Jeffrey Ford’s “The Drowned Life”

Posted by Matt Staggs

Available November 4, 2008

Available November 4, 2008

I’m currently finishing Jeffrey Ford‘s phenomenal collection of short fiction “The Drowned Life,” and I’m experiencing a bit of anxiety as I approach the final few pages. You see, I am planning to write a review of the book. So why, you might ask, am I so nervous? Am I planning on writing a review that will evoke Mr. Ford’s ire? Indeed, not! Far from it. In fact, the reason I am so anxious about this looming review is that the book is so good.

You ever read a book whose quality surpassed your own descriptive capacity? For me, this is that book – or rather – one of those books. Words escape me as I try to communicate the things these stories make me feel.  It’s like trying to catch a dragonfly in flight with just your thumb and forefinger: elusive, beautiful and far above my own fumbling grasp.

I’ve had these kinds of experiences before, and with all kinds of literature. “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez left me similarly tongue-tied. So did “Spaceman Blues: A Love Song” by Brian Francis Slattery. Strangely enough, the ending of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “A Princess of Mars” elicited a similar response. Looking now at the list I’ve created, I would have to guess that a feeling of longing would be the common denominator: the longing for a more magical life, maybe. It’s the feeling that I’m missing something, and much like being in a dark room that is suddenly illuminated, until these authors turned on the lights I never knew anything was missing at all.

C.S. Lewis wrote of this feeling – this inarticulable feeling – in one of his numerous works of Christian apologia. Although I cannot quite remember the exact phrase, he ascribed it to a “longing for Heaven” that is common to every human heart. Although I am not a religious man, I can compare my own experience to his own and find similarity. While Lewis had his church, I have my books, and I look to authors like Ford to provide me with these tiny slices of heaven.

“The Drowned Life” invokes this most ephemeral of responses, and by its very nature I am at a loss to fully explain it to you: a commonality of all gnostic experiences. The only way for you to truly understand is to experience it yourself, which I urge you to do.

“The Drowned Life” will be available in November of 2008.


  1. says

    You might not be able to live a magical life,
    but you can certainly make it more magical for others.
    It’s a sort of consolation prize, for those who choose to see things as they are.

  2. says

    Yes! Stop recommending great books. It’s getting ridiculous. I love the post though. Very difficult to capture that feeling you get from a book when you’re just rushing with it and there is a strange synergy between the words on the page and your thoughts and emotions and the universe at large. I’ve been getting this feeling from Gravity’s Rainbow, which I’d had on the shelf to read for years and have now almost finished. Sometimes you almost can’t read it, it breaks your heart but mends it at the same time… or something like that. Cheers!

  3. says

    Wow, Matt, great review! I feel your pain: there are plenty of times where I’m so impressed by a book that I’m lost for words. As a reviewer, this can lead to a fair amount of self conscious guilt. But at the same time, this can be the greatest commendation a book can receive. I struggled to write a review of Jack O’Connell’s “The Resurrectionist” for this very reason. It’s so good that explaining how good it is is simply beyond my meager abilities. But your enthusiasm has vaulted this book to the top of my list!

  4. says

    I agree, though there is a small risk of starting a new genre of ‘awestruck mumbling’ replacing the more traditional ‘erudite and impressive’ critical mode. I think I like your approach, Matt.

  5. Danielle S. says

    I find myself feeling this way after reading much of Jeffrey Ford’s short works. I worked as a bookseller for almost 6 years and wanted to recommend his short stories and would try desperately to find the right customer to mention him too. —But, I found that I suffered from the inability to describe what is so wonderfully fantastic about his works. “Dradin in Love” produces a similar effect on me as well as “The Surgeon’s Tale.” I’ve been trying to describe and recommend your works to a friend of mine who teaches English at a local university and I struggle to describe that quality.

    Was the Lewis comment from “Surprised by Joy”? I think I remember him going on a great deal in that essay about feeling longing after listening to certain music, reading certain pieces of mythology. It might be…I don’t have a copy handy.

    So this comment is a yes-yes, I feel that way too and a thank you for also being such a quality writer and editor.

  6. Jeff VanderMeer says

    Hi, Danielle! Thanks for the kind words. The entry is actually by Matt Staggs, who is guest-blogging this week, but I have similar affection for Ford’s work.

    The music analogy is apt. I know Nathan Ballingrud and I have talked about this–about how ideally you’re trying in the fiction to evoke the same feelings/intensity certain music does, and how frustrating it can be when dealing with words, which aren’t as immediate as the notes to a song, to try to get to that place. So I’m much chuffed you’d use that comparison.


  7. says

    Matt, I had almost an identical reaction to this collection. It was hard for me to find words other than, “It’s . . . well . . . it’s . . . it’s just awesome, okay? Go read it!” Though I did manage to burble on for a bit. I plan to look at the book again closer to November, and do an intense reading of the title story.

  8. says

    Hell yes. I was listening to Ford read one of his stories at Readercon earlier this year, and after he was finished I turned to Michael Cisco and said, “You know, this guy is one of the best writers of short fantasy in the world today.” Cisco agreed, of course, and it’s no exaggeration. Ford is truly phenomenal. I like his novels, but it’s as a short story writer that he really achieves his genius. If there’s a world 150 years from now, and it’s still worth living in, then he’ll have been canonized.

  9. Danielle S. says

    Whoops! Thank you, Matt and Jeff. What a mistake to make. But thank you for the gracious reply, Mr. Vandermeer.

    We all know that there is a unique connection between music and math, but I really think that we forget how great music and literature can share so many qualities especially in an evocative sense.