The most interesting thing about “The Eyre Affair” is the amount of ambition that went into making the novel. It’s interesting for two reasons: one, it shows how ambition can be a good thing when it presents original ideas in a fairly original execution, and two, how that ambition can undermine the quality of said idea and execution.
I happened upon Jasper Fforde’s “Thursday Next” detective series not through word-of-mouth or a perusal of the latest New York Times bestseller list, but on a shelf in the Ollie’s just a few miles from where I live. I do this thing often where I would go to wholesale markets or run-down bookstores (as dwindling in population as they are) and spend hours looking at books that I knew I would never buy. It was half for my sake and half for the sake of the books. Somewhere in the back of my head, while I skimmed summaries and stocked up on reference books, I knew that these second-hand shops would probably be the final resting place of many of these pieces of literature. Occasionally, I’d find a hidden gem or really anything that interest me in the slightest, but most of the time I stood among unwanted tomes like a visitor in a graveyard paying my respects to the newly dead.
This time, however, I managed to snatch two souls from purgatory. They were the sixth and seventh books in the “Thursday Next” series, titled “One of Our Thursdays Is Missing” and “The Woman Who Died A Lot”. The main idea supporting the books is that there is a massive worldwide obsession over literature, leading into a large black market for all types of literature. The main arc of the series also deals with tangible realities being created in the forms of classic tales such as Wuthering Heights or a Walden poem. Combined with the titles and retro noir covers, the essence of such a story made me curious enough to take them home.
This led to me finding out about the other five books that had come before, which led to me buying the first book on Kindle, which leads to now. Before I get into the real meat of what makes “The Eyre Affair” so complex, let’s talk a little bit about what’s outside the book.
From a marketing standpoint, Jasper Fforde did a lot of things right. The cover and titles for both “One of Our Thursdays Is Missing” and “The Woman Who Died A Lot” were the first things to grab my attention. The non-sequitur feel to the titles give them the uniqueness that I don’t often see with discarded books. Being paired with an old-style Hollywood movie poster cover helped push that this book was fun and outlandish and deserved a chance. Doing research on the author led me to a strange website with a bit more information about Fforde’s background. Before getting into his career as a writer, he worked as a focus puller in films. As a general rule, I’m always curious to see what a writer did before they made a career out of writing. I don’t use this as a basis for judging the author’s works, but I am interested in seeing what a writer who worked on films such as “Goldeneye” would have to bring to the table. I mean, the man has his own plane. A plane!
Now, onto the meat of the novel. Because the two books that I did pick up or not the first in their series, I went ahead and read through the actual first novel, titled “The Eyre Affair”. The basic plot of this book focuses on a veteran who works for a Special Operations division somewhere in England. This division deals with crimes against literature, be it through illegal forgeries of original manuscripts, black-market auctions of stolen copies of classic books, or the occasional selling of a work where major parts of the plot have been edited. Our main character, Thursday Next, starts off our story with the confrontation with the main villain, who has just stolen an original copy of a popular classical story for unknown reasons. The fight goes badly, and despite her superior saying that the antagonist (named Hades) died during the fight, Thursday gets a visit from a future version of herself that says still alive. She’s instructed to take up a job in her hometown and continue to search for Hades. More or less, this is where the conflict of the story should start. I say “should” with a shaky kind of certainty, and by “shaky”, I mean with little certainty at all. But we’ll get to that soon.
My first comment on the story is not quite about the text, but about the quotes that appear at the beginning of each chapter. Being that this is a story about literature and the continuity of classic tales mashing with “how public is Public Domain”, I expected to see a little bit of breaking when it came to the meta. At the beginning of each chapter there is a small quote from one of the main or side characters, usually, characters that the narrative is focused on in that chapter. In my opinion, I really like this idea.
Or, I really want to like this idea. Introducing quotes from characters that are currently existing and acting out the story in a story is a device that I don’t see used very often, and the last time I saw it done well was in House of Leaves. So any appearance of characters talking outside of their own narrative usually comes as a welcome surprise. The problem that I have with this particular type of fourth-wall breaking is that it does a lot of the footwork for the rest of the novel by adding necessary information before the start of each chapter.
This… kind of feels like cheating? I know that there’s a lot of discussion on what is and isn’t “telling” in a story. But in this case, we as readers are actually being told information. A lot of the information and backgrounds that we are provided could have been put to better use if they had been shown in the text. Instead, we’re given almost a checklist of facts to remember at the beginning of each chapter. It’s almost like it’s not a fiction book at all, but a cleverly disguised textbook. I still have no idea what it’s trying to teach me, though.
That being said, the actual writing in this novel is great! I find that Jasper Fforde has a great sense of immersion and his attention to detail is nothing to scoff at. I wanted to say this earlier on because I think it’s a large accomplishment when I can get through the entire book, and not regret doing so. There’s kind of an avant-garde way that Fforde integrates these out of place concepts like illegal Shakespeare forgeries into a detective setting that makes me appreciate the story. The fact that outlandish scenarios fall upon a main character such as Thursday, who already deals with very real issues such as the death of her brother and being a veteran of a war with no end in sight, adds to this air of realness, this sense that behind all of the odd bits of writing where passages seem near incomprehensible, there’s a set of real characters whose lives need to be written about so badly that they leap off the page and yell “Witness me!”. And I did, and I was better for it.
Which is why it pains me to criticize any of these characters in the slightest. I’ll get into this “near incomprehensible passages” later. But now, let me give you a tip for if you ever want to write a convincing conversation: Don’t try to make your characters sound cooler than they are. This could be called nitpicking, and it mostly is, but the dialogue in “The Eyre Affair” has this underlying feeling of trying too hard. Not that characters outright talk in clichés, but after years of watching primetime TNT and reading 99 cent crime noir, I’ve started to pick up on the phrases that “cool” characters say that exist to make the reader realize how “cool” they are rather than have those words give any new meaning to the true personality of the character.
Again, it’s not entirely noticeable if you’re not looking for it, but when characters such as these look, feel, and act so much like real people, I can’t not express my disappointment when they don’t always SOUND real. It’s like when immersion breaks in a movie because of a cheesy line of dialogue and suddenly I’m reminded that these aren’t real people, but actors playing along to a poorly edited script.
This leads me to the biggest issue I have with this novel, which starts off the Next post (har har) because I’m exhausted and I’ll literally be entering college in one week, so the only way this is going to be finished is if I promise to post the rest in the next 6 days.
If you’ve been taking notes so far, then toss them out, because we’re gonna get REAL subjective in Part 2. See you then.