Back when I had first skimmed through “One of Our Thursdays was Missing”, I remember wondering why the first chapter seemed so incomprehensible. I’m no opponent to using in medias res to start a story, especially one that’s part of a series. (The book also had a map at the very beginning, and while It’s not that big of a deal, it’s my personal opinion that the only two instances where having a map in at the beginning of fantasy book ever worked out well were with J.R.R. Tolkien and Obert Skye.) Initially, I explained away my confusion by saying that this was a later book in the series, and thus had a rich context that I would not be able to understand without reading the books previous.
Soon after, though, I went home and picked up a copy of “The Slippery Slope”, which is the tenth book in the Series of Unfortunate Events. I’ll be the first to admit that I was pretty biased with my choice, as I’ve read the Series of Unfortunate Events at least two times now and have done enough research to become a part of the VFD myself. Yet, when I looked at the first couple pages I notice that Lemony Snicket doesn’t start the book off with the main characters. Often he would begin with an anecdote, or flashback events from his own life, or even some thinly veiled information that had to do with the context of the entire series. But this information wasn’t obtrusive enough to stick out, so if you were reading the 10th book in this series for the first time it wouldn’t seem all that strange that this narrator was talking about his time documenting a couple of children were running from a very dangerous man, because most likely that a trope you’ve seen before. And that’s how it is for all of the other books, too. The first sentence in “The Vile Village” does not reference the Baudelaire children at all, but starts off with a message that says “No matter who you are, no matter where you live, and no matter how many people are chasing you, what you don’t read is often as important as what you do read.”
Yet since Lemony Snicket is a bit of an anomaly in literature, I went and got a second opinion in the form of one of Dean Koontz’s “Odd Thomas” novels. While I can’t remember which one I picked, I had only read the first series, and picking up a much later novel proved the same thing: I was able to put myself in the shoes of the character, regardless of the context of the novel.
I would soon realize while reading “The Eyre Affair” that my issues with comprehending exactly what was going on was a problem that extended farther than a few pages.
When I reviewed Gamer Girl I talked a little bit about something called Concept and Execution. Specifically, I laid out a couple formulas for how the quality of concept in a piece of media combined with the quality of the concept’s execution contributes to the overall popularity or likability of that work (good concept plus bad execution equals pity for the concept, while subpar concept plus good execution equals pity for the artists involved, etc.). What I didn’t mention is that there are sometimes loopholes, and this results in “cult classics” or the genre of “So Bad It’s Good”. Thursday Next introduces a loophole that I don’t see very often, which is impressive. Dumbfounding literary analysts by being confusing in a way they’ve never seen before is originality in its own right.
Let’s get to the point: the Thursday Next universe has too many concepts. Every single idea that I saw in “The Eyre Affair” was interesting individually, but the concepts never tied together very well and were treated more like decorations than anything else. In an interview held by The Internet Writing Journal, Jasper Fforde himself said: “The Eyre Affair has tons of ideas compressed into it; if something amuses or grabs my attention then I try to attach it leech-like to the story and then let it grow.”
This line of thinking can lead to many problems, and I’ll explain why using the Concept versus Execution formula that I mentioned earlier. If the concept in a story is good, you need only to execute it well in order to get a good reception. When you pile on more concepts, that workload increases with each new idea. It’s the reason why Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld” series works in its context. Not only does Pratchett write things like time travel and supernatural beings very well, but he also devoted 41 nonlinear books to these concepts. Each book would focus on a particular aspect of the concept, taking it to its either most logical or most extreme conclusion. The problem here, then, is that Jasper does not have 40+ books of space, and crams as much into “The Eyre Affair” as possible.
This has a domino effect of structural issues in the narrative. Really interesting ideas such as time travel, a division of police that deal with tracking down werewolves and hunting vampires, and a minor plot about who really wrote the works of Shakespeare become decorations because not enough time was devoted to making these concepts fully involved with the plot. I mean, they do interact with the plot to a decent degree, but they never quite intertwine with each other. Thus the novel is not a biosphere of strange events and unreasonable circumstances, but a series of loosely connected chapters where every scene’s primary focus switches back and forth between ideas, while never selling these ideas to the reader.
This brings me to my next issue: there is a large disconnect between “what sounds cool” and “how to implement the cool thing properly”. Moments of the novel tend to feel less like an informative hint or an entertaining bit, and more like a conversation between two seasoned professionals in a field that I’ve only ever heard about on AM radio. I think this has to do a lot with all of the references to classical literature and Shakespeare. Usually, I’m fine with a book shouting out other types of media, and in the context of a plot that revolves around police officers who fight different types of literary fraud, I should’ve been all the more accepting. But it’s because of the shaky focus that the novel already has, and the way that the book automatically assumes that the reader has read every one of Shakespeare’s plays that make the references hard to bear. That, and one of the chapters of the novel consists of a lifted version of one of these plays, with passages that are nearly verbatim, and the only thing the author adds other than some slight gags is intermittent bits of discussion between the main character and a love interest. And even then, all they’re doing is talking about the play. There is no advancement of the plot, there is no mention of the other concepts, and the entire chapter becomes its own little bubble of self-referencing nonsense where nothing happens. To top it all off, that’s not the only time that this contextual confusion arises.
