The Physiognomy – Jeffrey Ford

The Physiognomy


As punishment, Physiognomist First Class Cley is sent by the Master to investigate a minor matter. He sets out to do so with his usual brutal, privileged, directness, only to end up on a course toward disaster.


The Physiognomist struck me as a self-consciously quirky story – as with Jeff Vandermeer, Physiognomist author Jeffrey Ford trying too hard to be outlandish and strange. This feels a story asking – begging, even – to be placed with Kafka. It would have succeeded better if it had made more clear what it was trying to achieve.

Reading The Physiognomist, left me feeling constantly as if I were missing some several layers of hidden meaning. Unfortunately, the subtletly confounded me – or simply wasn’t there. Rhere are several obvious aspects of satire, such as focus on looks as a surrogate for capability, However, Ford spends quite a lot of time hinting at other layers relating to religion (the Master’s name is Drachton Below) and psychology (hints at representations of ego and id) without ever committing to them. Several promising avenues are thrown out and then simply let lie.

Quite a bit of the story simply doesn’t make much sense within its own universe, and the problem is exacerbated by the narrator’s addiction to the drug ‘sheer beauty’ and its pyschedelic effects. The result feels more like a pastiche of surreal dream sequences than a purposeful narrative. It’s original and interesting, but it’s not good. It’s a disappointment; the concept holds a lot of promise that Ford never follows up on, and the ending is flat and anti-climactic.

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