Well-Built City Trilogy #01: The Physiognomy
by Jeffrey Ford
Reviewed by Kelly Everding
Thoughts are things. Thoughts create things. Quantum physics proves the power the observer has over what he or she observes, how just witnessing an event helps to create that event. And it is hard to distinguish reality from how we perceive reality, a dizzying rabbit-hole adventure we must shrug off everyday in order to just make it through to the next. Not so in the world of Jeffrey Ford's Well-Built City Trilogy, where manifestations of consciousness and sub-consciousness have equal footing and dream logic holds sway. A deft and enormously entertaining storyteller, Ford walks the fine line between visionary surrealism and beguiling plot twists, creating that oft-sought-after satisfying reading experience: you never want the story to end. While the three novels that make up this trilogy proffer the tale of Cley the Physiognomist, First Class, they each tackle the story from different perspectives and perform the Dantean task of depicting Cley's journey from a sort of Hell to a sort of Paradise.
Of course, nothing is as clear-cut as Hell or Paradise, because we make our own Heaven and Hell in how we think and act upon our environment and other people. And so it goes for Ford's characters, who achieve interesting transformations and revelations -- none more so than Cley, who starts out in the first novel, The Physiognomy, as a puppet of the evil potentate Drachton Below. The latter literally conceived the Well-Built City, a stunningly sweeping mind architecture that apparently manifested from his thoughts and memories. Because he created it, he is the master of it and all of its inhabitants, and he rules with cruelty and manipulation with the help of the drug "sheer beauty." Below also masters a twisted science of automatons as he forcibly molds people and creatures to his will with the use of gears, machinery, and potions. He is the tyrannical creator and eventual nemesis of Cley, but there is an underscore of neediness and personal pain and loss that drives his tyranny.
Unlike many authors of fantasy, Ford does not fall back on easy stereotypes but rather delights in the complexity of his characters' journeys of redemption or downfall. And it's Cley's journey that is the primary focus of these books. In The Physiognomy, Cley starts out as an arrogant cog in the wheels of the "Master's" manipulations of his City. As Physiognomist, First Class, he implements a horrific standard of morality based entirely on surface characteristics: those found wanting could face extremely dire consequences involving incredibly sharp scalpels. In an introduction to this reprint edition, Ford relates how he came upon the concept for the Trilogy in a facsimile of an 18th-century volume on Physiognomy:
Here was the concept that a person's moral worth could be determined by their physical appearance. I saw the connection between this belief and the reliance in and insistence on the importance of "surface" in our own time. I'm sure it took a bit of thought, but it seemed like the idea for my novel just opened out in front of me.
Cley perpetrates this faux science on Below's people, aided by his intense addiction to "sheer beauty," and the results are disastrous. He is sent to a remote village on the border of a mysterious land called The Beyond to determine who stole a sacred "fruit of the Earthly Paradise" from a church sacristy -- a fruit that legend has it will bestow immortality on he or she who eats it. Cley enlists the help of a beautiful local woman, Arla Beaton, who rates close to perfection on the Physiognomy scale, to interview every resident of the town and measure their physical characteristics to determine who stole the fruit. Ultimately he falls in love with Arla, who rejects his advances and subsequently falls victim to Cley's wrathful drug-addled attempts to cut out the imperfection of her rejection. This vile act -- which forces Arla to wear a green veil to hide her monstrous face -- rattles him and he is instantly regretful; when Below's men invade the small town and kill everyone in order to procure the fruit, he objects and is condemned to the sulphur mines. Cley barely survives this death sentence and is surprisingly pardoned by Below, but his transformation from toady to rebel is complete. Back in the City, with his status renewed, Cley surreptitiously joins an underground faction, however it is Below’s own arrogance and greed that brings his great city crashing down around them.
Ford's follow-up novel, Memoranda, has Cley return to the ruins of the Well-Built City to confront Below's desperate attempts to continue his control over the people of the modest little villages that have grown up around the destruction. Below is back to his old tricks of concocting poisons and potions that put a great portion of the villagers in a deep sleep, and it is up to Cley to discover an antidote. In so doing, he discovers that Below has caught and domesticated a demon -- Misrix, a creature from The Beyond -- and he eventually befriends it. He also discovers that Below has fallen victim to his own potion, and lies unconscious in his laboratory, the antidote locked away in the deep recesses of his mind. What else to do but dive into that mind and explore the world he has created there, populated by avatars of the real world?
Ford's world within a world has a dizzying effect on both his characters and the reader. With the help of the demon, Cley enters into Below's mind and befriends the inhabitants of this world, floating in a "memory ocean." At one point, Cley claims, "In my mind, I had an image of myself as a character on a page ripped from a storybook and thrown to the wind." He exists in Below's story, a revisionist story where the people he has harmed continue on, especially his great love Anotine, with whom Cley also falls in love, calling her "both metaphor and matter, a hybrid I could never quite get my mind around." Like Cley's defiguration of Arla, Below lives with the evil he has perpetrated on his Anotine. Eventually Cley would have to leave this memory world and abandon her to help the people in his village, but the antidote turns out to be one that carries a great risk, one evil replaces another, and Below triumphs even in death.
The third book of the trilogy, The Beyond, departs structurally from the first two books and is told from the perspective of Misrix, the demon from the Beyond. Because of his unique psychic abilities -- he had helped Cley meld minds with Below -- Misrix recounts Cley's journey into the Beyond to search for Paradise as well as ask for forgiveness from Arla, the women he so cruelly disfigured. Arla had married a native of the Beyond, gave birth to a daughter, and eventually departed for her husband's village in the Beyond. Before leaving, Arla gave Cley the green veil as the birth of her daughter miraculously erased the disfigurement he had wrought. (The green veil turns up at the end of Memoranda, coming out of the dead mouth of Below: "a thought had taken on physical actuality.") It is a miracle, but it also is a constant reminder of Cley's guilt. The green veil accompanies him, along with his loyal black dog, Wood, whom Misrix calls "a guardian angel the color of night, muscled and scarred and harder to subdue than a guilty conscience." Cley reads to the dog from a book that, through their harsh travels, loses all of its pages. But this does not deter Wood, who stubbornly carries the book boards to Cley to "read" to him. "Why would a dog care about stories?" asks Cley of his tree-friend Vasthasha, and the "foliate" responds, "He knows they are what the world is made of."
Misrix's tale is told in scraps and images, recounting Cley's progression through the wilds of this strange land as he battles the horrifying creatures that inhabit it and befriends natives and mystic beings along the way. Cley moves toward his redemption undaunted by obstacles and fears, even abandoning new responsibilities and loves he encounters, and keeps his mind focused on his goal. Ford's tale likewise wends its way beautifully, depicting a hero's journey into the unknown -- honing his strengths, stripping away weaknesses, and transmogrifying this greatly changed character until he is reborn anew.
Although told within the context of a fantasy world, The Well-Built City Trilogy has its correlatives in our own. We are responsible to our true selves and everything we do, for ill or good, we carry with us until the very end. We can either try to manipulate and control our mind-created worlds and be destroyed like Below, or we can be willing to change and move forward, in search of that paradise we so crave, like Cley. Ultimately, the trilogy explores the force of dreams, desires, and stories, and how they shape our destinies. There is no escaping who we are -- nor the multitudes of potential we contain.
Kelly Everding is a frequent contributor to Rain Taxi.