Take, for instance, the fact that characters are heavily invested in fictional characters in their own universe. It’s an element that would work well in the plot but comes with some conditions when writing. The author has to be careful when these characters discuss other characters that require advanced study to even recognize because otherwise, the author runs the risk of starting a dialogue with a context that the casual reader may not have. Generally in fiction, it’s better to assume that an average reader is not an expert in everything and to leave excessive jargon to textbooks. Sometimes a reader will not feel the same fire a character feels if they cannot relate to their passion. If this means that a character offhandedly mentions an obscure book, and then two other characters launch into a three-page discussion over a part of the book, unless the reader stops what they’re doing and reads said book they will not be interested in that conversation.
That being said, the passages that weren’t focused on making in-depth references, or conversations that could have benefited from a little editing, I found to be quite enjoyable. What helps this novel is that these well-written parts make up about 60% of the book and ultimately leave the book readable. Had there not been those dense blocks of “you must have a major in English to unlock this paragraph”, and had Fforde scaled down on the technical language surrounding the entire Crimea struggle, I would’ve enjoyed the novel a lot more in the simplicity of some of the characters would’ve been brushed aside.
Instead, the problems that I have with the plot add on to the idea that a lot of the effort put into those strange passages could have been spent making those characters more rounded. My favorite characters ended up being Thursday, Thursday’s father, and Spike. You can imagine my suffering when I say that besides Thursday, one of those characters only ever appears twice in the novel and the other shows up hardly at all. As for the main villain, I found Hades to be a very basic and shallow character, but this complaining might be due to my own personal distaste for monologue and “evil for the sake of evil” antagonists types.
And speaking of antagonism! The main conflict doesn’t happen until the middle of the book. We don’t know why “The Eyre Affair” is called just that until Hades kidnaps Jane Eyre after 50% of the novel has already taken place. This is because subplots about various concepts get in the way of the true arc. It’s like the literary version of shoddy camera work in an old soap opera. Like how the camera keeps switching to different frames, zooms in on a woman’s face, then to a broken lamp on the floor, and then all of a sudden we’re in a villa in Italy and people are smoking cigars, and then we’re watching gunfire in an alleyway, and somehow the viewer supposed to tie these events in perfectly. Well, this book starts off with a stolen manuscript, then it’s a criticism of war, then were introduced to the complicated nature of time with Thursday’s estranged time traveling father, then we fight vampires, and then we get back to the whole stolen manuscript business, but that all happens after Thursday attempts to fix her relationships while simultaneously coping with the death of her brother. And even at that point, we still don’t know why the name “Eyre” in the title.
I’m starting to think that this novel wasn’t written to be a novel, but was meant to be adapted into a detective show. Which wouldn’t be a bad thing, but shows like Supernatural tend to have that episodic nature, where it’s okay to have the focus shift to a new idea at any point. But it hammers in the idea I was saying earlier about how concepts like time travel and supernatural creatures act as decorations rather than pillars of structure to the plot. Granted, if you took those decorations away the novel would be just any other gritty detective story, but I don’t believe the plot would be missing too much without them.
This comes from a place of both criticism and praise on my part, as I think that even without the wacky elements Thursday’s character is strong enough to make a series like that interesting, and the hurdles she overcomes would be more than enough for me to become invested. Even without the addition of time travel, werewolves, or a machine that can transport you inside the pages of a novel, I would still stick around just to watch Thursday interact with the people around her for the sake of seeing what she does next, which says a lot about Jasper’s potential for writing good characters when he wants to.
If I had to say anything definite, I’d say that “The Eyre Affair” has cult appeal in the same way that Gamer Girl had that initial attention when it was first published: it pulled in a niche audience with copious references. Whereas Gamer Girl’s problem was the fact that the references it made were destined to be outdated, this novel works with its references reasonably well. This probably comes from the fact that A. the references that are used are classical in nature and are likely to be more recognized, and B. the literary references are a direct part of the plot. As much as I claim that smaller “decoration” concepts could be removed with no issue, I still wouldn’t want to take out the idea of illegal book trading or the societal obsession over who really wrote Shakespeare, because I truly think my enjoyment of the book would suffer. Sure, the strange discussions and heavy-handed messages about war do get a little obstructive to the novel’s flow, but without the concept behind those references, the story just would not be the same. However, you could easily take out time traveling and werewolf hunting and still have a decent story. That’s how little those elements matter.
And for the ending…
Listen. Loosely tying in concepts at the end of the novel does not a satisfying conclusion make. Neither does it justify the concept to the plot. You have to work to make a far-fetched idea seem logical, otherwise you’re gonna have a jammed Chekov’s gun that explodes in your hand instead of firing off at the climax. I won’t say that Jasper Fforde is an egregious offender in this case, but I would say it’s so dangerously close that I wonder how much potential was sacrificed for the sake of a happy ending.
Final verdict: give it a shot. Even if it’s just downloading the sample off of Kindle and giving that a quick read, see for yourself if you’d enjoy it. If you are in English major, a Shakespeare fanatic, or love researching for the sake of researching, absolutely take a look at it. And then let me know if you read the subsequent books. As for me, I’m probably not going to continue this series despite how interesting the other books may have looked. And hey, maybe I’m wrong, and it’s just a matter of personal taste. Or maybe I need to give it more effort, like how I almost dropped crime and punishment but managed to get to 100 pages and found myself suddenly captivated with Raskolnikov and his wacky “getting away with murder” antics.
Regardless, I am grateful for what this book did give me, which is a great bundle of characters and an interesting take on the modern detective story. Overall, it was a pleasant read and I don’t regret it.
Stick around with this blog if you want to see me tackle animation that I have no idea how to make and more books that I find in metaphorical trash bins. And remember, be careful who you discuss your favorite characters with. It might just get you killed.
Until next time.