Monday, December 8, 2014

Flawed Doctor Who Lookalike to Appeal to English Majors—or Not

The Eyre Affair (Thursday Next, #1) by Jasper Fforde (2001; Penguin Books, 2003, 400pp.)

Time travel! Black holes! Literary characters leaping out of books! Vampires! Werewolves! Pet dodos! What is this, an episode of Doctor Who? No, dear reader. This is what the Thursday Next series looks like.

The year is 1985. The Imperial Romanovs are still in power in Russia. The Crimean War has been raging on for 130+ years. And, most shocking of all, everyone—and I mean everyone!—enjoys reading. Obviously, folks, we’re not in Kansas anymore, we’re in Great Britain—just not the Great Britain you might have heard about or visited.

Thursday Next is a Literary Detective, or LiteraTec, for short. A Crimean war vet, Thursday works mostly on copyright infringement, but occasionally something big, like when Acheron Hades, a literature professor-turned-meglomaniac, swipes the original manuscript of Jane Eyre! Using a Prose Portal to literally enter the novel, Hades gleefully terrorizes its characters, and threatens to do away with Brontë’s plucky heroine for good.

The first in the Thursday Next series, The Eyre Affair is zany fun for the most part, but it suffers from certain issues which preclude it from becoming truly great literature. The story starts out strong, but Fforde has the tendency to branch off into little tangents that deviate from the main plot. For example: Thursday must save Jane Eyre from Hades! No, wait, there’s a black hole in the middle of the freeway! Let’s deal with that first! (And yes, while dealing with a black hole does sound infinitely more important than rescuing a manuscript, black hole appearances just seem to be a more mundane part of Thursday’s world, as is the use of time travel.)

Which brings me to my next point: the use of fantasy elements. Some of these elements just don’t make a whole lot of sense—and I’m not talking about randomly appearing black holes. For example, here, there are vampires! Why are there vampires? Did Hades use his Prose Portal machine to break into Dracula and purloin Stoker’s Count because he thought it would be amusing to cause an epidemic of vampirism? No, vampires just exist, as do werewolves, for no tangible reason.

Character development is a frequent gripe of mine, and The Eyre Affair is no different. While Thursday serves as a worthy enough first person narrator, her character lacks texture. Ditto this with her long-lost love interest, Landen. He’s a very bland sort of guy who fought alongside Thursday in the Crimean War. When he finally meets her again after ten years, he enquires into her “availability,” despite the fact that he’s secretly already engaged to what we would call a “back-up wife” candidate. Very romantic.

So, the verdict? The Eyre Affair is very, very clever in some instances, but not so much in others. It’s a perfectly nice book, with lots of wit and irreverence that most readers will probably enjoy—if only you’re capable of overlooking things like what I’ve mentioned above.

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