See my shadow

SpecOps-27 postcard of operative Thursday Next (https://www.jasperfforde.com/)

Jasper Fforde: The Eyre Affair
World Book Night UK 2013
Hodder 2013 (2001)

“Shine out fair sun, till I have bought a glass,
That I may see my shadow as I pass.”
— Richard III, Act II Scene 4

Fforde’s first novel, superficially a comic fantasy thriller, is essentially a romp through several literary genres — though at times it’s more like a drive-by shooting than a frolic through the daisies. In fact he’s been described as a postmodernist writer, and postmodernism is an ideal way to regard the few works of his I’ve read.

It’s easy to justify this by considering Fforde’s running joke about Richard III: the monarch is depicted as a slot-machine mannequin dispensing speeches, then there is a pantomime production of Shakespeare’s play in a Swindon theatre; finally, the introductory quote for this review refers to Richard preferring to see the reflection not of his misshapen body but of his sinister shadow.

In fact, all the numerous threads, motifs and plotting — among them a continuing Crimean War, a Welsh Republic, and science fiction trappings like plasma guns, chronological black holes and cloned dodos, plus characters unaware their names are parodies and puns, and unaccountable shifts from first-person to omniscient narrative — are effectively exercises in Ricardian self-reflexivity, ignoring the substance for the shadow; and self-reflexivity is a hallmark of postmodernism.

17th-century illustration of a dodo

And all that makes The Eyre Affair the ridiculous fun that it is, simultaneously playing both the straight man and the comedian. Back in another 1985 Thursday Next is a LiteraTec, a special operative who investigates crimes involving original literary works. When Dickens’ manuscript of Martin Chuzzlewit is stolen by arch-criminal Acheron Hades it soon becomes clear that there is a threat to well-loved popular classics being irredeemably altered by the elimination of characters. When eventually Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre gets stolen from Haworth Parsonage it soon becomes clear that more is at stake than mere extortion: it involves Acheron’s superhuman nature and the unholy intervention of global corporation Goliath personified in Jack Schitt. Is Thursday the David to topple these twin ogres?

It would be pointless to give a further synopsis of the plot because this would be tantamount to trying to explain the jokes, and nothing is less funny than po-faced mansplaining. I loved the names, whether taken from the shipping forecast, mechanics, London place names (Landen Parke-Laine), medicine or, indeed, literature; I enjoyed the convoluted parallels between Thursday’s love life and that of Jane Eyre; I noted the parallels between historic figures in the fictional Welsh Republic and the Wales of our world (Brawd Ulyanov is Fforde’s take on Comrade Lenin, brawd being Welsh for ‘brother’).

But mostly I savoured the throwaway lines like Swindon being “the town where anything can happen and probably will” and Acheron’s chillingly casual characterisation of his murderous career:

“The first one is always the hardest. After that it doesn’t really matter, they can only hang you once. It’s a bit like eating a packet of shortbread; you can never just have one piece.”

And later on in chapter 15 he outlines his philosophy:

“Goodness is weakness, pleasantness is poisonous, serenity is mediocrity, and kindness is for losers. The best reason for committing loathsome and detestable acts […] is purely for their own sake.”

In The Eyre Affair objects that are extinct or are write-offs, such as dodos or a trashed car, have the chance of a second life through cloning or a trip to a friendly garage. Such things are doubtless symbolic of Jasper Fforde’s postmodernist fiction: he takes worn, weary clichés and memes and breathes new life into them, but what rises up is likely to be not quite what you expected.

Finally got to read this, seven years after I picked it up and five after the author signed it for me

My final title for Wyrd and Wonder month

16 thoughts on “See my shadow

  1. I so enjoyed the Eyre Affair, (despite not getting the Welsh jokes) and the next couple, but I’m bad at carrying on with series – sometimes they’re too much of a good thing for me. He’s a brilliant speaker though isn’t he? He came to Abingdon, and I got several books signed (and stamped – did he stamp yours?). There is a collector’s market for the postcards on ebay I discovered.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh yes, Annabel, he signed and stamped my copy (‘Eat Toast’) and I stewarded at both a workshop he ran and a talk he gave on Early Riser at CrickLit. And I have a couple of postcards, the Llangurig one in this post and another photo welcoming drivers to the village of Haiku. I shall definitely continue with the series, but the pace will continue to be slow…

      Apparently his next novel, which he was originally going to launch in Crickhowell, is a satire on what’s been going on in this country in the last few years. I shall be keeping an eye out for that.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve been to — or more accurately through — Swindon just the once and to Man never, but his localities in the Welsh, er, Republic are very familiar of course! I don’t think Swindon is on the cards just at the moment so it’ll have to be appreciated in a literary-distanced fashion! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. No, I haven’t done any book reviews, though I love reading and go through several books a week. I remember this book as the best of the series, I think, and I really enjoyed the fluidity of time and events in this one. Plus, it was just really funny.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I love these so much. One of my favorite moments in the first volume is when a John Keats is mugged by a Percy Shelley, and given a tract on atheism. There are many wonderful jokes ahead of you, Chris, so I hope you’re planning on reading the rest!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m just rereading The Subtle Knife and have just this morning noted down a quote from Keats that Dr Mary Malone has repeated. How’s that for a fortuitous moment! Do you sometimes get the impression (like Rochester in this novel, for example) that you’re in a novel — perhaps a dystopian one for many of us now — written by someone else? That’s how I feel at the moment, except that there are so many of the kinds of synchronicities and parallels that you might find implausible in fiction…

      But then, that’s what Fforde seems to make a virtue out of!

      Like

    1. The strongest criticism that Fforde’s fans seem to muster is that they’re not convinced by Thursday’s love interest — hah! just wondered if he’s meant to be a kind of Man Friday to this female Robinson Crusoe? — so if that’s the worst they can level at this series who am I to argue?

      I rather think his humour’s an acquired taste: personally, I prefer Pratchett whose whimsy and humour is better balanced by his focused anger on the evils of our own world.

      And I’m no longer feeling guilty about adding to your wishlist, Ola, it’s your own fault for following my reviews! 😁

      Liked by 1 person

        1. You have my sympathy — I’ve fallen into the unenviable situation where I’m following 80+ WordPress blogs, most of which seem to be offering reviews of mouth-watering books too much of the time…

          Liked by 1 person

Do leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.