Last summer, I dipped my toe into the weird waters of Jasper Fforde's chronicles of Thursday Next, voyager through fiction, literary detective, time traveler's daughter and hard-working civil servant in an alternate universe in which literature is taken way, way more seriously than it is in our own. And it took me a while to recover from all the crazy-cool insanity packed into that flawed but fun novel, The Eyre Affair, the experience of reading which was like hanging out with a precocious teenager who felt the relentless need to keep impressing one with his precocity every two minutes or so. Nice kid, don't want to discourage him or hurt his feelings, but dude!
Keep reading, my Fforde-loving friends encouraged. The series gets better.
My Fforde-loving friends were right, though we still have kind of a hot mess on our hands in this second installment.
There is time travel, and the consequences thereof -- a storyline involving the "eradication" not only of Thursday's husband, who was not rescued from drowning when he was two years old, but also of Thursday's father, who was never conceived. Yeah, like that. There is more bewildering fiction-delving of a kind that knocks the plot of The Eyre Affair into a cocked hat -- Thursday is still a LiteraTec operative, but has also, as part of her effort to un-eradicate her husband (by whom she is pregnant, even though he doesn't exist), been inducted into the corps of "Jurisfiction", a band of fictional characters who police literature to keep it from getting tampered with; Thursday is apprenticed to Miss Havisham (of Great Expectations fame, rotting wedding dress and all)* and gets sucked into Havisham's endless and bitter rivalry with the Red Queen. Yeah, like that. And, in one of the silliest and most clever scenes I've yet seen Fforde pull off, Thursday's disciplinary hearing into her conduct within the text of Jane Eyre during The Eyre Affair that saved the novel from oblivion but gave it a happier ending (that happier ending being the one we know as canonical) is conducted by the Magistrate from Franz Kafka's The Trial. Yeah, it's like that.
Oh, and there's the little matter of impending doom; in December, 1985, something is going to happen that turns all organic life on planet Earth into pink slime. This is kind of Thursday's problem, too.
That's a lot of narrative pins to keep juggling, but Fforde does pull it off**. I would have liked it all just a little better without the extra layer of unnecessary faux supplementation he added to each chapter, though; Frank Herbert/Dune-style, he "quotes" from various fictional sources that do not really give the reader much in the way of additional insight and do, sometimes, telegraph events and appearances that would have been more enjoyable as surprises in the novel text. This crutch is a lot less annoying than the narrative-voice gaffes I found so annoyingly distracting in The Eyre Affair, but it's still something I fervently hope Fforde outgrows as he gains confidence in his ability to tell, and his readers' ability to follow, these richly complex and rewarding stories. As it was, about halfway through the book I simply started to ignore them, and yes, the second half of the book seemed much more enjoyable.
And since this was already a very enjoyable book, that's really saying something. Thursday's world(s) is/are charmingly daffy, teeming with hilariously dastardly villains, madcap old ladies who drive like bats out of hell and intimidate landlords with walking sticks and icy stares, inter-species relations with a small tribe of cloned Neandrathals who have a richly nuanced culture all their own but were sequenced to be incapable of reproducing, office politics and the uniquely troubling difficulties faced by a young woman suddenly thrust into the public eye and also pregnant by a man who never existed. It's heady stuff, and great fun, and I'm in for the long haul with this series.
*Which, get ready for Havisham, who all but steals the novel. As Fforde portrays her extra-novelar (yes I just made that up) life, she reminds me a lot of Diana Trent in the amazing Britcom Waiting For God. If there is ever a film of these, I demand Havisham be played by Stephanie Cole. So, hurry up, film world, if you're gonna. Cole isn't getting any younger.
**Well, mostly. One of the denouements winds up relying on a pretty lame idea that somehow fictional characters can't follow back-and-forth dialogue without dialogue tagging, but I guess I can forgive that. Or at least, I can try.