Winner of the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel: Cley has mastered the art of physiognomy—and now he is about to learn its ultimate truth
In the Well-Built City, Master Drachton Below’s power is absolute, and he will not hesitate to use it. His primary method of control is through his physiognomists, who are trained to read a person’s face and body, perceiving that person’s past and secrets—and even events yet to come. These seers are the judges and jury. Now Drachton has found something that could extend his reign for eternity: a fruit that bestows immortality. To investigate its whereabouts, Below sends cold, collected physiognomist Cley to the remote mining town of Anamasobia. One at a time Cley interrogates the townspeople, performing his usual fact finding without issue. That is, until he meets the beautiful and bright Arla, who harbors a secret that could potentially turn Cley’s world upside down—and topple the Well-Built City itself.
A Kafkaesque journey into the unknown, The Physiognomy is an award-winning trip through a land where the line between reality and imagination is constantly blurred.
About the Author
Ford’s fiction has been translated into twenty languages. In addition to writing, he has been a professor of literature and writing for thirty years and has been a guest lecturer at the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, the Stone Coast MFA in Creative Writing Program, Richard Hugo House in Seattle, and the Antioch Writers’ Workshop. Ford lives in Ohio and currently teaches at Ohio Wesleyan University.
Read an Excerpt
Book One of the Well-Built City Trilogy
By Jeffrey Ford
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1997 Jeffrey Ford
All rights reserved.
I left the Well-Built City at precisely 4:00 in the afternoon of an autumn day. The sky was dark, and the wind 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 assigned 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 rotten 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 over 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 greeting 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 of the 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 dreamt 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.
Before gathering my things together, I studied the stranger. Cranium derivative of the equine, eyes set wide, massive jaw—a perfectly good-hearted and ineffectual political functionary. I deemed him trustworthy and prepared to meet him. As I opened the door, he ceased his whistling and walked forward to greet me.
"Welcome to Anamasobia," he said, holding out a gloved hand. His obesity was canceled by an insistent chin, his overbite by the generosity of jowls. I clasped his hand and he said, "Mayor Bataldo."
"Physiognomist Cley," I told him.
"A great honor," he said.
"You are having some trouble?" I inquired.
"Your ... honor," he said, as if on the verge of tears, "there is a thief in Anamasobia." He took my valise and we walked together down the hardened dirt path that was the only street in town.
The mayor gave me a tour as we walked, pointing out buildings and expounding on their beauty and utility. He taxed my civility with colorful tidbits of local history. I saw the town hall, the bank, the tavern, all constructed from a pale gray wood full of splinters and roofed with slate. Some of them, like the theater, were quite large with the crudest attempts at ornamentation. Faces, beasts, lightning bolts, crosses had been carved into some of the boards. On the southern wall of the bank, people had carved their names. This tickled the mayor to his very foundation.
"I can't believe you live here," I said to him, mustering a shred of sympathy.
"Heaven knows, we are animals, your honor," he said, slowly shaking his head, "but we can certainly mine blue spire."
"Yes, very well," I said, "but once, at an exhibition at the Hall of Science in the Well-Built City, I saw a monkey write the words 'I am not a monkey' five hundred times on a sheet of parchment with a quill. Each line was rendered with the most magnificent penmanship."
"A miracle," he said.
I was led to a sorry-looking four-story dwelling in the center of town called the Hotel de Skree. "I have reserved the entire fourth floor for you," said the mayor.
I held my tongue.
"The service is magnificent," he said. "The stewed cremat is splendid and all drinks are complimentary."
"Cremat," I said through tight lips, but it went no further, because coming toward us on the left side of the street was an old blue man. Bataldo saw me notice the staggering wretch and waved to him. The old man lifted his hand but never looked up. His skin was the color of a cloudless sky. "What manner of atrocity is this?" I asked.
"The old miners have lived so long in the spire dust that it becomes them. Finally they harden all the way through. If the family of the man is poor, they sell him as spire rock to the realm for half what a pure sample of his weight would bring. If the family is well-off, they register him as a 'hardened hero,' and he stands in perpetuity somewhere in town as a monument to personal courage and a lesson to the young."
"Barbaric," I said.
"Most of them never get that old," said the mayor, "cave-ins, natural poison gasses, falling in the dark, madness.... Mr. Beaton, there," he said, pointing after the blue man, "he'll be found next week somewhere, heavy as a gravestone and set in his ways."
The mayor showed me into the lobby of the hotel and informed the management that I had arrived. The usual amenities followed. The old couple who presided over the shabby elegance of the de Skree, a Mr. and Mrs. Mantakis, were, each in their own way, textbook examples of physiognomical blunders. Nature had gone awry in the development of the old man's skull, leaving it too thin to house real intelligence and nearly as long as my forearm. I realized, as he kissed my ring, that I could not expect much from him. Not in the habit of beating dogs, so to speak, I showed him a smile and gave an approving nod. The missus, on the other hand, exhibited ferretlike tendencies in her pointed face and sharp teeth, and I knew I would have to check my change after every monetary transaction that passed between us. The hotel itself, with its tattered carpets and fractured chandelier, spelled out a gray, languorous rage.
"Any special requests, your honor?" said Mr. Mantakis.
"An ice-cold bath at dawn," I told him. "And I must have complete silence in which to meditate upon my findings."
