Thursday, July 19, 2012

100 Books #66 - Jasper Fforde's THE EYRE AFFAIR

Time travel! Cloned animals! Nineteenth century social novels! Exclamation marks! Most of those last from me! These Thursday Next novels, in other words, are a hell of a lot of fun! And this is only the first of seven extant so far! It's as if Lavie Tidhar and Tim Powers became devout Catholics* and got married and had a whole lot of children together! I don't know which one of them gets to be the mom by the way!

More than anything, The Eyre Affair, and, from what I'm hearing, all the rest of the books in this series, is a novel for a certain kind of person: the kind who crows with delight at the idea of children trading Henry Fielding bubblegum cards and arguing over what is a fair exchange for a rare Sophia (answer: an Allworthy, a Tom Jones and an Amelia). I am that kind of person.

It is also for the kind of person who thinks The Sandbaggers (a 1970s British TV show about a very small unit of very covert Cold War operatives) was one of television's greatest achievements. I am also that kind of person.

Ditto for the kind of person who dreams about what it would be like if radical Baconians (people who think Francis Bacon was the actual author of Shakespeare's plays) and Marlovians (people who think Kit Marlowe was better than Shakers, or even that he was the real author) engaged in various forms of combat in the present day, said combat/competitiveness including door-to-door solicitations like so many Mormon teenagers on Mission. Oh  yes, I am one of those as well.

If you're reaching the conclusion that I would have liked this book even if the characterization and plotting were crap, you are right. Fortunately, those elements are of a quality almost as worthy of praise as all these schticks that Fforde has combined here. I say almost only because really, I'm pretty sure no plot, no characters, could ever be as awesome as Richard III (the play; I do feel the need to emphasize that it's the play rather than the actual king, as we are dealing with some time travel here) being heckled, Rocky Horror-style.

And I'll stop just dropping bits now, I promise. But gosh, are they fun. The temptation to share all of my favorites is really hard to resist.

At heart, the Eyre Affair is a detective novel, one that, probably, counts as a cozy mystery. Thursday Next, a veteran of the Crimean War (that is still going on in this alternate 1985), works in "LitTec", a sort of crime squad dedicated to, e.g., stamping out the trade in fake original Byron manuscripts purportedly brought through time. It's not very exciting work, and she is tired of it and longs for adventure, but when she gets sucked into a high level investigation for which she is uniquely qualified, she gets more than she bargained for. As well she should, in such a world!

Soon she's on the trail of a supervillain who can't be photographed or filmed, which means no one knows what he looks like - except our heroine, who happens to once have had him as a professor. And not appearing in photos is just one of his powers. He has a lot of powers.

So yes, this book is lots of fun, but there are some quirks, some of which feel a bit amateurish, that bugged me from time to time. Like our narrator's** tendency, when relating flashbacks to other characters, to include the kind of dialogue tags, complete with adverbs, that are natural for a first person narrator of a piece of fiction, but which real, normal people -- or characters in most quality fiction -- do not use in ordinary conversation, and especially not when reporting to superiors in an official capacity. Think about it. If your boss had called you in to ask you about something bad that happened, would  you say things like "Acheron smiled admiringly. He would have continued his brutal game for as long as he could, but the distant wail of police sirens hastened him into action. He shot me once in the chest and left me for dead" would you? No, you would say something like "we heard sirens, and then Acheron smiled, shot me, and took off." Or at least I would.

I can almost, almost, accept this as a very clever stylistic choice on Fforde's part; this is a world that takes classic literature extremely seriously, and our narrator is someone who spends a lot of time up to her eyeballs in it (literally, but I'm trying to avoid major spoilers), and so maybe, just  maybe, she would actually talk that way.

To police and higher ups in the secret service.

In a disciplinary/investigative setting.

 OK, no, I just talked myself out of that completely. It's official: I consider this a flaw, and a fairly annoying  one.

I'm inclined, though, to forgive Mr. Fforde this tic, not just because of the amusing bits the flavor of which I suggested above, but for the interesting conceit he has cooked up for these books: novels have a real and tangible existence, and each reading of one activates it as a sort of rigidly performed stage play, the characters and creatures performing their roles perfectly, identically, every single time, down to the smallest gesture. As it is written, so shall it be, over and over until nobody reads the book ever again -- except for special cases when a reader somehow penetrates the printed page, enters the story and interferes. Then, not only can that "performance" change, but so can the original text. Forever.

See? Interesting! Even when it's not combined with time travelers and cloned pet dodos and interagency politics and star-crossed love stories! But here, it is!

As the title of this novel suggests, the book getting picked on by both villain and heroine is Jane Eyre, with which the villain interferes to a disastrous degree and which our heroine must repair by foiling the villain and minutely supervising the course of the plot once the villain is foiled. Which is to say that, while I can't imagine anyone who wasn't already a fan of Jane Eyre picking up this book, heaven help that poor soul, especially if he or she is spoiler-averse.

For the rest of us, this is, as other reviewers have put it, a silly book for smart people, at least the kind of smart people who wish that art and literature were taken as seriously in this world as in the one Fforde has imagined. And yes, of course, I am one of those, too. Aren't you?

Oh, and Doctor Who fans will probably like this, too.

*And hey, Tim Powers already is one, I think.

**And well, as long as I'm taking pot-shots at the narration, Thursday is a awfully omniscient for a first person narrator. Awfully.


  1. Just...just keep reading. Things will begin to pull together in wholly new and interesting ways the further in you get.


    1. Oh, I plan to. I want to see what other demented stuff comes out of this guy's imagination. I'll put up with a little narrative wonkiness now and then in pursuit of high silliness, yes I will.


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