March 15th, 2011
Is it police procedural? Is it alternate history? Is it zany surrealist fantasy? Is it literary fanwank? Is it some variety of steampunk? Is it time-travel weirdness? Is it tongue-in-cheek tall-tale? No. Or, well, yes, but not exclusively yes to any of these.
It is The Eyre Affair, the first novel of the “Thursday Next” series, by Jasper Fforde, and it is … well … hard to pin down. And like the book, this review will also be hard to pin down. Was it an entertaining romp? Was it an impressive literary achievement? Did it have fundamental problems? No. Or, well, yes, but not exclusively yes to any of these, either.
Where to begin? The year is 1985 (as opposed to 1984, presumably) and the place is an alternate-England which is still the most powerful nation in the world, has never known Winston Churchill, is in a cold war with the Republic of Wales, and in a hot war with the Empire of Russia over the Crimean peninsula. The protagonist, Thursday Next, is a literary detective, tasked with keeping original manuscripts safe from fanatic academics or would-be kidnappers and generally protecting the extremely-book-minded people of Britain from the scourge of literary crimes. Next is born of a remarkable family that includes her time-stopping rogue temporal cop father, and her uncle Mycroft who invented a pencil with a spell-checker and is working on a sarcasm early-warning device. When one of Mycroft’s inventions, a portal that enables you to literally step into or out of a book, is stolen by Acheron Hades (the third wickedest man in the world), Next must stop the kidnapping or assassination of literature’s most beloved characters, including Jane Eyre herself.
And this, mind you, is the bare-bones description of the plot. We won’t even go into the vampire hunt gone wrong, the black hole that opens up over the freeway and tears a hole in spacetime, or the running subplot about who actually authored Shakespeare’s plays.
Lest I be too ambiguous for my own good, let me state clearly: I very much enjoyed The Eyre Affair and if the description above sounds like the kind of thing you’d enjoy, I recommend it without hesitation. The characters are well-drawn and plot clips along at a good pace, and around every turn of the page there’s a new nifty bit to discover. This is a book that’s packed full of interesting ideas thrown at you in rapid succession, so you’ll never be bored. Thursday Next is a likable and believable protagonist, which is a key feature considering how many other things the book asks you to believe as well. The book is very thoroughly, almost achingly, postmodern … if there was such a thing as post-postmodern, this book would be it. Some might consider this a bug, but I consider it a feature, at least in this particular case. I don’t always want books going all Ferris Bueller on me, but if a book is going to, then I want it to do it as well as The Eyre Affair does.
Unfortunately, the further away you get from Next, the less believable the characters come to be. Almost everyone in this book has a clever shtick, whether in the form of a joke name (recurring annoyance/semi-antagonist Jack Schitt, earnest but put-upon fellow cop Victor Analogy, and of course the villain himself Acheron Hades) or in the mere oddness of their existence (such as Felix7 and his replacement Felix8, who are simply the latest in a series of Hades’ henchmen to have the same face grafted on in memory of the original Felix). After a while it can become hard to keep thinking of these characters as actual characters, because they’re more like a series of funny ideas that have been given dialog.
This also makes motivations start to come off wobbly. Characters find themselves in love a lot here, except with all the usual steps (meeting, learning each others’ name, actually talking to each other for more than a sentence) all being handwaved into the backstory or just left offstage entirely; not just one but two romantic triangles are introduced and then dropped again like hot potatoes. The villains of the piece are just as sketchy: Hades is just born bad and likes it; Jack Schitt aims for the moral gray-zone but doesn’t ever really sound like he means it.
Finally, the sheer weirdness of the setting also undermines the book’s core premise: in a world as over-the-top as the book’s is, how could an essentially realistic work such as Jane Eyre even exist, without also being a reflection of the weird world it inhabits? In a setting where demonic arch-criminals walk through the walls and you occasionally find yourself jumping back in time six months by accident, why aren’t there jetpacks and dinosaurs running around in the works of Charlotte Bronë?
Still, none of these things kill the book by any means, they’re just things that struck me while I was reading. Keep in mind that I have a very analytical mind, and so I pick apart everything as I go. If you’re more inclined to just jump in to a book and ride it like a rollercoaster, these things probably won’t bug you at all.
Very little to say here; as befits a book about bibliophiles, the language is clear and crisp and even when things go all pear-shaped you can generally follow the thread. I read the Kindle edition and there were a few odd typos in the form of hyphens that didn’t need to be there or paragraph breaks erroneously shoved into a sentence, but nothing truly egregious. I will warn the reader that there are a few spots where the text gets even more meta than it already is, and so if you suddenly think you’re reading the most badly-proofread book ever, you aren’t. It’s working as intended.
On the whole, I found The Eyre Affair to be a very readable, enjoyable tale of quirky adventure, and I plan to pick up the rest of the series forthwith. (In fact it was my scooping up the newest book, One of Our Thursdays Is Missing, on a whim last week that led me to grabbing The Eyre Affair.) I’m eager to have a new series to follow, and this is certainly a promising start. I already handed my copy off to a friend who is a notorious Terry Pratchett fan, with confidence that he’ll get a kick out of it.