"We hope your stay will be—" the old woman began, but I cut her off with a wave of my hand and demanded to be taken to my rooms. As Mr. Mantakis took my valise and led me toward the stairway, the mayor announced that he would send someone for me at four.
"A gathering to stand as an official welcome for you, sir," he called after me.
"As you wish," I said, and mounted the rickety stairs.
My lodgings were fairly spacious—two large rooms, one to serve as my sleeping quarters and one as an office with a writing desk, a lab table, and a divan. The floors creaked, the autumn breeze of the northern territory leaked through the poorly caulked windows, and the wallpaper of vertical green stripes and an indefinite species of pink flower gave rise to thoughts of carnival.
In my bedroom I was startled to find one of the hardened heroes the mayor had told me about. An old man dressed in miner's overalls stood slightly bent in the corner, supporting a long oval mirror.
"My brother, Arden," said Mantakis as he put my valise down next to the bed. "I didn't have the heart to send him to the city as fuel."
As the old man was about to leave, I asked him, "What do you know of this fruit of the Earthly Paradise?"
"Arden was there when they found it about ten years ago," he said in his slow-witted drawl. "It was pure white and looked like a ripe pear you want to sink your teeth into." As he said this, he showed me his crooked yellow teeth. "Father Garland said it should not be eaten. It would make you immortal, and that flows against the will of God."
"And you subscribe to this twaddle?" I asked.
"Sir?" he said, unsure of my question.
"You believe in it?"
"I believe whatever you believe, your honor," he said and then backed out of the room.CHAPTER 2
I studied my own image in the mirror held by the petrified Arden and considered my approach to the case. It was true that the Master had banished me to the territory as a punishment, but that was not an invitation to perform shoddily. If I were to shirk my duties, he would immediately know and have me either executed or sent to a work camp.
Not every fool and his brother could achieve the status of Physiognomist, First Class in less than fifteen years. Time and again I had conducted hairsplitting physiognomical investigations. Who was it who had discovered the identity of the Latrobian werewolf in a six-year-old girl when that beast had wrought havoc among the towns just beyond the circular wall? Who had fingered Colonel Rasuka as a potential revolutionary and headed off a coup against the Master years before the would-be perpetrator even knew himself what he was capable of? Many, including Drachton Below, had said I was the best, and I wasn't going to damage that estimation, no matter how trivial the case, no matter how remote the location of the crime.
Obviously, this was a job for one of those first-year graduates who can't help wounding himself with his own instruments. The religious ramifications of the affair elicited a distinct aching in my hindquarters. I remembered the time I had pleaded with the Master to do away with all religion. Its practice had died out in the city, replaced by a devotion to Below that seemed born of the people's desire to participate in his own unique form of omniscience. Out in the territories, though, lifeless icons still held sway. His answer was "Let them have their hogwash."
"It is a corruption of nature," I countered.
"I don't give a fig," he said. "I'm a corruption of nature. Religion is about fear, and miracles are monsters." He reached over and, with graceful sleight of hand, pulled a goose egg from behind my ear. When he cracked it on the edge of his desk, a cricket jumped forth. "Do you understand?" he asked. That was when I noticed his continuous eyebrow and the small tufts of primate hair adorning each of his knuckles.
The sheer beauty was coursing through me, transforming the ineffable into images, susurrations, aromas. In the mirror, behind my reflection, I saw a garden of white roses, hedgerow, and morning glory vine that, drop by drop, melted into a view of the Well-Built City. The chrome spires, the crystal domes, the towers, the battlements all shone in the sunlight of a more hospitable region of the mind. This also began to swirl and eventually settled out again into the drab surroundings of my room at the Hotel de Skree.
I thought for a moment that the drug had played one of its time tricks on me, compressing the usual two-hour hallucination into mere minutes, but that was not the case, for standing behind me, looking over my shoulder into the mirror, was Professor Flock, my old mentor from the Academy of Physiognomy.
The professor was looking rather spry, considering he had passed away ten years earlier, and he wore an affable expression, considering it was my own prosecution that had sent him to the most severe work camp—the sulphur mines at the southern extremity of the realm.
"Professor," I said, not turning around but addressing him through the glass in front of me, "a pleasure, as always."
Dressed in white, as was his habit back at the academy, he moved closer to me and put his hand on my shoulder. I felt its weight as if it were real. "Cley," he said, "you sent me to my death, and now you call me back?"
"I am sorry," I said, "but the Master could not tolerate your teaching of tolerance."
He nodded and smiled. "It was foolishness. I have come to thank you for eradicating my crackpot notions from the great society."
"You hold no grudge?" I asked.
"Of course not," he said. "I deserved to be baked like a slab of ham and strangled on fumes of sulphur."
"Very well then," I said. "How should I proceed with this case?"
"The Twelfth Maneuver," was his reply. "Anamasobia is a closed system. Merely read every subject in town, review your findings, and look for the one whose features reveal an inclination toward larceny and a religiopsychotic reliance on the miraculous."
"How will the latter be revealed?" I inquired.
"As a blemish, a birthmark, a wart, a mole with an inordinately long black hair growing from it."
"As I suspected," I said.
"And Cley," he said as he began to vanish, "full body exams. Leave no stone unturned, no dark crevice unexamined."
"Naturally," I said.
Excerpted from The Physiognomy by Jeffrey Ford. Copyright © 1997 Jeffrey Ford. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Reading Group Guide
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 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