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Getting into books, with extreme malice
Review by Collin Walters, February 2002.

Just past the halfway point in Jasper Fforde's first novel, a "curiouser and curiouser" combination of literary thriller, alternate history and science fiction, the heroine whose name is Thursday Next she was born on a Thursday ("Thursday's child has far to go," right?) and Next is her surname is visited by an English literature scholar from Swindon University called Dr. Runcible Spoon. The scruffy-looking academic claims to have evidence that a character called Mr. Quaverley actually has disappeared from all extant copies of Charles Dickens' novel "Martin Chuzzlewit."

Like Thursday, I haven't read "Chuzzlewit" since I was a teenager and can't remember any Mr. Quaverley, or Todger's boarding house where that worthy reportedly enjoyed talking only of things he knew nothing about. My Dickens encyclopedia (Michael and Molly Hardwick's, 1973) doesn't mention any Mr. Quaverley, or Todger's, but who knows? Such is the mind-bending atmosphere of Mr. Fforde's meandering tale in which the spirits of Charles Dodgson (a hotel has a bar called the Cheshire Cat), Dickens and Charlotte Bronte hover and are used to tease the reader, kept scrambling to try and catch the literary jokes.

In the story, time can play tricks, chronological holes opening up in unexpected places, such as along highways swallowing vehicles. Thursday's father is a retired colonel from the ChronoGuard, the service arm assigned to cope with such accidents. Hazards of life in the ChronoGuard are characterized in the experience of another colonel called Rutter:

"He had been working in the ChronoGuard for almost forty years, Standard Earth Time. In logged work time he was 209. In his own personal physiological time he was barely 28. His children were older than him and his wife was in a nursing home. He had thought the higher rates of pay would compensate him for any problems, but they didn't."

Swindon in southern England once was the site of railway stock manufacturing, making it a Victorian locale to that extent and a suitable home town for Thursday in the story and for Mr. Fforde's theme pairing the social criticism of Dickens, as expressed in "Chuzzlewit" (1843-44), with the struggle to reconcile private passions and social situation of Jane in Bronte's novel "Jane Eyre" published three years later.

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Thursday has a pet dodo called Pickwick, left over from the craze for restoring extinct species. Her younger brother, Joffy, is a clergyman who has raised church attendance by turning his vestry into a casino and having greasy-pole dancing on Tuesdays. In similar respects, the novel is a satire on the state of society circa 1985 with global capitalism entering its ascendancy. The English setting is a dystopia, and one has to say England rather than Britain because the border to Wales was closed in 1965 and that country now seems to be run along lines that smack of the old Soviet Union.

Back on the English side of the border, events over the past 130 years did not occur as the reader remembers them. There was, for example, a German occupation in or following World War II. Afterwards, the country was reconstructed largely through the good offices of the Goliath Corporation, which since has become a transnational of tyrannical proportions competing with the power of the state. In the story Goliath is represented by the sinister Jack Schitt.

Central to the novel's element of alternate history, the Crimean War is still going on with the English placing their latest hope for a decisive victory in Goliath's new plasma rifle, called the Stonk. Thursday is a military veteran of the war, having been a corporal driver of an armored personnel carrier. She participated in a notorious military debacle much resembling the charge of the Light Brigade, and her elder brother Anton, a signals captain, lost his life there after perhaps committing a serious tactical error. Thursday's lover at the time (strictly against orders in light of their differing ranks) was a lieutenant and close friend of Anton, Landen Parke-Laine.

Nowadays, Thursday's occupation is that of LiteraTec, working on literary and art thefts, copyright infringements and so on. Her government department is SpecOps-27, though she also is accredited to represent SpecOps-5, a more highly-classified shop. The acronyms are reminiscent of MI-5, and so on, the joke being it is the novel's principal conceit that this is an England in which people are crazy about literature, turning the real-life cultural situation upside down.

So many men have adopted the name John Milton that they have to be assigned numbers to tell them apart. One theater plays "Richard III" every Friday night with the cast selected from the audience. The old question about the authorship of Shakespeare's plays is an intense topic of debate with the populace taking sides over the usual arguments (Bacon, Oxford, Marlowe).

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Literary crime is rife, and the boundaries between fiction and actuality are looser than those to which the reader is accustomed. Thursday, as a little girl, somehow became a witness to the first meeting of Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester. Her uncle Mycroft is an inventor whose magical Prose Portal, 30 years in the perfecting and energized by bookworms, of all things, can convey people into the worlds of novels and, granted correct use of the codeword, bring them back into the everyday. Thursday's aunt Polly once walked into a William Wordsworth poem, the one with all the daffodils.

Enter the villain of the piece, Acheron Hades, up against whom Thursday one very tough young woman suggestive of today's American TV heroines will go in the book's dramatic action. Acheron, a former professor of Thursday's in college, now turned arch-criminal, has extraordinary powers. He can hear his name spoken far away, is impervious to conventional pistol fire and can pull all sorts of disappearing tricks. It is he who steals the original manuscript of "Chuzzlewit" and spirits out poor Mr. Quaverley, who turns up dead in a present-day morgue.

The rule of the character-kidnapping game is that if Acheron can extricate a character from the original manuscript, then all other copies of the novel wherever they are will be similarly affected. His evil intention is to take Martin Chuzzlewit out of his own book. Which would be bad enough. But how much worse if Jane Eyre were stolen at some point early in her story, for "Jane Eyre" is a first-person narrative?

Saving Jane becomes for Thursday the saving of herself also, as the LiteraTec battles to do a man's job - actually more than a man's job unless you're thinking of James Bond or Arnold Schwarzenegger in the "Terminator" films and win for herself the love she craves as a woman. How does it all turn out: Does Thursday trump Acheron? Influence the course of war in the Crimea? Get Landen back? It's a lot to expect of a girl, right up to the ending which has something about it of the movie comedy "Four Weddings and a Funeral."

Writing about "The Eyre Affair," I realize that it may sound an very odd novel, and so it feels in the early going. But by halfway, around the time the improbable Dr. Runcible Spoon turns up, the reader finds him- or herself surprisingly at home in Jasper Fforde's Alice in Wonderland-like world, and the implausible becomes nothing out of the ordinary. Lovers of Victorian fiction and social satire will enjoy their journey into the book and back again.

Collin Walters