Duck Duck Book

18 – eyre affair
05.17.2005, 12:04 am
Filed under: fiction

The Eyre affair : a novel / Jasper Fforde.
New York : Viking, 2002.
[MCL call number: FICTION FFORDE; 12 copies, one hold;
also CASSETTE Fiction FFORDE [“slightly abridged”]; seven copies, no holds;
and CD Fiction FFORDE [“slightly abridged”]: eight copies, two holds]

Thursday Next lives in the mid-eighties, but not the mid-eighties that you and I remember. In her world, Wales is an authoritarian socialist state, the English are still fighting Imperial Russia in the Crimean War, time travel is normal, cheese is something to riot over, dodos have been resurrected, and the literary “classics” are serious business. Next is an officer in England’s literature police force, SpecOps-27. Her job is to make sure that creators of forged manuscripts, pushers of “lost” Shakespeariana, and other literary criminals are found and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. In her debut appearance, Next has to contend with a major supervillan (he stops bullets in mid-air, can’t be photographed, and hears you mention his name no matter where you are) who kidnaps Jane Eyre and holds her for ransom. Hilarity ensues, and the line between the Outland (where Next is from) and the Bookworld (inside fiction) begins to blur a little.

I thought this book was pretty entertaining. Not really riveting, not great literature, but pretty good and certainly funny and worth my time. Then I began to read the next book in the series, Thursday Next in Lost in a Good Book (New York : Viking, 2003) and about 30 pages in, I realized I was hooked. The interesting thing, I think, is that Thursday Next isn’t really a compelling character. Don’t get me wrong, I like her just fine: she’s plucky, she doesn’t give up on what she believes in, and she’s resourceful. But I’m reading book number three in the series now, Thursday Next in the Well of Lost Plots (New York : Viking, 2004), and I feel like I should have gotten to know her pretty well, but I haven’t. Next still feels two-dimensional to me, and it’s the world she lives in that has me glued to her story.

Generally speaking, I have sort of adolescent reading tastes. I like action and adventure in fiction, I enjoy a mystery and I like narrative tension. A tight plot line keeps me eager to see the next page, and especially I love it when the characters in a book are so real that I’m upset to lose them at the end of the book. Fforde’s Thursday Next series doesn’t really meet any of these needs for me; but I am greatly enjoying reading it anyway because the almost-England of the mid-eighties and the world inside fiction are detailed and vast and complicated and amusing.

However, I must say that even this strength isn’t enough to make the Thursday Next books unqualified favorites of mine — Fforde created a very interesting world (with all the time travel and the Welsh communism) in The Eyre Affair, and then shifted focus to another whole world in Lost in a Good Book, which has Next learning how to jump from the real world into a book and then back again, and introduces her to the Bookworld’s version of SpecOps-27, Jurisfiction (“the policing agency that works within fiction itself to maintain narrative stability”). Maybe Fforde is planning on getting back to his 1986 almost-England a bit later in the series (I’m about halfway through The Well of Lost Plots, and another book follows it), but for now it feels like The Eyre Affair was just a launching pad, a place to frame a context for the fascinating world inside of fiction, where characters spend their off-page time in their own pursuits and there is a vast library of all published fiction presided over by the Unitary Authority of Warrington Cat (formerly the Cheshire Cat).

Another thing to note is that Fforde’s books rely on his readers’ shared understanding of Anglo-American literary culture. Readers who are not familiar with the works of the Brontë sisters, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll, A.A. Milne, Thomas Hardy, Edgar Allen Poe, etc., will miss most of the jokes. The great world of fiction described in the Next books is really a fairly narrow one including only what you’d be force-fed in a high school English class (I would suppose, not having taken high school English myself), without mention of the vast majority even of well-known modern classics.

So, I’m a little disappointed. I wanted to desperately love Thursday Next, but I don’t. I wanted to be terribly concerned with her welfare and the resolution of her story, but I am not. Instead I became fascinated with a world I’d never troubled to imagine for myself. Next is necessary and she’s competently written but Fforde’s real strength is in the whole of the universe he’s created, not in the narrative or the characters. The Bookworld and its intricacies are amusing to contemplate, and Fforde’s mid-eighties England is both gentler and more horrible than the real one can have been, but fascinating to consider.

You will not find reason to immerse yourself in the lives of the people in Fforde’s books, because there is not enough there for you to step into. But if you are interested in a literary distraction, if you can stand the English Lit. in-jokes with their heavily Anglo-centric focus, and if you like the structure a fantasy can create, these books may well be for you.


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