Thursday, December 3, 2009

A reader's writer

The Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde is not something I was expecting to like, seeing that it combines three genres I seldom have much interest in: detective mystery, science fiction and fantasy. However, Fforde writes with rare wit, and ingeniously uses some of the richest books and characters that fiction has to offer. If you are addicted to good literature, and like, or have strong opinions about some of the following books/people, you should try the Thursday Next series.

Jane Eyre
Wuthering Heights
Sense and Sensibility
Pride and Prejudice
Northanger Abbey
Watership Down
Miss Havisham (and Great Expectations in general)
Little Dorrit
The Red Queen (and both Alice Books)
Beatrice and Benedict from Much Ado
The Scottish play
To Kill a Mockingbird
Brideshead Revisited
The Just So Stories
The Wind in the Willows
The Minotaur
Mrs Tiggy-winkle
Out of Africa
Waiting for Godot
Gilbert and Sullivan
Sherlock Holmes
Vanity Fair
P.G Wodehouse (especially the Blandings series)

In addition to having an endearing command of the best books in English, Fforde has a very winning style of his own, with good, funny prose, ingenious plots and delightful characters. The series apparently began with a couple of naming ideas. "Thursday Next", the protagonist, is a resourceful female detective with the ability to jump into fiction and a pet dodo named Pickwick (who says "plock"). Other funny puns that litter the series include those of Thursday's husband, Landen Park-Laine, his mother (Houson) and father (Billden).

These stories are set in an alternative world just similar enough to ours for Fforde to satirise all sorts of unsavoury things from slimy politicians to reality TV. That is the world Thursday helps to police as a literary detective. At the same time, Thursday has a second policing job within fiction itself, as part of "Jurisfiction", established to keep books true to the spirit their authors intended, despite the best efforts of rouge characters and the declining attention spans of readers.

Just to give you an idea of some of the things Fforde makes fun of, the Goliath corporation, used to parody multinationals, is the main source of evil in these books. Unscrupulously evil in the first few books, Goliath turns into a "faith-based corporation", and Fforde's ridicule of organised religion beats his scorn for material monopolies. In its earlier and more evil days, Goliath was keen on engineering extinct organisms, resulting in Neanderthals that want equal rights and are still being relegated to reserves called "Nations". In book five, Goliath invents an Austen Rover, and and a misguided Jurisfiction attempts to increase falling readership rates by making a reality book out of Pride and Prejudice (much to the collective consternation of the Bennet family).

In Thursday's world, lives are always in danger. Fictional characters can be reduced to text if they aren't careful, and real people (like Thursday's father) can be eradicated by the "Chronoguard" even before they were conceived, simply by fiddling about with time. There is a strong element of Wallace and Gromit ingenuity in this science fiction aspect of the series. Speaking of W & G, cheese smuggling is the substitute for drug smuggling, with some really ripe, volatile and deadly specimens involved.

Some of the main problems Thursday encounters involve difficult characters, like Heathcliff, a self-centred prima dona who invariably wins "The most Troubled Male Romantic Lead of the Year" in the fiction world's equivalent of the Oscars, and has to be protected from fanatical pro-Caths. Hamlet, who is upset by not wining the same prize, is allowed a rest outside the fiction world, and finds himself alpha Dodo material (although he can't even make up his mind enough to order a coffee at Goliath's equivalent of Starbucks). The fiction escapee from a privately published sappy romance, Yorrick Kaine is a classically slippery politician, who excels on the talk show "Evade the Question Time" for "an excellent non-specific condemnation, ...blaming the previous government and... successfully mutating the question to promote the party line."

Not all the fictional characters are bad though. Thursday's Jursfiction mentor, who teaches her how to police books, is a formidable Miss Havisham, who enjoys racing Toad of Toad Hall when she isn't protecting "Great Expectations" and fiction in general. Mrs John Dashwood from "Sense and Sensibility" is troubled by the thought that people in the "outerworld" don't think much of her, and allows all Jurisfiction meetings to take place at Norland. The Cheshire Cat is an impeccable and endearing librarian in charge of all the books and editions written and embryonic in English fiction.

The first book, "The Eyre Affair" takes a while to lay everything out, but once you become familiar with Thursday's world it is hard to put any of the books down. Bon appetite.