Entering written material (literally) by reading aloud: Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series


Imagine being able to enter works of fiction with a combination of willpower and imagination. Imagine that within those books are real people living their lives as described by the author. Imagine that the plot can be changed once you enter the world of the book. That’s the precept of The Eyre Affair and its sequels, Lost in a Good Book, The Well of Lost Plots and Something Rotten.

How do I summarize these books in anything like a normal length review? I can’t. Fforde throws away in a paragraph what most authors would develop into an entire novel—frustrating for people who like well developed plots and well characterized protagonists.

It’s 1985 in England, but this is not quite the world that we know. Counterfeiting Shakespeare, forging Byron and cheese smuggling are profitable enterprises; indeed, literature is part of everyday life, to the point of kids trading cards picturing characters from eighteenth and nineteenth novels and people naming themselves after great authors and relations thereby to the extent that they must be referred to by number, not to mention Richard III being performed regularly, with audience participation (think Rocky Horror Picture Show). Genetic sequencing of extinct races is a scientific reality; Neanderthals are a common sight and home genetic kits for creating dodos and thylacines are routine, although the Steller’s sea cow is limited to those with the space for a large pool stocked with seaweed. The Crimean War is still being fought, and Wales is a separate nation, in rebellion against England. England is a police state, and the Goliath Company is, as the name suggests, the amalgamation/conglomeration of all heartless companies. Our heroine, Thursday Next, is in SpecOps 27 (literary forgery) in London and vaguely dissatisfied with her life. The man she loved, Landen Parke-Laine, fingered her brother for botching the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimea which resulted in Anton’s death and, later, Next and Parke-Laine splitting up.

As The Eyre Affair begins, Thursday’s genius batty Uncle Mycroft has invented a machine which will allow people to enter literature1. Evil Genius Acheron Hades kidnaps Mycroft and his Prose Portal, and begins abducting characters from literature, eventually holding Jane Eyre herself hostage to gain his ends, which leads to Hades and Next being sucked back into the book which bears Eyre’s name. In Next’s world, the original official Jane Eyre ends with the eponymous character marrying her cousin and joining him to become missionaries in India; in her attempt to escape the fictional milieu, Next inadvertently changes the ending to what we know in our world. As Lost in A Good Book begins, Next returns to her new marriage only to be sucked into the publicity circus surrounding her alteration of Jane Eyre, and into the recruitment process of being inducted into Jurisfiction, the fictional equivalent to SpecOps in her own world. Her husband is eradicated by Goliath to (successfully) blackmail her into retrieving Schitt from Poe’s poem, The Raven. In Well of Lost Plots, she ends up taking refuge in the world of fiction in order to buy time to give birth to her child, and in Something Rotten, she comes back out into the ‘real’ world in order to finish un-eradicating Landen…bringing with her both Hamlet, now become hopelessly indecisive, and her toddler son, Friday. Returning Landen to actuality is somewhat hampered by someone taking a contract out on her with the Windowmaker, who happens to be married to her friend Spike Stoker, and getting caught up in the SuperHoops croquet playoffs in order to bring Goliath to its knees while juggling her duties as Bellman in the Well for Jurisfiction and searching for daycare for Friday.

In short: The world of fiction is both stranger than we imagined, it’s more extensive than we can imagine.

No, it’s not brilliant literature, by any means. It’s not even terribly sophisticated literature–the fact that two of the antagonists are called Jack Schitt and Brik Schitt-Hawse should clue most people to that2, and pitting Miss Havisham against Toad of Toad Hall in a drag race on Pendeen Sands in one of the sequels should finish it off for those who missed the names. The basic plot is, well, basic, the writing’s stilted in places and characterization is minimal; this last isn’t so much an issue for the “fictional” characters, such as Edward Rochester and Miss Havisham, as they’re at least described elsewhere, but the internal “real” characters, such as Mycroft and Thursday’s father (never named!) and even Thursday and Landen themselves do strike me as being more than a little cardboard. That said, Fforde isn’t the only author guilty of skimping on character development. More than slightly ceramic figurine-like characters isn’t going to keep me from recommending them.

I enjoyed them because I’m a sucker for books that incorporate references to Great Works of Literature, and I would recommend them for that reason. Fforde doesn’t develop most of his throwaway ideas fully but I have to love an author who creates a world in which insurgents create an incendiary explosive of atomic bomb proportions by bringing Mein Kampf and Das Kapital into contact with one another, and a library in which all the books ever written are not merely stored but actually live, as do all the books never published and all the books yet to be. I have to love a world in which fictional characters live and breathe and interact with the real world. I’m a librarian. Of course I’m going to love that library.

As with Silverlock, if the Thursday Next books inspire inspire anyone to seek out any of the books referenced within or even do a bit of research into British history to distinguish between what’s real and what alternate history, I’ll consider the books a success. Just don’t think too hard about the plot or the whole series will crumble. Oh, and stop at book four. That’s when Fforde veers away from the “fiction is real” conceit and returns Next to the real world with little connection to the fiction reality.

Gasp. Gasp. Gasp. Gasp.

1entering literature by reading aloud comes later
2just a hint: pretty much all the names are jokes. Think about “Landen Park-Laine” for a minute. Get it? Say it out loud…

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