Modern Classic Book Review: The Empire of Ice Cream by Jeffrey Ford

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Through a glass strangely

The Empire of Ice Cream by Jeffrey Ford (Golden Gryphon, RRP £12.50, 319pp)

There is a vibrant and wonderful form of fantasy literature which is growing ever more popular. Some would argue that it has always been a staple part of fantasy writing, and they have a point. Quite simply, Jeffrey Ford goes to extra special length to make the everyday more magical, more mysterious, more than the everyday object or action than it really is. Ford’s work perfectly encapsulates this startling and revealing mode of fantasy writing, going beyond merely the realms of the creation of a fantasy world and into a place which questions what literature is.

At this point you might be racking your brains trying to think up contradictions and I’ll admit that fantasy writing very often starts in a recognisable, yet fictional, world, and then moves through a form of doorway, a dividing line, into a fictional universe which breaks the normal laws of physics which existed in the previous world, such as in the Narnia books, or Peter Pan. In this way we are allowed to recognise how magical this new world is, both through the wide-eyed wonder of the characters and by the simple demonstration of its unworldlyness, its difference in direct comparison. Neil Gaiman has employed this same method in many of his works, the central trope to most of his work is that there is a hidden underworld, an alternate universe, which exists right beneath our noses. But again, his work demands that while many of its inhabitants move among us, they are powerless while they do so since there is still a transitional portal required to access the alternate world itself and experience the different set of physical laws which that universe allows.

Ford seems determined to reject this by imbuing even the most innocent, random and mundane of objects with a life which far exceeds the laws of this universe. The opening story is ‘The Annals of Eelin-Ok’ in which the night-long life of a tiny inhabitant of a sandcastle is minutely described. This story is not only important for the placement of the fantasy universe – squarely within our own, existing, in this case, right beneath our feet in the sandcastle– but also the manner by which that universe is revealed. The unnamed narrator, let’s assume it’s Ford, gives us some of the wider background before presenting us, not with a narrative from an external point of view, but with the diary of the Faerie themselves. Thus the transition point from our, recognisable, world to the fantastical of the faerie is done through literature.

This motif is employed again and again, in slightly different forms. There are stories where the transition is told to the narrator, who is in conversation with the person who has been across the divide to the fantastical. Literature is, after all, only cemented speech, captured and printed to a page. Thus we have the strange tale called ‘A Man of Light’ in which a newspaper reporter gets the story of the century by interviewing a man who has learnt to manipulate light itself. This story is interesting since it makes a number of interesting claims, all of which rely on the reader accepting certain physical impossibilities. As the reader, we are never quite sure if the narrator is standing in our universe or another separate one. Either way, his astonishment at the events being narrated are sufficient for us to assume that the world being described to him is different from the one he knows. Or there is ‘A Night in the Tropics’ in which a barman sits with the narrator and tells the story of how he was cursed, and its relation to a large mural on the bar-room wall. In the edition I have, published by Golden Gryphon, the story notes point out that the bar is a real place: the mural does actually exist. Ford has sat in that bar, staring at the mural, weaving a narrative out of the scene depicted. And I think this is where Ford’s inspiration lies: in staring too long at an otherwise forgettable object until it starts to take on characteristics which rise it above the mundane.

In ‘Botch Town’, an autobiographical story in the same sense as Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend, the random junk which makes up the model of the narrator’s suburb becomes the place itself, even taking on a consciousness in order to help solve the disappearance of local kids. This is wonderfully underplayed. Where lesser writers would have emphasised the creepy goings-on, Ford maintains a child’s perspective on everything. Thus the fact that there is a child-snatcher roaming the streets, and objects on his model town are moving of their own accord are no less or more remarkable than the man who falls down drunk on his front lawn but doesn’t spill his drink; or the strange publishing career of his favourite fictional character; or his mother’s drunken promises of holidays far abroad. This fictional world is very much the real world since it is the childhood memories of Ford, dressed up with a bit of mystery. The magic and the fantasy are there simply as a result of observation, of imagination, of perspective on the given universe. This world ends up magical because of the narrator seeing what he can’t explain and making a magical explanation of it.

The titular story ‘The Empire of Ice Cream’ revolves around synaesthesia in which the narrator’s senses get mixed up, thus he has visual hallucinations when he experiences sounds or tastes. Ford is again taking the very everyday world and draping a veil over it to give it an extra-special sparkle and allure. There is a wonderful and fantastic twist in this story which makes it more than a mere exercise in sensory mis-description, but I can’t reveal it: it’s so delicious it would be a crime against good literature.

My favourite story is the one which flips this formula around and presents the fantastical as the everyday and mundane. ‘Boatman’s Holiday’ follows Charon, the ferryman in the underworld who takes the dead across the river Styx to Hell. Here it is just a job, a 9-5 world of repetition and office politics, barely alleviated by the people he encounters. As the title suggest, Charon is due his holiday which he spends trying to find a hidden island with an escape route out of hell. The power of this story is not only in the fictional world, which is the unimaginable vistas and scale from The Aenied, neither is it the humour of the bored boatman suffering the boorish idiots he works with, but is also in the secret power of literature itself. The twist of the story is the fact that if someone writes a story about a fictional place, such as hell, then it changes that place. Hence the hidden island which only exists because a passenger on his boat went to the trouble to write about it before he died. When the boatman realises this, he sets out to re-write his world. The story ends thus:

‘The words came, slowly at first, reluctantly, dragging their imagery behind them, but after a short while their numbers grew to equal the number of sinners awaiting a journey to the distant shore. He ferried them methodically, expertly, from his mind to the page, scratching away long into the dark night of Hell until down at the bottom of the spiral pit, in his palace of frozen sighs, Satan stopped laughing.’

Ford’s attention to the possibilities of fiction extend beyond mere objects and into the activity which he himself is engaged in: writing. The same force of imagination which wonders ‘what if sandcastles had inhabitants?’ Also ponders what happens to the perceived universe in a constructed world. Writing and art are essential elements of being human, we tell stories all the time, to each other, to ourselves; we explain events through stories, in the news for instance; our memories are constructed by stories and photographs. Ford has looked at the nature of story-telling and understood that its power can lie not just in evoking, informing and sharing but also in reshaping that which we consider to be already known. Speculative fiction such as this juggles with the very nature of what we consider to be a hard and fast line: the division between a fictional and a real universe. With Ford the line is crossed in many places, and not always in the same direction, but he does it in such an engaging and wonderfully wide-eyed way that it is impossible to not like him.

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