The Eyre Affair by Jaspar Fforde

Sunday, January 17, 2010 1:26 PM By Simon , In ,

In Jasper Fforde's Great Britain, circa 1985, time travel is routine, cloning is a reality (dodos are the resurrected pet of choice), and literature is taken very, very seriously. England is a virtual police state where an aunt can get lost (literally) in a Wordsworth poem and forging Byronic verse is a punishable offense. All this is business as usual for Thursday Next, renowned Special Operative in literary detection. But when someone begins kidnapping characters from works of literature and plucks Jane Eyre from the pages of Brontë's novel, Thursday is faced with the challenge of her career. Fforde's ingenious fantasy-enhanced by a Web site that re-creates the world of the novel--unites intrigue with English literature in a delightfully witty mix.

If you are my sister, you would love living in this book. Or, for that matter, if you have certain obsession with any pre-20th century literature, you'd want to make your own Prose Portal. Yay stupid in-jokes!

To cover what the above summary doesn't, this is a world where the arts are Serious Business. There are several federations dedicated to Charlotte Bronte, whole gang wars are waged between Contemporary art-lovers, and Surrealists, changing one's name to that of your favorite writer is so common they must be numbered (after a court case where the defendant, victim, arresting officer, witness, landlord, and judge were all named Alfred Tennyson), and our protaganist's uncle has invented both literal Bookworms, Will-Speak machines (to get your daily fix of Shakespeare for just ten pence) sit on every corner and a thing called the Prose Portal, where people can go hop in-and-out of their favorite books, stories, and poems.

Here, there also exists a villian so evil and powerful, you can't even say his name out loud, as he can hear it from 100 feet away. Bullets don't affect him, he can take on the appearence of anyone, and he can manipulate people into killing themselves without giving it a second thought. He is, probably, the Bad Guy to end all Bad Guys. After stealing the original manuscript of Martin Chuzzlewit, kidnapping Thursday's uncle Mycroft and his machine, he plucks out the minor character of Mr. Quaverly, and murders him. And, because the text he stole was original, the character disappears from every copy in existence.

This book, with it's sprawling mythology (explained in snippets of in-universe literature at the beginning of each character), is slightly more interesting than the story itself. With the passing references to fantastic alternate-historical events, and the secondary political story involving the still-waging Crimean War (for those of you not brushed up on your history, it was between the British Empire, and the Russian Empire (who, here, still has a czar), with the Ottoman Empire and Sardinia on Britain's team, that was fought for 3 years beginning in 1853), particularly a battle that Thursday fought in, and where her brother died. So, you know, there's some angstin' over that.

Some of the melodrama surrounding this particular plot device is forgivable by the shear wit dripping from every sentence. The way Fforde describes the various units of SpecOps--Special Operations--where everything under 13 is classified, the door-to-door Baconians (people who insist Francis Bacon wrote Shakepeare's plays), the interactive performances of Hamlet akin to The Rocky Horror Picture Show , you can tell he knows his shit, and could go on for pages just describing every aspect of this universe. I could go on for hours describing what he did put down.

Problems? Sure. The characters can get annoyingly preachy about this-and-that, mostly over the Crimean war. It spends pages trying to get to the point. Et cetera. But it more than compensates with it's imagery, the mind-fucks it plays with you (especially concerning Shakespeare and time travel). This is the first in a series, and I think it'll get better and more bizarre as it goes on.