Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Eyre Affair and Lost in a Good Book

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of The Eyre Affair and Lost in a Good Book (Penguin, 2001 and 2003).

I just wish I could write as well as Jasper Fforde. But then, I'd be certain to write markedly different books, ideally ones not quite so weighed down with dystopian bureaucracy. For much of the last decade, he's been carving a place for himself with his lovingly lit-geek Thursday Next series, and I've been tackling these with one side of my face smiling and the other wincing.

After a successful "pilot," as it were, which is pretty much self-contained, the subsequent books seem to form chapters of the overall story. I'm reading the third, The Well of Lost Plots, now. They concern a career detective in her mid-thirties who works in an incredibly weird world. It's an alternate England that went off the rails sometime back in the early 20th Century, where George Formby was the beloved president who led Great Britain out of the dark days of the war, and where travel across the planet is done via giant tubes through the planet's core. Thursday Next starts out as an operative investigating literary thefts, plagiarism and the forgery of missing manuscripts, but her job takes her in wild directions after she matches wits with the supercriminal Hades and gets a message from her future self, traveling back in time a few weeks driving an incredibly cool car.

As the story and series continue and the boundaries between the "real" world and fiction become tangled, Next finds herself doing an apprenticeship with Miss Havisham from Great Expectations, a lost Shakespeare play turns up just in time for a corrupt politician to take advantage of it, Next's beloved uncle retires to become a supporting character in the Sherlock Holmes stories and Next, receiving psychic communications via footnotes, is put on trial for changing the ending to a beloved work of fiction. It's a bizarre, often funny series which does a remarkable job of world-building by slowly introducing a staggering array of details about Next's universe. Dodos, neanderthals and Cheshire cats all impact the story in strange and unusual ways, and, more than just the undergraduate glee in the way Fforde appropriates literary classics, it's a treat watching him slowly assemble them into a solid and intriguing backstory.

And yet I can't fully embrace the world that Fforde has created. In places it's just too bleak, but the principal problem in the first novel is that the villain is too powerful. That's perhaps a bizarre complaint, but then again he's a bizarre character, possessed of powers utterly unlike anybody else in the narrative, and without explanation of how he can pull the stunts he does. It jars as badly as a scene would in something by Chandler where somebody starts shooting at Marlowe with heat vision.

The second story, the brilliantly-titled Lost in a Good Book, ramps everything about The Eyre Affair to twelve. Members of the Hades family have even more incredibly bizarre powers, the literary allusions and puns sparkle across every page, but, most awfully, we learn more about some villains called the Goliath Corporation. Some of the events in this book surrounding Goliath are depressingly bleak, and the tone changes from playfully dramatic to genuinely unpleasant.

Overall, I've been trying to figure out my principal objection to the books - an objection, I must stress, that I'm enjoying overcoming in places - and I think it has to do with the world itself. Most good fiction creates a world that readers find fascinating in some way. But the rule-mad, bureaucracy-obsessed world of the SpecOps and Goliath is pretty far from fascinating, except in an object lesson in how not to run a system. Put another way, there's a scene in the second book that's set in the pages of Kafka's The Trial. Now there's a world that absolutely nobody would ever want to embrace or visit, yet when Next gets an unbelievably poor performance evaluation for no sensible reason whatsoever, readers would be hard pressed to tell where Kafka's world stopped and Fforde's started.

I've got my reservations about the books, but I'm smiling enough to keep working through them, even though it's a chore sometimes. Recommended, with reservations, for fans of Douglas Adams or JK Rowling.

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