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BOOK REVIEW

The imagination is left free to roam

The Drowned Life Stories Jeffrey Ford HarperPerennial: 292 pp., $14.95 paper

November 09, 2008

The collection "The Drowned Life" raises a banner to salute the power of the imagination. Jeffrey Ford doesn't just invent one world with its own rules, creatures and imagery -- he creates dozens in 16 dreamlike stories, which move between science fiction, fantasy and (mostly) normal backyards.

Like Aimee Bender, Ford can take a setting that seems routine and open it with a fantastical twist. Sometimes he does this in small ways, as in "What's Sure to Come," in which a boy watches his grandmother tell fortunes with a standard deck of cards.

The adults see a parlor trick, but in the boy's eyes, his grandmother does see the future. In the title story, a father with typical responsibilities becomes the victim of a literalized metaphor; "going under" financially draws him into a submerged world, where he swims and plans his escape from its waterlogged decay.

Other stories go even further afield. "The Dismantled Invention of Fate" describes an astronaut's wanderlust, which takes him from planet to planet, each described with the awe of an enchanted tourist; on one he meets his beloved Zadiiz, whose skin is "the color of an Earth sky." In "The Manticore Spell," an apprentice wizard has a role to play in the death of the mythical monster.

More than once, younger men find themselves facing duties they may not be quite ready for, as older, powerful figures begin to fade. This is the case in the vivid story "The Night Whiskey," where a man is trained to knock drunks from trees, a chore connected to his town's annual ritual of choosing a few citizens to drink a liqueur made from the local, mysterious death berry. In their drunkenness, they climb into trees and dream of warm encounters with the dead. But when something is brought back from the death dream, its eradication by the town fathers devastates everyone irreparably.

Dreams, after all, can be dangerous, as your nightmares will tell you if you listen; Ford listens. In "The Dreaming Wind," a town is blasted, at the beginning of fall, by a wind that brings its dreams to life. "Eyes slipped from the face and wound up in the palm, and mouths traveled to kneecaps. . . . While our citizens suffered bodily these sea changes, bellowing with fear, crying out in torment at being still themselves inside but something wholly other outward, the landscape also changed around them." When the wind recedes, the town is mostly, but not completely, restored: a parrot is left with the face of a china doll, an image both sweet and terrible.

Even in this frightening world, the creativity of dreams is a gift; the loss of the dreaming wind leaves the town in sad shape. Elsewhere in this collection, someone is trapped but narrates himself a pastoral life; the author intrudes on another story, part-"Alice in Wonderland," part-history, conjuring it into being on the pages in front of us.

As wildly different as these stories are, they show us one thing: The imagination should be nurtured, allowed to run into its darkest corners and up to its brightest peaks. Or maybe, it just needs to stretch for a spell, under a tree in the backyard.

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