"Hello!" replied a voice. "My name's Edmund Capillary. Have you ever stopped to wonder whether it was really William Shakespeare who penned all those wonderful plays?"
We both breathed a sigh of relief and Beckett put the safety back on his automatic, muttering under his breath:
"Steady," I replied, "it's not illegal."
"More's the pity."
Late to the party, once again. As I've said before, the size of my TBR mountain means that I tend to reach the books everyone is raving about four years or so after the fact. Jasper Fforde's comic fantasy The Eyre Affair (2001), however, turned out to be one of those parties that sadly fails to live up to its promise: the conversation is a bit stilted, the music is some generic indie band with two chords and a generous helping of white-boy angst to their name, and the only thing to drink is pink Lambrusco. Time to call it a night, and make for a kebab van.
Our narrator is Thursday Next, a "literary detective" in an alternate 1980s England where the Crimean War is still going on, classic literature has the enthusiastic mass audience of TV in our world (and attracts corresponding levels of crime, including but certainly not limited to forgery and theft), there's a branch of the secret services devoted to time travel, and riots break out over differences in artistic philosophies:
"This evening several hundred Raphaelites surrounded the N'est pas une pipe public house where a hundred neo-surrealists have barricaded themselves in. The demonstrators outside chanted Italian Renaissance slogans and then stones and missiles were thrown. The neo-surrealists responded by charging the lines protected by large soft watches and seemed to be winning until the police moved in."
This from a news report that Thursday sees on TV, which concludes with an interview with one of the rioters:
"Excuse me, sir, how would you counter the criticism that you are an intolerant bunch with little respect for the value of change and experimentation in all aspects of art?"
The Renaissancite glanced at the camera with an angry scowl.
"People say we're just Renaissancites causing trouble, but I've seen Baroque kids, Raphaelites, Romantics and Mannerists here tonight. It's a massive show of classical artistic unity against these frivolous bastards who cower beneath the safety of the word progress. It's not just--"
The police officer intervened and dragged him away.
It was the background colour such as this, or the door-to-door Baconian evangelist in this post's opening quotation that I found by far the most amusing bits of the book. Fforde's is a wonderful world, crammed with splendidly inventive off-the-cuff details: the Will-Speak machines, for example, which are like gumball machines except with recorded Shakespearean soliloquies instead of sweets, and which naturally get vandalised by the Baconians; or the wildly-popular performances of Richard III with Rocky Horror-style audience participation, costumes and catcalls and all. It's a world in which individual artforms and artists may be treated with both partisan fervour and casual irreverence, but either way with animated engagement, stemming from deep appreciation and knowledge, rather than ignorance or perceived intellectual glass ceilings. Take this hotel receptionist's remark to Thursday, during the staging of the 112th Annual John Milton Convention, a gathering of the poet's followers who have adopted his name in tribute:
"To tell you the truth, Miss Next, I hate Milton. His early stuff is okay, I suppose, but he disappeared up his own arse after Charlie got his head lopped off. Goes to show what too much republicanism does for you."
(Later, Thursday observes, "The bar was busy but not packed, the clientele mostly Miltons, who were sitting around drinking and joking, lamenting the Restoration and referring to each other as John." Which made me laugh at first reading, and again when I came to do this post.)
It's also a world in which stories are sacred but mutable, ever vulnerable to tampering on the part of the unscrupulous or simply mad. When the original manuscript of Martin Chuzzlewit is stolen, for example, it is a serious matter, because the thief can permanently change the story, killing off characters or altering the plot such that his vandalised version of the tale becomes the only version:
"[H]e went for the original manuscript," I answered, "for the maximum disruption. All copies anywhere on the planet, in whatever form, originate from that first act of creation. When the original changes, all the others have to change too."
It's a real shame, then, that the main story is not nearly so much fun, despite the fact that the conceit is a delightful one: in brief, Thursday's uncle invents a device that enables people to enter novels, to live inside stories, and a criminal mastermind promptly exploits it in a plot to hold Jane Eyre to ransom.
Part of the problem is Thursday herself, an uneasy mixture of hard-boiled detective and Bridget Jones who ends up functioning as neither very satisfactorily. As if to offset her (mostly) capable performance in her job and clear literary leanings, every so often she is made to worry about her hair, or her lack of a boyfriend; not in a way that seems particularly organic to her personality, or deeply-felt, but apparently because she's that type of character in that type of story. (Strip away the worldbuilding and The Eyre Affair is essentially a romantic comedy with detective elements, or vice versa; maybe this is a metacomment on the dictates of genre?). Perfectly good snark like this:
"Landen and I are finished, Mum. Besides, I have a boyfriend."
This, to my mother, was extremely good news. It had been of considerable anguish to her that I wasn't spending more time with swollen ankles, haemorrhoids and a bad back, popping out grandchildren and naming them after obscure relatives.
...is almost immediately undercut by the unconvincingly-angsty private reflection that she totally would want to have kids, if only a suitable life partner - e.g. her ex, Landen - would throw himself at her. The bits about her past in the Crimean are sometimes interesting, but often equally perfunctory:
I couldn't concentrate. The Crimea had filled my mind with its unwelcome memories. It was lucky for me that my pager bleeped and brought with it a much-needed reality check.
Another problem is the villain. Acheron sounds good:
"He has powers that are slightly baffling. That's why we can't say his name [...] Because he can hear his own name - even whispered - over a thousand-yard radius, perhaps more. He uses it to sense our presence."
[...] "We don't have a picture of him. [...] He doesn't resolve on film or video and has never been in custody long enough to be sketched."
But he turns out to be the kind of cackler prone to tedious tics like - yawn - thanking people for calling him a bad guy:
Mycroft slowly took the manuscript and looked at the title.
"Martin Chuzzlewit! Fiend!"
"Flattery will get you nowhere, my dear professor."
Finally, the writing itself is hit and miss. There are some great action and comedy set-pieces, and some lovely reflective passages that play with the tone and setting of the classic literature being explored; Thursday's recollection of her youthful self's brief, inadvertant foray into the pages of Jane Eyre is a standout. This said, elsewhere - again echoing Bridget Jones - the use of the classics is more simplified and rather less successful, with Mr Rochester in particular emerging as a highly idealised version of the creepy old man I remember from Jane Eyre, and Jane herself as dull and passive in the extreme; more happily, the madwoman in the attic finally gets her day.
Fforde has an unfortunate habit of overstating his case, piling on the said-bookisms and adverbs as if afraid we'll miss the (not complicated) nuances of character mood - "I queried, somewhat inquisitively" being a typical example - and sometimes losing the sharpness of the joke in the process.
On this evidence, I imagine Fforde has a better novel to come, somewhere along the line when he is more confident in the ability of his jokes to fire at the first attempt, and better able to fashion his ideas and themes - and hints of a truly sensitive understanding of his literary targets - into a compelling plot. I'd welcome comments from those who have read further: are there any signs that this party might pick up?
(who's posting at half past midnight because she's waiting up for some Super(Duper) Tuesday results...)