Call me psychic (if Ford were writing Moby Dick he might start out with that phrase)-- after reading two of his books, The Girl in the Glass, and The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque, I find that his writing is even better than I had hoped. I am not a a book reviewer, nor a blogger who is likely to be much read, but I did drop the line that I would read him and comment about my experience in my blog. That much I can do. Though I here add my disclaimer that my remarks will neither be comprehensive, nor particularly balanced, nor place Jeff properly in the great scheme of western narrative, but rather be a few notations of things, whether general or specific, that struck me-- ie: much like the rest of the disjointed assertions I make regularly in these pages.
Generalities: In these two books I find that author Ford's fiction reads like occult fantasy, but is actually more anchored in the real world than an imaginary one. The juxtaposition of real/unreal allows the reader to experience a great sense of mystery, of wonder (as one reviewer notes), without feeling like he is being played for a fool. This assurance is enhanced in The Girl in the Glass by having the story told through the skeptical eyes of a young con artist in the "seance for rich folks" game.
The Girl in the Glass has much to say about faith and trust that denies its own cynicism even while seemingly portraying it. There are indeed consequences for those who believe foolishly, but there are also consequences for the skeptical, and by the end a balance is achieved which feels true, satisfying, and humanly valid. I think I have said somewhere that all good writing is a disguised treatise in ethics, and these two books stand up to that test well. The sense of objectivity obtained is somewhat surprising to me since they are both written in the first person. These are two of the best first-person narratives I have read, and may well be studied to see how limitations of this voice may be overcome.
Style: These books are certainly better than those of Dan Brown( but this is said only ironically because Angels and Demons has just hit the movies), and not quite as universal as those of Melville and Tolstoy. Frankly, I am not up enough on my contemporary reading to know what other writing they might be most like. For me they were fresh and original in that I felt a new experience that I could not describe by saying to myself: "oh this is a little like Poe and a little like Hemingway with a dash of Steinbeck." I felt in the writing a strong, clear sense of story that hooked me immediately. I was quickly, loyally engaged with the concerns of the central characters, and sometimes left breathless by the unflagging inventive capacity of the author.
Ford's style is transparent. By that I mean that his words do not stand as a barrier between the reader and the story. The words drop away and the story becomes the personal experience of the reader requiring no translation from "literary language" to a more personal one. I like this kind of style where everything is crystal, nothing muddled, crabbed, or confusing-- just a series of interesting thoughts leading you through the stories. This is an easy style to read, but I do not think it is an easy style to write.
My own reading experience was that I first approached the books as "guilty pleasures" the way I might read Mickey Spillane, or Louis L'amour, but found them to be actual pleasures for which I felt no guilt whatsoever. In fact, I began to experience an inner glow, imbibing the words was almost like drinking brandy. I laughed out load several times in both books which I do not normally do, and smiled most of the rest of the time. Clearly, I liked what I was reading, and the way it was presented. I suspect that Ford is first and foremost an author in pursuit of elucidating great ideas, and his stories exist to examine these ideas. It is to his great credit that the ideas do not dominate and leave the characters soul-less and hollow. For what good are great ideas if people are not living them, using them?
The Books: I will not go into detail about the two books beyond urging all to experience them themselves.
The Girl in the Glass: for ambiance think of a Tod Browning movie version of "The Sting." A nice movie could be made from this either as straight Hitchcockian scariness, or with a Coen Brothers warping to the humor.
As for The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque, It think it is a classic idea, beautifully executed. A fable, fantasy, love story, horror story, treatise on art and the human longing to achieve the sublime-- all based on the captivating premise of: how does one try to paint what one has never seen? For some mild ironic dividends when you begin to read, I suggest you try to imagine the whole book beforehand as completely as possible.
I will leave my canvas to dry, and wait a while before I attempt a few more, as of yet unformed, thoughts.