Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Bookshelf: The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

I’m a bibliophile and a sucker for anything resembling metafiction, so for me the hook of the Thursday Next series didn’t even need the line or the sinker. People entering books, and the characters within being living people with their own lives and routines- you really can’t miss. And though THE EYRE AFFAIR, Jasper Fforde’s first book in the series, has a lot of weird cruft around it and an inconsistent tone, it still manages to deliver; the premise, once fully explored, is ingenious, and is worth a lot of the oddness of the buildup.

THE EYRE AFFAIR is an alternate history novel, set in Great Britain around 1985, and just where things started diverging is hard to pin down. The Crimean War has been going off-and-on endlessly, while technology is several decades ahead- the government keeps tight tabs on time travel, and cloned dodos are popular pets. Thursday Next, a somewhat-cynical Crimea vet, works for the Literary Detectives division of Britain’s Special Operations Network, and starts out being put on the case of the theft of an original manuscript of Dickens’ MARTIN CHUZZLEWIT. The prime suspect is Acheron Hades, master thief, assassin, smuggler, and all around baddie (and with a name like that, who can blame him?) and a disastrous attempt to nab him results in two agents dead and Thursday in hospital, her reputation in tatters. More importantly, though the incident leaves Hades apparently dead, Next receives a vision telling her that he is alive and still in possession of the manuscript. The reason the old book is so important is that Next’s uncle has invented a “prose portal” capable of bringing people into, and out of, a piece of writing, and if you happen to have the original manuscript of something you can effect a change in all copies of it. Hades knows about the portal, and intends to hold a beloved work of Victorian literature for ransom. People in this world take their books seriously enough for this to be a problem, and though Next is officially off the case, she’s not going to let that stop her.

THE EYRE AFFAIR is Fforde’s first published novel, and though it is not about the struggle of a young writer to get his first novel written, it has many other traits of a first book, chief among them a surplus of ideas. We have alternate history, high tech espionage, literary whimsy, grim drama, and the occasional bit of supernatural business all sharing the stage and crowding each other just a bit. It’s all a bit much, and suffers from a certain conceptual incoherence- genre-bending is all well and good but the main thrust of the book threatens to get lost. Indeed, it’s quite a long time before the actual title starts to mean anything.

My major problem with the book being as muddled as it is is that it ultimately means the tone bounces about a lot as well. The prose portal is a thing of whimsy and delight, but most of the book is written in this very stone-faced spy thriller mood, and though there is plenty of humor (most amusingly the treatment of anti-Stratfordian theorists as Jehova’s Witnesses) it doesn’t quite blend with Thursday Next’s bitter memories of the Crimean War and the way in which her brother’s reputation was shattered. Given her attitude it makes sense that a pall hangs over things, but then you have Next’s dealings with the all-powerful Goliath corporation and its frontman, who happens to be named Jack Schitt and who is your classic over-the-top corporate bastard straight out of a 90s action film. And somehow, in all this, we pay visits to a branch of SpecOps devoting to keeping tabs on vampires and werewolves, which does play into the plot at one point but in other scenes seems as random as the space alien interlude in MONTY PYTHON’S LIFE OF BRIAN, only it’s not a joke.

Now, I don’t want to give the impression that this book is by any means bad. It’s well-written, though the impact of the first person narrative is diluted somewhat by a large number of cutaways. The character of Thursday Next is very well-drawn, and Fforde must be given credit for avoiding the obvious Mary Sue traps that this narrative throws in his path. Thursday is smart, brave, haunted by her past, etc., but all this is just low-key enough to work. All in all, I definitely kept going through the slower bits, and there’s a twist near the end which, though foreshadowed throughout, is a true corker.

THE EYRE AFFAIR is a bit of an odd beast, but it works as an action adventure story despite all the excess baggage. Fforde’s already made this into a series of at least four, with bestseller list appearances and critical blurbs out the wazoo, so obviously a lot of people liked this book even more than I did, but then, a solid hook and a good protagonist can excuse a number of sins. A good read, with qualification.

Grade: B-

Purchase THE EYRE AFFAIR by clicking on the image above, or check the "My Recommendations" sidebar to see if it's still up.

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