Before and After Fforde

In which The Author is on a reading binge

I’d like you to use your imagination for a few moments. Try and picture a world in which there’s a war in the Crimean Peninsula; in which Wales is an independent socialist republic; in which bookshops are closing at a frightening pace because nobody has the attention span to cope with anything more demanding than TV game shows and reality shows; in which a genial, plausible and extremely dangerous right-wing politician is only a few Europhobic steps away from becoming the most powerful man in England…
Oh, hang on a minute – that’s pretty much the real world, isn’t it?
Rewind to the start of the previous paragraph and start again. Take that basic recipe, and proceed as follows: Fillet and finely chop a mixed bag of standard literary genres: Police Procedural; Political Thriller; Fantasy/Horror crossover; Classics; Military Adventure; Chick-Lit; and so forth. Throw in a handful of Science Fiction staple ingredients. Stir in some eclectic comic influences. Add a generous pinch of intellectual wordplay. Mix thoroughly. Let the whole thing ferment for some time, allowing the flavours to blend in exciting new combinations. Bake in a fevered imagination and serve piping hot, sliced into a series of novels and liberally garnished with illustrations and silly endnotes.
Welcome to the bizarre world of Jasper Fforde.
I first came across Mr Fforde’s books in Waterstone’s, just after my shoulder operation, when I was looking after the Crime section. After nagging Jason D. for a while, I’d finally got my hands on a full department stock-holding printout. I’d begun the thankless task of retrieving the fugitives from the Fiction section, and repatriating those books which had taken up temporary homes in my new section. I realised that it could take me the rest of my natural life, but I was on light duties only, so I pressed on with it all the same.
While I was working my way slowly through the shelves, I came across a book called The Big Over Easy. Ostensibly a murder mystery, it was obvious at first glance that it was somewhat out of place amongst the formulaic whodunnits, locked room stories, forensic procedurals and grim Nordic thrillers which surrounded it on all sides. I double-checked with the stock computer, and learned (unsurprisingly) that it had been misplaced. It should have been shelved in Fiction.
Even ‘Fiction’ seemed to be an odd classification, in my mind. A glance at the blurb quickly confirmed that it was no ordinary police story. But here’s the big question, the real unsolved mystery: where the fuck do you shelve a book about the unexplained death of Humpty Dumpty?
It obviously wasn’t a kids’ book. It wasn’t even a crossover kids’ book. The Harry Potter series, dual-jacketed so that adults could read them on the train without too much embarrassment, are a good example. However, this book seemed too sophisticated and too clever to appeal to the average teenage reader.
It might have conceivably fitted into the loose SF/Fantasy arena, alongside Terry Pratchett’s Discworld saga, Robert Rankin’s crazy stories, and the acknowledged godfather of the comic SF genre, Douglas Adams. On the other hand, Kurt Vonnegut’s landmark books The Sirens of Titan, Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle arguably were hard SF, albeit with a sharp satirical edge. Most bookshops, however, would keep them in Fiction. Like the death of Humpty Dumpty himself, finding this book’s natural home was something of a mystery.
Fast forward a few years. I was browsing in the British Heart Foundation shop in Aberdare last summer, when I came across a copy of Mr Fforde’s novel The Fourth Bear. Here was another unsolved mystery: it was an uncorrected publisher’s proof. I was used to seeing these in the trade, of course; I used to take one home with me every so often, to keep my proofreading skills fresh. What I have yet to figure out is who the hell else in Aberdare could possibly have got hold of such a rarity?
After reading Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant novels, which definitely fall into the SF/Fantasy category, I was in the mood for something similar. I read the blurb and decided that it was just the ticket. I immediately liked the idea of crimes involving characters from nursery rhymes and fairy stories who were (mostly) the living, breathing inhabitants of a parallel Reading. The Fourth Bear, not surprisingly, revolves around the disappearance of an investigative journalist nicknamed Goldilocks. In charge of the case is Jack Spratt, a cynical detective with a stable family and hardly any flaws. I decided that it was worth a punt, so I bought it and started reading it the same evening.
Even though I hadn’t read The Big Over Easy, which precedes it in the sequence, it didn’t matter. Once I’d checked my Reality Meter in at the first chapter, I was instantly captivated by its tightly-controlled sense of the absurd. It was the first genuinely laugh-out-loud novel I’d read for ages, but Mr Fforde somehow managed to keep a tight grip on the various threads of the complex story.
I mentioned the great Douglas Adams earlier on, to whom Mr Fforde has been compared by numerous critics. Personally, I feel that the zany humour which worked so well in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy wore increasingly thin through the sequels. It was almost as though Mr Adams had so many good ideas that he didn’t know what to do with them all. By contrast, Mr Fforde had managed to pull all the threads of his plot together in a very neat, tight conclusion. A couple of months later, I stumbled upon The Big Over Easy in another charity shop, and was delighted to learn that the first book was just as inventive as its sequel had been. What I didn’t know at the time was there was more fun to follow.
Or, maybe, to precede it. (Time Travel is complicated, isn’t it?)
While browsing in The Works in Aberdare a few months ago, I spotted the familiar Hodder jacket design of a Jasper Fforde novel. It was The Eyre Affair, the first book in the Thursday Next series. If that sounds weird already, let me explain that Thursday Next is the female narrator of The Eyre Affair.
Mr Fforde gives his fertile imagination free rein in this book and its sequels: Lost in a Good Book, The Well of Lost Plots, Something Rotten, First Among Sequels, One of our Thursdays is Missing and The Woman Who Died a Lot. Largely thanks to The Works, various charity shops throughout the Valleys, Aberdare Library’s Not Closing Down Sale, and my old pal Neil R., who very kindly plugged one of the gaps in my collection, I’ve been able to acquire all but the latest in the series. I might have to reluctantly bite the bullet and buy that one from Waterstone’s or Amazon.
I’m about a third of the way through One of our Thursdays is Missing at the moment. I’ve been working my way through the books steadily since my jury service came to an abrupt end about a month ago. So far, I haven’t been disappointed. The glorious nonsense which characterised the first book was just a taste of the increasingly bizarre, complex and self-parodying BookWorld saga. I did feel, while reading The Well of Lost Plots, that Mr Fforde was in danger of becoming too clever for his own good. I’m pleased to say that I was wrong; the book led to a very satisfactory conclusion, as well as ingeniously setting up the Nursery Crime sequence for good measure. On the whole, though, the creativity, erudition, wit and sheer originality which power the series shows no sign of flagging over time.
While looking at Mr Fforde’s official website, I was only slightly surprised to learn that there’s an annual gathering of his fans in (where else?) Swindon – the neatly-named Fforde Ffiesta. In the author’s own words:
A lot of people who read my books come and get involved in very random games for no good reason except that it’s fun – and that’s exactly what my books are about. Good clean surreal fun.
And it is good clean surreal fun. Like the best of Round the Horne (to which Mr Fforde definitely owes some of his comedy influences), there’s a certain amount of rudery, but nothing to frighten the horses – or even the mammoths, come to that. I’m going to pencil in next year’s get-together, I think. A couple of days of good clean surreal fun sounds like just the ticket.