Physiognomist Cley has been sent by Master Drachton Below, the evil genius who constructed the Well-Built City, to the faraway mining district of Anamasobia to investigate the theft of a fruit that’s rumored to have grown in the Earthly Paradise and to have supernatural powers. Upon arriving, the skeptical and arrogant physiognomist finds a whole town of morons whose physical features clearly indicate that they are all backward and generally pathetic. Except for Arla, whose beautiful features suggest that she is intelligent and competent, and who seems to understand the science of physiognomy (even though that’s impossible because she’s a woman). But Cley likes looking at Arla (women do have their place), so he invites her to be his assistant as each of the dimwits in the town comes one-by-one to disrobe, pose, and present their bodies for physiognomical inspection, measurement, and analysis.
But Cley’s investigation starts to go badly when he attempts to read the physiognomy of “The Traveler,” the dark man who was holding the supernatural fruit when it was originally found in the mines. Knowing that “dark pigmentation of the flesh is a sure sign of diminished intelligence and moral fiber,” Cley is surprised to find that his scientific measurements don’t add up. He’s also shocked to find other strange impossibilities happening in Anamasobia. Soon, his knowledge and skills begin to fail him and, eventually, things spiral out of his control after he performs an experimental surgery on Arla while under the influence of his favorite hallucinogenic drug. Master Drachton Below is not pleased with Cley’s work… and Master Below is not a man to disappoint.
The Physiognomy, with its original ideas, setting, characters, and symbolism, is sometimes brilliant, and always bizarre (which is probably why it won the 1998 World Fantasy Award). The focus on the debunked science of physiognomy is especially appealing and the characters, though they are not likable, are fascinating, too. Physiognomist Cley — who computes personalities with calipers, wears formaldehyde as cologne, is addicted to drugs, and is afraid of the dark — is one of the most narcissistic, sarcastic, and generally nasty characters you’ll ever meet. Master Drachton Below, who developed the Well-Built City as a perfect representation of his elaborate version of the mnemonic device called The Method of Loci, and who enjoys reviving dead human bodies by fitting them with mechanical devices and neural implants, makes a great villain. I listened to Audible Frontier’s version of The Physiognomy which was read by Christian Rummel. All of the characters were expertly and entertainingly rendered by Mr. Rummell, who perfectly captured the arrogance of Cley and the malevolence of The Master.
The plot of The Physiognomy starts confidently and with purpose, but when Cley’s troubles begin to accumulate, the story dissolves into a series of bizarre, vaguely-related occurrences which feel more like one of Cley’s time-distorted hallucinations than a plot. Like the hallucinations, the imagery is excellent (e.g., the hellish symbolism of the sulfur mine), and the prose never falters, but the things that happen to Cley, and his subsequent changes in personality, feel vague, arbitrary, and unbelievable.
It’s disappointing when a book which starts so well fails to completely satisfy, but I’m not giving up on Jeffrey Ford or his Well-Built City trilogy. I loved the idea of the city based on The Method of Loci and I am hoping to learn more about it in the next book which is propitiously titled Memoranda.
The Well-Built City — (1997-2001) Publisher: Offering a freshly-imagined world of bizarre creatures and strange customs, this unique and sardonic allegory explores the power and price of science and the ambiguity of morality. Humorless and drug addicted, physiognomist Cley is ordered by the Master of the Well-Built City to investigate a theft in a remote mining town. Well-versed in serving justice, arrogant Cley sets out to determine the identity of the thief using the pseudo-science of judging people by their features, but becomes distracted from his task by a beautiful girl from town. When the young-but-wise woman rejects him, he looses faith in his abilities, and in a drug-induced frenzy he “remakes” her features. The subsequent horror of what he has done, what he represents, and the shallow life he leads forces him to seek atonement and true justice, risking the Master’s wrath, which may entail death by head explosion.