Physiognomy

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He pries open the soul with each sweep of his calipers. For in the land of the Well-Built City, study of the body's shape is a most exacting science. It can determine a person's character, uncover his deepest secrets, even foretell the future. And in the hands of an expert like Physiognomist Cley, this solemn intelligence delivers perfect justice from which fortunes are claimed or lost, careers are shaped or shattered, lives are continued or cut away. A man who commands such titanic forces may ignore the dark ...
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Overview

He pries open the soul with each sweep of his calipers. For in the land of the Well-Built City, study of the body's shape is a most exacting science. It can determine a person's character, uncover his deepest secrets, even foretell the future. And in the hands of an expert like Physiognomist Cley, this solemn intelligence delivers perfect justice from which fortunes are claimed or lost, careers are shaped or shattered, lives are continued or cut away. A man who commands such titanic forces may ignore the dark pools of arrogance and corruption which lie closer at hand - but only for a time. Very soon, Cley will discover the truth about himself and his profession, as his world of privilege dissolves into a nightmarish odyssey, careening toward a fate not even the great physiognomist can predict.
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Editorial Reviews

New York Times
A modern allegory in the manner of Franz Kafka....
Locus
Ford is a gifted writer who has produced a real page-turner of a moral allegory...
Norman Spinrad
...[A] novel well worth reading... —Asimov's Science Fiction
Gerald Jonas
Ford writes equally well about the scientific cult of precision and the acceptance of ambiguity. -- NY Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Ruled by the Hitler-like Master Drachton Below according to the principles of Physiognomy (the "science" of judging the proportions of the flesh), the anti-utopian Well-Built City of Ford's goofily allegorical debut is already ripe for revolution when Below sends physiognomist Cley to the mining town Gronus to track down a fabled white fruit stolen from the state Church. A cruel, merciless bureaucrat who recommends anyone with less than perfect features for execution or the sulfur mines, Cley starts to soften toward his subversive assistant, Arla, and eventually vows to overthrow the City. Ford's inventions founder somewhere in the never-never land between Asimov and Kafka, as he substitutes the cute for the prophetic, obvious moralizing for original inventions ("Shudder," for instance, is coffee; "absence" is alcohol; "sheer beauty" a heroin-like opiate). The things Ford does invent are too whimsical to be threatening, such as the blue miners who are used as fuel or monuments when they die, and the thematic conflicts good vs. evil, death vs. immortality, man vs. nature, man vs. himself lack subtlety, to say the least, while Ford's social crusades (against sexism and state violence) are too cartoonish to evoke any real-life struggles. Despite Ford's evident, childlike delight in his alter-world, the accoutrements of the story aren't enough to sustain its larger concerns.
Norman Spinrad
...[A] novel well worth reading...
Asimov's Science Fiction
Kirkus Reviews
Humorless, inflexible, drug-addicted physiognomist Cley is ordered by Drachton Below, Master of the Well-Built City, to investigate a theft in the remote mining town of Anamasobia. The miners of the town, while delving for blue spire—a coal-like mineral that eventually turns the miners into blue statues—have discovered in a cavern the living mummy of a strange being, the Traveler, holding a perfect white fruit (now missing) that Below believes will confer immortality. Cley pronounces the guilt or innocence of the townsfolk by studying their physiognomies, but he becomes distracted by the beautiful and knowledgeable Arla, whose father Cley suspects of having stolen the fruit. In a delusional frenzy brought about by withdrawal symptoms, Cley attempts to improve Arla's disposition by mutilating her face according to physiognomic principles—but then the Master impatiently sends in troops to slaughter the townsfolk and capture Arla, the Traveler, and the fruit; Cley is condemned to the sulphur mines. He is later pardoned, deliberately re-addicted, and brought back to the Well- Built City, where Drachton Below, having eaten the white fruit, is suffering headaches so dreadful that they're causing explosions and threatening the destruction of his empire. Can the reformed Cley defeat the mad Master and save Arla and the Traveler?

