I’ve made no secret of my affinity for the novels of Jasper Fforde, whose primary series starring the literary detective Thursday Next taps Fforde’s boundless knowledge of classic literature and his talent for both high- and lowbrow humor. That series, which wrapped up a long story arc at the end of book four and started fresh in book five, reached its sixth book in a planned eight this spring with the release of One of Our Thursdays Is Missing, a slight departure from the first five books in the series in content and perspective.
Fforde steps a little out of the box in One of Our Thursdays is Missing by switching protagonists on us from the real Thursday Next to the written Thursday Next – that is, the fictional character of Thursday who appears in the Thursday Next novels that exist within the Thursday Next novels. If you’ve read anything in the series, you probably know what that means. If not: Within the Fforde universe, there is the physical plane and there is BookWorld, the plane of existence populated by the characters (and settings) of books, where Edward Rochester and Miss Havisham and Harry Potter are real (if not quite physical) characters who are merely playing the parts written for them by authors in our plane. It’s much less confusing if you read the Thursday Next series in sequence, though.
The change in protagonists necessitates something of a change in style from Fforde, with a plot that loosely parodies mysteries (including a fairly obvious sendup of Agatha Christie and her imitators towards the end) and conspiracy thrillers as the written Thursday traverses Fiction Island to try to figure out where the real Thursday is – and whether Racy Novel and its leader, Speedy Muffler, are trying to thwart the peace talks with Comedy and Women’s Fiction. This structure, essentially a meta-novel without the regular novel as a wrapper, gives Fforde copious opportunities to mock the cliches of various genres and even delve into matters literary, such as the way authors must warp reality to make it compact and readable, or philosophical, such as the BookWorld’s questions about its own creation and the reasons for its existence. He’s also relying more heavily than ever on puns, many provided by Mrs. Malaprop herself, and extends his satirical weaponry to cover more and more current fiction, with Potter and “Urban Vampires” getting their due alongside the classics of the western canon. (Example: the island of “Books Only Students Read,” which is where Pamela and Tristram Shandy reside.)
Fforde is one of a short list of authors who craft settings that are real enough to let me get lost in their books (something that quite literally happens to Thursday in book two, Lost in a Good Book), which is the main reason why I can’t seem to put his books down. They are funny and the plots are always interesting, but the main appeal I find in his books is how effortlessly he creates setting after setting, first devising BookWorld and then building it out from book to book. In One of Our Thursdays is Missing, he’s forced by his own story to build it out more than ever, discussing transportation (including a dubious taxi service) and even going more into BookWorld’s social structure. The disconnect from the real world is the book’s one drawback, although the written Thursday does get a quick sojourn into reality, with the book seeming less substantial because we are, in the end, dealing with characters who’ve been flattened twice by writing. But Fforde’s wit and imagination are still on full display from start to finish, including a brilliant play on the twist ending.
If you’re intrigued by my description of the series but have never read Fforde, I’ll offer two suggestions. You can start the Thursday Next series with book one, The Eyre Affair, but before delving into that you should at least familiarize yourself with the plot of Jane Eyre (you can watch the movie or just read a summary of the story), or else the key event in Fforde’s book won’t make much sense. Or, if you just want a taste of his writing style, check out The Big Over Easy the first of his two Nursery Crimes books, set in another part of BookWorld populated by characters from children’s books and, of course, nursery rhymes, where detectives Jack Spratt and Mary Mary attempt to answer the question of whether Humpty Dumpty fell … or was pushed.
Next up: John Le Carré’s The Russia House.