Jasper Fforde explores life within books
By Bruce Robinson
Remember the original Jane Eyre? The one where Jane leaves Edward Rochester and goes off to India with her cousins to live out a lonely spinsterhood? Of course you don't, thanks to Thursday Next.
Ms. Next, a Special Operative in literary detection, plies her trade in a mid-1980s United Kingdom that is notably different than the one we recall: the Crimean War is dragging on into its second century; air travel is by dirigible (although high-speed gravitubes are used for longer, intercontinental trips); and croquet is a major professional sport.
Meanwhile, cloning enjoys a surge of popularity (dodos are popular pets and colonies of cloned Neanderthals, who proved ill-suited to the unskilled labors for which they were bred, still dot the social landscape), coin-operated mechanical actors recite Shakespearean soliloquies and classic British literature, at least, is taken quite seriously. Oh, and time travel is well-established (that's how dodos caught on), if restricted to a select few, including Thursday's mostly absent father, a member of the mysterious ChronoGuard.
But the ominous and omnipresent Goliath Corporation and a fawning media will be strangely familiar to contemporary readers. Both figure prominently in The Eyre Affair, the 2002 novel by Welsh writer Jasper Fforde in which Thursday Next debuts.
The action begins with the theft of the original manuscript of Martin Chuzzlewit, soon followed by the deletion of a minor character (when excised from the original, he also disappears from all subsequent editions, naturally) to underscore a ransom demand. Ms. Eyre is soon threatened as well, and Thursday must actually enter the Brontë story to thwart the schemes of the dastardly Acheron Hades. In doing so, she alters that "original" ending mentioned earlier, and sets the stage for the trilogy that follows.
This tri-part sequel (Lost in a Good Book, The Well of Lost Plots and Something Rotten) not only flesh out Thursday's native society (a world in which North America is scarcely worth mentioning), but also takes us back inside the pages of other writers' works, where she interacts with such familiar folks as Miss Haversham, Hamlet, the Cheshire Cat and the entire cast of Wuthering Heights. But only when they're "offstage," of course.
This is where Fforde's inventive wit and love of books hits critical mass: every book ever published is contained within the Great Library, and their characters can move freely among them by a process called "text-jumping." Of course, the textual integrity of the books must be maintained, a responsibility that falls to the internal organization known as Jurisfiction. But there is another realm within the Great Library where unpublished manuscripts languish and are eventually scrapped for salvage, and a brisk trade is maintained in plot devices, generic characters and clichéd scene settings.
Regardless of whether she is in the Book World or what the fictional folks call the Outland, Thursday remains a dogged detective, for both Spec Ops and Jurisfiction. Over the course of the four volumes, she must wrestle with such complications as a megalomaniacal fictional character who not only takes up residence in the "real" world, but is also determined to rule it. And then there's the Goliath Corporation's fiendish plan to replace the old-fashioned print-on-paper book operating system (BOOK v8.3) with the new and improved UltraWord™ OS, which happens to have a built-in self-destruct feature after the third reading, among other sinister flaws.
To further complicate things, there's the matter of a beloved husband who is ruthlessly expunged from Thursday's temporal reality, and her determined efforts to restore him, even as everyone else has forgotten he ever existed.There is also the Goliath Corporation's suspicious attempt to morph into a religion, a narrow aversion of the end of the earth, a cameo appearance in Kafka's Trial, the remarkable inventions of Thursday's brilliant but eccentric Uncle Mycroft (who for very sound reasons goes into hiding for a time in the writings of Conan Doyle). Add some incidental adventures with werewolves and zombies, a rediscovered "lost" Shakespeare manuscript and a couple of near-death experiences, and you begin to get the feel of these fast-paced, complexly plotted stories.
So it is no small accomplishment to tie up the multitude of fantastic story lines introduced over the course of four books--including Thursday's sentencing from Jurisfiction for altering Jane Eyre--in a surprising, satisfying and internally plausible way, but Fforde pulls it off with considerable aplomb. And he manages it while also leaving the door open for further Thursday Next escapades in the future (or perhaps those of her infant son, Friday).
Throughout the tetralogy, the author's tasty stew of mystery, fantasy and social satire is studded with literary allusions and relentless (albeit very British) punning, much of which is illuminated in Fforde's equally entertaining website, which cleverly extends the worlds he has invented into interactive cyberspace.
Meanwhile, it appears that Mother Goose is coming up for the full Ffordian treatment in his upcoming new book, The Big Over Easy: A Nursery Crime, which publishes in July and purports to unravel the misadventures of one H. Dumpty. No doubt it's going to be a crack-up.
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From the April 13-19, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.