Seriously, logically, stunningly surreal: a compact, richly textured, enthralling fantasy debut—even if the publishers prefer to bill it as an "unconventional literary novel."

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780380793327
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 8/1/1998
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Pages: 256

Meet the Author

Jeffrey Ford is a writing teacher at Brookdale Community College and the author of The Empire of Ice Cream, The Fantasy Writer’s Assistant, The Girl in the Glass, The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuqu, and Vanitas. He is the winner of a Nebula Award, the Edgar Allan Poe Award, and the World Fantasy Award. He lives in Medford Lakes, New Jersey.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

I left the Well-Built City at precisely 4:00 in the afternoon of an autumn day. The sky was dark, and the window was blowing when the coach pulled up in front of my quarters. The horses reared against a particularly fierce gale and my papers—describing the case that had been as signed to me no more than an hour earlier by the Master, Drachton Below, himself—nearly flew out of my hands. The driver held open the door for me. He was a porcine fellow with rot ten teeth, and I could tell from one look at his thick brow, his deep-set eyes that he had propensities for daydreaming and masturbation. "To the territory," he yelled ova the wind, spitting out his words across the lapels of my topcoat. I nodded once and got in.

A few minutes later we were speeding through the streets of the city toward the main gate. When the passersby saw my coach, they gave me that curious one-finger salute, a greet ing which had recently sprung up from the heart of the populace. I thought of waving back, but I was too preoccupied with trying to read the clues of their physiognomies.

After all my years of sweeping open the calipers to find the "soul," skin deep, even a glimpse at a face could explode my wonder. A nose to me was an epic, a lip, a play, an ear, a many-volumed history of mankind's fall. An eye was a life in itself, and my eyes did the thinking as I rode into the longest night, the dim-witted driver never letting up on the horses, through mountain passes, over rocky terrain where the road had disappeared. With the aid of the Master's latest invention, a chemical light that glowed bright orange, I read through the particulars ofthe official manuscript. I was headed for Anamasobia, a mining town of the northern territory, the last outpost of the realm.

I reread the case so many times that the words died from abuse. I polished my instruments till I could see myself in their points. I stared out at moonlit lakes and gnarled forests, at herds of strange animals startled into flight by the coach. And as the Master's light began to dim, I prepared an injection of sheer beauty and stuck it in my arm.

I began to glow as the light failed, and an image from the manuscript presented itself to my eye's-mind—a white fruit said to have grown in the Earthly Paradise, purported to have all manner of supernatural powers. It had sat under glass on the altar of the church in Anamasobia for years, never spoiling but always at the perfect moment of ripeness.

Years before, the local miners who worked the spire veins beneath Mount Gronus had broken through a wall into a large natural chamber with a pool and found it there in the withered hand of a mummified ancient. The story of its discovery had piqued the interest of the Well-Built City for a time, but most considered the tale primitive lunacy concocted by idiots.

When the Master had handed me the assignment, he laughed uproariously and reminded me of the disparaging remarks concerning his facial features I had whispered into my pillow three years earlier. I had stared, dumbfounded by his omniscience, while he injected himself in the neck with a syringe of sheer beauty. As the plunger pushed the violet liquid into his bulging vein, a smile began to cross his lips. Laconically, he pulled the needle out and said, ''I don't read, I listen.''

I bit the white fruit and something flew out of it, flapping around the interior of the coach and tangling itself in my hair. Then it was gone and the Master, Drachton Below, was sitting across from me, smiling. "To the territory," he said and offered me a cigarette. He was dressed in black with a woman's black scarf tied around his head, and those portions of his physiognomy that had, years earlier, revealed to me his malicious hubris were accentuated by rouge and eyeliner. Eventually he broke apart like a puzzle that put me to sleep.

I dreamed the coach stopped on a barren windswept plateau with a shadowy vista of distant mountains in the moonlight. The temperature had dropped considerably, and, as I burst out of my compartment, demanding to know the reason for the delay, my words came as steam. The absolute clarity and multitude of stars silenced me. I watched the driver walk a few yards away from the coach and begin drawing a circle around himself with the toe of his boot. He then stood in the middle of it and mumbled toward the mountains. As I approached him, he unzipped his pants and began urinating.

