal base. The base had dials and buttons on it, two jacks, a small speaker, and, in the back, a wound up thin electrical cord was attached. Thinktank, the name of the company was written across the metal in red letters and after it the model number 256-B. The globe above was filled with clear liquid and suspended at its center was a human brain.

Yes, that's right. A human brain.

If you're interested in the technical aspects of writing, take a look at the last sentence in the paragraph cited above. You could be a "good" writer and eliminate the use of the passive "was," rewriting the sentence as: A human brain floated in the globe, suspended by clear liquid."

Yet this sentence is clearly inferior. Look how the sentence structure--hell, the whole paragraph--draws you, like being caught in a whirlpool, to the stunning conclusion. I don't know how many times I've admired this piece of craftsmanship, but it's more than a few. A good paragraph flows into the next one; a great paragraph catapults you through the end of the story. This is a great paragraph.

Writers, it has been said, need to hook the reader early. At this point in "Floating in Lindrethool," this reader was grabbed hook, line, and sinker. We're not even 700 words into the story, yet I'm ready to follow Ford off the edge of a cliff if that's where he takes me.

And off the cliff is about where the story goes. If you thought Steve Martin had the whole "falling in love with a brain in a jar" market wrapped up with "The Man With Two Brains," think again. Despite the absurdity of the conceit, you can't help rooting for Slackwell as he fights to escape the prison of his life--and to help liberate the brain from its prison as well.

I've performed similar vivisections on some of Ford's other stories, yet "Floating in Lindrethool" remains one of my favorites, probably because of its off-the-wall weirdness from start to finish. But no matter how many pieces I break it into, no matter how closely I study the sentences and paragraphs, it remains unique, inimitable, and 100% pure Jeff Ford. And as I've found in my research, that's always worth the price of admission.

Other good news: in case you hadn't noticed, wherever Ellen Datlow pops up as editor, Jeff Ford usually shows up as a contributor. So keep a keen eye out for where Ellen pops up next, because another Jeff Ford classic won't be far behind.

With affection,
Trent Hergenrader

Link to story.

PS - "Floating in Lindrethool" can be found in Jeff's first collection, The Fantasy Writer's Assistant and Other Stories. Also, check out his newest collection, The Empire of Ice Cream, now available.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Trent, just fyi, don't forget Death of a Salesman--a play that is indeed, about a salesman crying into his beer (kind of :-) )
Ellen Datlow

8:05 AM  

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