I usually skip posting on the lighter and/or sillier reading I do, but this week I’m on vacation, which should be a lighter and/or sillier time. And when I read Jasper Fforde’s latest installment in the Thursday Next series last week, I was really struck by how much I still liked it, how much I still felt like the series was going strong, and just overall what a pleasant and smart job he does of being light and silly.
I think the concept of the Thursday Next books is the kind of thing that is very easily hateable, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of my readers weren’t into it, but it’s the kind of thing I love. The books, starting with The Eyre Affair, take place in an alternate-history universe where Great Britain continued fighting the Crimean War up through the 1980s and lives under a quasi-totalitarian corporatist government controlled in large part by Goliath Industries, croquet is the most important professional sport in the world, and airplanes have not been invented but time travel machines have. Thursday Next herself is a detective and book lover (and Crimea vet), who ends up discovering that in addition to this world (later known as the RealWorld, somewhat confusingly out here in this actually real world), there is a BookWorld inhabited by characters and settings from literature. In addition to her RealWorld detective duties, Thursday becomes a Jurisfiction agent who solves BookWorld crimes. Typically the stories involve some nefarious plot that crosses both worlds (so Thursday can save them both, of course).
The BookWorld is a very silly place, and Fforde treats it lightly but not stupidly. The characters in Wuthering Heights argue all the time and must have group therapy sessions in order to keep the book together at all. Characters from Dostoevksy can’t remember who their fellow characters are because of those darn Russian names. That sort of thing—I’d be able to cite more, but I’ve given away most of the earlier books in the series and my memory for this kind of thing is laughably bad. And I never keep very good track of exactly how fantasy/science fiction books do their world-building. It seems best not to demand they make too much sense.
But One of Our Thursdays Is Missing, the sixth volume, works a bit differently. Instead of starring the “real” Thursday Next, it stars the “written” Thursday. By now, Thursday is so famous in her RealWorld that the first five books of the series have been written, so there’s also a character running around the BookWorld who “plays” her. The real Thursday is missing, and the written Thursday has to find out what happened to her. So you don’t want to jump into things with this one—the nested ideas mean that you really would want more background. But taking this sort of double-meta approach means Fforde can spend a lot of time on the workings of the BookWorld and what it’s like to be a written person out in the RealWorld, instead of vice versa.
Not many people traveled to the RealWorld, and those who did generally noted two things: one, that it was hysterically funny andh ideously tragic in almost equal measure, and two, that there were far more domestic cats than baobabs, when it should probably be the other way round.
Probably my favorite element of confusion for characters like Thursday about the RealWorld is that in the RealWorld, coincidences are possible. They are emphatically not possible in the BookWorld—something may seem like a coincidence, but since the author put it in, you can be sure it will be relevant later (with a few notable exceptions). So when Thursday goes into the RealWorld to gather evidence about her real counterpart, she can never be sure which conversations she’s having are important, or which clues are relevant. So much of what she experiences might be totally random, something it turns out to be rather difficult to process if you’re not used to it.
Also difficult to process is the actual doing of things. Us Outlanders have “math to die for” because we’re so easily able to recover from a stumble. And Thursday can’t just run time forwards or backwards if she wants to get to another point in the non-story:
If I wanted to be five minutes in the future, I had to laboriously run the five minutes in real time, and if I wanted to go back, I couldn’t. It was how I imagined the narrator in A la Recherce du Temps Perdu spent most of his life—trapped in a noisy, brightly colored cage barely two or three seconds wide.
I suppose this is pretty standard sci-fi/speculative fiction fare, isn’t it? Some outsider with a whole different paradigm of life comes to comment on what we see as totally normal. But she runs into many of the same problems and conclusions that are familiar to us.
Some felt that the RealWorld was there only to give life to us, while others insisted that it did have a function, to which no one was yet party. There was a small group who suggested that the RealWorld was not real at all and was just another book in an even bigger library. Not to be outdone, the nihilists over in Philosophy insisted that reality was as utterly meaningless as it appeared.
“What is without dispute,” said my friend once we had discussed these points, “is that the readers need us just as much as we need them—to bring order to their apparent chaos, if nothing else.”
And some nice comments on fiction as well: “Life seemed to be a lot messier than people wanted fiction to be. Feedback [what readers imagine when they read, which gets transferred into the BookWorld to fill in the details of what's not actually written] reflected hopes, not realities.”
It feels so reassuring to go back to a familiar series and find it’s still at least as good as you remembered.