Here’s the introduction that Jeff Ford wrote for The Painting and the City. Also, Jeff is blogging again. Go ye to the Crackpot Palace.
Jeffrey Ford: The Fiction of Robert Freeman Wexler
Like something out of a Robert Freeman Wexler novel, I can’t remember when I first met Robert Freeman Wexler. On the first few brief meetings, he was a very unassuming individual, calm, eyelids one eighth of the way toward a nap, but usually grinning. It was only after I read his fiction that his personality began to cohere for me. His fiction is deep and unique with its own off-kilter, waltz-like rhythm. It’s a tonic to the death-rush of today’s corporate-fueled five cuts per second novelty bazaar. It’s not screaming for attention by trying to be the most anything, but is content to be itself, which is something subtly surreal, contemplative, graceful, and shot through with humor.
A lot happens in his books, more than in most, because whereas many of today’s writers are always mindful of hurrying on to the next big payoff, Wexler is content to linger and give full weight to his characters’ musings and daily routines. They have jobs and relationships and know disappointment and an occasional quiet, solitary triumph. The clarity of his writing style reveals the everyday as being as interesting as an instance of, like in one of his short stories, the clouds taking on mass and tumbling out of the sky.
When these aspects of his fiction came into focus for me, Wexler, himself, came into focus. What I can tell you I’ve learned about him is that he’s in it for the art. That may sound like an outdated, hippie platitude, but for those, like him, who operate from this rare space, it’s a timeless actuality devoid of melodrama. He is not a frantic promoter of himself or his fiction. When he speaks about his work, you can tell he’s given it a great deal of thought. I suggest you seek out some of the interviews he’s given that exist on-line. There you’ll find someone intelligent and honest about the discussion of his own books, someone confident enough in what he’s about to be able to question his own motives and assumptions.
As the years went on, and after having read two of his major works of fiction, In Springdale Town and The Circus of the Grand Design (both are excellent), I got to know Robert better. He works a day job as a book designer, doing layouts, and is quite exceptional at this as well. I know because he designed the cover and interior for one of my own books, The Cosmology of the Wider World. As in his writing, he goes the extra mile to get things just right. His sense of humor, which I discovered in his work, also revealed itself in our correspondence, especially in a discussion we had about a new kind of Science Fiction and Fantasy convention. If you know anything about these affairs, they usually take place in big hotels and there are tracks of programming in which the writers are given license to pontificate to audiences about their deathless concepts of fiction and the “writing process.” Wexler’s idea was indicative of his nature—hold a convention in a less than exotic locale, say, somewhere on the turnpike in New Jersey, in a seedy motel; anyone who wants to come is invited and is on an equal footing with everyone else; each participant gets a room; there’s no ego-driven programming; people just wander from room to room, discussing writing or life in general or whatever’s on their mind. His name for it, to take the sense of the spectacular away, would be Crapcon. I did a write-up on my blog about it and the response was overwhelming. People wanted to know where it would be held and how to sign up.
Wexler’s fiction has been published primarily by genre presses specializing in the speculative, but questions of genre don’t really apply. He’s one of those writers who travels his own country, for whom the terms Science Fiction or Fantasy or Mainstream are pointless appellations. He doesn’t consider “genre” when writing but operates organically from his sub-conscious, discovering the story as it reveals itself to him. With this method, the fiction isn’t tied to a pre-conceived category but is an idiosyncratic hybrid of all of his influences, literary and lived, reconfigured by imagination and revealed. There are instances of the fantastic in all his major works, but they are so inextricably linked, as with an atomic bond, with the “realistic” concerns of the everyday. Don’t bother trying to sort it out, just enjoy its unique qualities.
For my money, the two most interesting aspects of his fiction, and you’ll, of course, have your own after reading his work, are: 1) The solitary nature of the human condition. How, as we go through our days, the world, at times either wild or mundane unfolding around us, we live with ourselves, our dreams, our moments of self-discovery, our attempts at connection with others. There is much of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe in Wexler’s main characters. In Springdale Town, we read of the parallel lives of two men, each knocked for a loop by life, struggling to re-establish themselves, rediscover and re-invent themselves, and all of the contemplation, machinations, memories, false and true acts, that accompany that process. I get a clear sense that Wexler understands what it means to be the “other.” A great theme of literature both speculative and realistic. 2) His approach to the fantastic is quite unique. When his characters encounter it, there is much more often than not, no attempt to explain it. It’s just there like any other aspect of the world. Because of this restraint of reaction in the face of the surreal, it creates a very dream-like quality to his fiction. Wexler is willing to live with mysteries not revealing their secrets, and because of this his fictional realities become more believable, more solid. Take a look at Circus of the Grand Design, a story about a man who stumbles upon and takes up with a fantastic circus, full of magic, incredible beings, and creatures (a goddess, a mechanical horse) and all manner of strangeness, and yet these oddities don’t struggle to explain themselves or their connections, but simply are, their mysteries intact. With this technique, the author strikes directly at the heart of the Surreal.
Now you have before you The Painting and The City, to my mind, Wexler’s most accomplished fiction to date. You’re in for a treat—a New York City that comes vividly to life, a sculptor obsessed with a strange 19th century portrait, diary entries of a long-dead painter, a contemplation on commerce and art, and much more. After having written all of this, I’ll admit, Robert Freeman Wexler and his art, to some extent, remain a mystery to me, and after you’ve read this novel now in your hands, I think you’ll agree, that’s the beauty of it.