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.
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.
My final title for Wyrd and Wonder month