The Physiognomy

Jeffrey Ford
The Physiognomy Cover

The Physiognomy


Jeffrey Ford is one of my favorite writers. However, I'd procrastinated picking up the Well-Built City trilogy because I just couldn't understand from the description what it was "about." I'm so glad i finally decided to jump in. I really loved this book. I could easily understand why it might not be to everyone's taste; the best comparator I can find for it is some of Terry Gilliam's movies, and I know those also aren't for everyone. I found The Physiognomy remarkable because Ford is a great writer, and he is able to thread some difficult needles:

1. The world is complicated, but the world-building is minimalist. While the setting of the story is clearly outside our time and space, it has the vibe of mid- or late-19th century North America or Europe. However, the world is infused with fantastic elements that are just taken for granted by the characters - transmutation, reanimation, werewolves, demons, mad scientists, magic fruit, you name it. I like that while the world has some elements of steampunk, horror, fantasy, and magical realism, the book really defies being categorized. I also liked that hardly any of the fantastical elements have a clear purpose or analog to modern technology (as in, everyone isn't walking around with a magic mirror as a stand-in for a cell phone, etc.) but really seem designed for the sheer joyful weirdness of it all.

While the world - for all of its weirdness - does appear to have an interior logic, Ford doesn't belabor the inner workings - which I greatly appreciate. We can glean that the Well-Built City is a sort of capital in the (unspecified) region. It was created by Drachton Below, who is a mixture of tyrant, mad scientist, alchemist, magician, and drug addict. Below is also a physiognomist - as in, the now-debunked "science" of determining peoples' characters (including intelligence and propensity for criminal behavior) from their physical features. In the Well-Built City, physiognomy is a stand-in for the criminal justice system. Cley, the story's narrator, is a physiognomist wokring for Below. Cley describes the things he sees and experiences with the matter- of-factness you'd expect from someone who truly inhabits this world. There are no tedious info dumps to slow the story down. Things are what they are.

2. The characters are somehow both cartoonish and dynamic. Ford creates characters as whacky as the world they inhabit, yet somehow they still feel like real people. Even more impressive, Cley (the main character) starts off as a completely despicable villain. Ford is a talented writer and as a result, even though Cley is initially odious, you can't help but laugh at some of his jokes (not to mention revel in his humiliations). And, over time, as Cley begins to recognize his mistakes, you find yourself rooting for both his personal redemption and the success of his ultimate mission.

3. The plot is meandering yet absorbing. The plot opens with a fairly straightforward set-up: Cley, as a physiognomist (which in this world means he is sort of like a police officer) is sent to a village within the Well-Built City's realm to investigate the theft of a religious artifact from a church. The investigation occupies the beginning of the book, and then Cley is propelled into an Odyssean adventure. Sometimes stories where the main character just bounces from one situation to the next can lose steam, but the pace of The Physiognomy was relentless and kept me engaged.