Channeling the gravitas of Borges and Calvino, Jeffrey Ford’s collection of short stories titled The Drowned Life, though at times overreaching in scope, sublimely conjures a sense of sheer wonder and befuddlement when confronted with the intersection of everyday life and the dreams that shape it, or are shaped by it.
Ford alternates his stories between the subtle and grandiose, the mundane and the outlandish, incorporating through each a pervasive sense of mystery and weirdness. When he is not detailing the wisdom of a soothsaying octopus, a town’s dependence upon an annual, magical breeze, and the peculiar behavior surrounding the annual “deathberry” drinkers, he describes the power contained within an overlooked scribble, an apartment’s potentially haunting flicker of light, losing a Chinese curse in a poker game, and the dictated writings of a comatose daughter through her mother.
This see-saw between the highly fantastical and the merely strange begs careful attention and even patience of the reader, noting the eternal truth that things are never what they seem. Several stories, especially that which introduces the fascinating Madame Mutandis, are deserving of their own novels. The Drowned Life is a deep and resonating read.
Also worth mentioning is an extended supplement in which Ford describes his biography and approach to writing, both of which explain much and lend credence to the saying that truth is stranger than fiction.
Imagine yourself involuntarily surrounded by a small group of travelers, forced by circumstance to cut off all interaction with society. Rumors tell of cities overflowing with corpses, and no one knows the cause nor the symptoms until it’s too late. A grand pestilence has infected the ports, and the only safe direction is inland and ever north. Such is the historically fictitious medieval mystery Company of Liars by Karen Maitland.
Maitland takes her fascination of the medieval period and constructs a very convincing and entertaining story around the occurrence of the Black Plague. While citizens are dropping like flies from port to port and across the countryside, Maitland’s company of nine is forced to interact and eventually divulge their secrets, stories and lies in a wayward attempt at survival, claiming each one by one. The pestilence serves not only as the driving force behind the story, but also the invisible element highlighting just how “interesting” the times were to live in during that period. Ironically, her interpretation of Medieval England is surprisingly similar, though a bit more lively (especially in dialogue), to other apocalyptic voices such as McCarthy’s The Road. Maitland skillfully illuminates a culture of indulgences, a preponderance of predestination, Jewish scapegoating, hypocrisy and the human pathos of a medieval mindset which is not so historically distant from ours.
Vivid description is Maitland’s major strength throughout the story. Not only does she deliver a magical element to the company’s progression, she also knows how to tell a story within a story. Each character’s secrets are deftly divulged as the story flows, until the final pages whereupon the reader won’t reach an unexpected twist as much as a cathartic resolution. The story of the camelot is an impressive and engaging read.