''What nonsense is this?" I asked.

He looked over his shoulder at me and said, "Nature calls, your honor.''

"No," I said, "the circle and the words."

"That's just a little something," he said.

''Explain," I demanded.

He finished his business and, pulling up his zipper, turned to face me. "Look," he said, "I don't think you know where we are."

In that instant, something about his garish earlobes made me think that perhaps the Master had set the whole excursion up to have me done away with for my whispered indiscretions.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

He walked toward me with his hand raised, and I felt myself begin to cringe, but then he brought it down softly on my shoulder. "If it will make you feel any better, you can kick me," he said. He bent over in front of me, flipping his long coattails up in the back so as to present a clearer target.

I kicked the seat facing me and came awake in the coach. As I opened my eyes, I could already sense we had stopped moving and that morning had finally come. Outside the window to my left I saw a man standing, waiting, and behind him a primitive town built entirely of wood. Looming over the town was what I took to be Mount Gronus, inexhaustible source of blue spire, the mineral that fueled the furnaces and engines of the Well-Built City.

Copyright ) 1997 by Jeffrey Ford

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Table of Contents

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Reading Group Guide

Plot Summary
In the land of the Well-Built City, close study of the body's shape can determine a person's character, uncover his deepest secrets, even foretell the future. And in the hands of an expert like Physiognomist First Class Cley, this solemn intelligence delivers perfect justice from which fortunes are claimed or lost, careers are shaped or shattered, lives are continued or cut away. A man who commands such forces may ignore nearby dark pools of arrogance and corruption--but only for a time. In a world not unlike our own Victorian period, Physiognomist Cley is sent out from the Well-Built City to the barren mining town of Anamasobia, where a legendary white fruit -- said to have grown in the Earthly Paradise and purported to hold supernatural powers -- was stolen from under the watchful eyes of the Church. Physiognomist Clely's mission is to discover the thief using the tools of his trade -- calipers and scalpels.

Questions for Discussion

  • The idea of physiognomy is that one can read depth from clues found on the surface. In what ways is this practice still in use in today's society?
  • Although the act of judging a book by its cover, so to speak, can lead to problems like stereotyping, when might it be absolutely necessary for one to utilize this technique?
  • When the book begins, who is the figure of greater evil, Cley or Below?
  • Compare the worlds of The Well-Built City and Anamasobia. How are their citizens different? How are they different physically and philosophically?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of Cley being able to use "sheer beauty"?
  • How does the concept of Paradise change throughout the book -- indifferent situations and for the different characters?
  • What does the concept of Paradise bring to mind in relation to our present culture?
  • What is it that makes Cley lose the power of the physiognomy?
  • If you were a subject in the Well-Built City, how would your own physiognomy fare?
  • How important are Cley's friends, the mayor and Calloo, to the success of his goal?
  • What does Cley learn in the mines of Doralice?
  • Is Silencio friend or foe? Why the wide use of monkey imagery through the book?
  • Discuss the major transformations Cley undergoes in the book.
  • At the end of the novel, is the green veil a sign that Arla has forgiven Cley or not? Should she ever forgive him?
  • How does the place that Cley reaches at the end of the novel (Wenau) coincide with his dream of Paradise throughout the work?

The Author Recommends
The following novels have influenced Jeffrey Ford: "The writing styles, the craft, the stories of these books all seem to be in perfect balance as if one small change would ruin them. Most importantly, they instilled a sense of wonder in me -- something childlike, mystical and profound."

THE FOUR WISE MEN by Michel Tournier
THE BARON IN THE TREES by Italo Calvino
ARABIAN NIGHTS AND DAYS by Naguib Mafouz
FREDDY"S BOOK by John Gardner
MYSTERIES by Knut Hamsun
THE STREET OF CROCODILES by Bruno Schultz
MY LIFE IN THE BUSH OF GHOSTS by Amos Tutola
THE WOMAN IN THE DUNES by Kobo Abe

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