|Jul/Aug 2004 Book Reviews|
Viking Books (2004) 320 pages
Or, Colleen's Attempt to Make Kevin McGowin Reconsider...
When Something Rotten by Jasper Fforde became available for review, my esteemed editor, Kevin McGowin, asked if I cared to read it. Knowing that I am a major fan of the series, he was fairly certain of my wildly affirmative response. Kevin and I became friends through a series of emails about writing reviews for Eclectica. Even though I wanted the position, I couldn't resist letting him know that I thought his March review of Fforde's previous book, The Well of Lost Plots, was just a teeny tiny bit brutal—in a major way. In this review I intend to not only write about Something Rotten (which was fabulous), but also to strike a blow for Jasper Fforde fans everywhere when I say, "It's just a book!! Let's read something and enjoy ourselves for once!"
As I told Kevin several months ago, Jasper Fforde's series is one of the few that I believe must be read in order. Jumping into the middle and having any thorough understanding of the plot is pretty much impossible, particularly if you choose the third book, which even Fforde has admitted is a bit of a digression. So when Kevin wrote last March:
"...before I launch into a diatribe about how this book is a garbled and centerless pastiche of self-indulgent namedropping rehashed marmot shit, let me hasten to point out that I haven't read the other two books in the series (another volume of which is forthcoming in March, 2005), and since I'm not going to, I'll never quite know what the hell Viking was thinking putting this out and hyping it like they are (maybe the California dot-com litzine crowd digs its fractured pseudo-literary netiquitte), or why these books are "New York Times bestselling adventures through the western literary canon," making this er, uh, text "eagerly anticipated... a genre-blending blend of crime fiction fantasy, and top-drawer literary entertainment..."
I knew exactly what the problem was. The dude started in the middle. Please people, when it comes to the adventures of Thursday Next, do not start in the middle.
Something Rotten is Book 4 in the Thursday Next series. They are all set in an alternative Earth where animal cloning is perfected, time travel is common, Wales is a Socialist Republic, the Crimean War was waged for over 100 years and Neanderthals are seeking human status. There are dodos, mammoths, vampires and well, you get the idea; this ain't your Mama's Kansas. The most interesting part of Thursday's world, and the one that most involves our heroine, is the vast importance that literature has attained in the culture. Children trade literary cards, and arguments over the true identity of William Shakespeare are waged with ferocious intensity. In the first book, The Eyre Affair, the character of Jane Eyre is kidnapped from the original copy of the Bronte manuscript, causing a potential catastrophe throughout British society. As a Literary Detective, Thursday becomes involved to save Jane and well, lots of stuff happens. The gist of the series, though, is that literature is a thriving community itself, a kind of parallel dimension to the "real" world, and what happens in that community is very significant to Thursday's world. The cool part is that Fforde is able to use this framework to offer all kinds of fun sidetracks, like the cast of Wuthering Heights going through anger management counseling, Miss Havisham from Great Expectations having car races with Toad from Wind in the Willows, and poor Hamlet having a crisis of faith over his manliness. Does he think too much and act too little? Should he just kill his uncle, marry Ophelia, tell Polonius to go to hell, and turn Hamlet into "a tale of one man's revenge"? Is that what his reading public really wants? What should he do?
Well. You have to admit it is a funny premise. Think of Heathcliff sitting around with a counselor discussing why he hates everybody. Haven't you wondered at some point why the guy just won't get over it? Why must he be so brooding out on those Moors? No, this clearly isn't rocket science, but it is fun. It's an opportunity to play on all those little literary questions, all those moments in fiction that readers have always wordlessly accepted as character development. Fforde has created the ultimate literary playground and using the framework of Thursday and her adventures in "SpecOps," he has literally anywhere to go. The series' sheer creativity is brilliant all by itself, and the appeal of Thursday and her family and friends only make it all the better.
Now Kevin. Kevin really did not like The Well of Lost Plots. Consider this quote: "It attempts to out modern neo post-modernism, and it ends up coming across as the random printouts of a second-rate imagination, and any real merit here is essentially what Barthes called the "happy accident."
Um, well, I don't know who Barthes is. Okay, quick search through Google and... Roland Barthes, French intellectual who "questioned everything that the petit bourgeois offered as unquestionable and unalienable." Eep. This is the part where I question all of my scheduling decisions in college and wonder again if I ever learned anything. I didn't learn about Roland Barthes, that's for sure. So, I'll just quietly back away from that quote and return to Jasper Fforde.
The Well of Lost Plots was a diversion into the book world as Fforde gave his pregnant character a break from all the near-death action that had dogged her through the first two books. Well is a crazy book with lots of nothing going on and parts of something and major plot development in some ways and little plot development in most ways. The book world librarian is the Cheshire Cat for heaven's sake!! Did you expect this to all make sense? It's silly, but contains reams of character development and mostly serves to flesh out this other major aspect of the series. It is the absolutely worst place to try and understand Thursday and her universe. Kevin, it's a killer book to start with, an insane place to try and understand what is going on. Put it aside (if you haven't already flushed it down the toilet) and go back to The Eyre Affair and start from the beginning. I promise you will feel much, much better!
On to Something Rotten. This title picks up the major plot points in Book Two, Lost in a Good Book, and places Thursday back in England with her now two-year old son in tow as she tries to bring her husband Landon back from the dead, stop the Goliath Corporation from attaining religious status and thus becoming unstoppable, while simultaneously also removing Yorrick Kaine from power before he starts World War III by attacking Denmark. She also has a stalker, problems with Shakespeare cloning, and Danish book-burning to deal with.
Is your head spinning?
Really, it all makes perfect sense. Thursday's husband was eradicated through time travel murder when he was two, although she was able to maintain her pregnancy even after he "died." The relationship between Thursday and Landon has been a critical part of the plot since the very beginning, and he was sorely missed in the third book. It's good to see Fforde addressing that mess. The Goliath Corporation is, in many ways, Thursday's arch nemesis, and its latest attempt to circumvent national control and obtain global dominance is to be expected, although the manner in which it tries is wholly unusual. The problem with Denmark and Yorrick Kaine is a bit harder to explain, but don't worry; Fforde handles it all perfectly, bringing all the plot points around by the final pages. There is also an assassin determined to kill Thursday, the return of Spike, the SpecOp agent licensed to kill vampires, werewolves and other nasty creatures, a croquet tournament that could decide the fate of the world, a visit to Admiral Nelson's ship at the Battle of Trafalger, and a lot of creepy bioengineering. On top of all this, Fforde has also given himself the opportunity to run full tilt through the electoral process with one particularly hilarious presidential debate in which the candidates are given points by best evading the questions. I promise you will laugh. You will laugh and laugh and laugh. (And then probably cry, because it rings so true, it's depressing.)
So, I really enjoyed Something Rotten. I also enjoyed The Eyre Affair, Lost in a Good Book, and The Well of Lost Plots. They transported me to an interesting place with rich, deep, unusual characters in situations that are utterly and completely unpredictable. You literally have no idea what will happen next in these books. (Did I mention there is a Minotaur on the loose in Something Rotten?) But you do know that it will be a bit silly, a bit funny, a bit crazy. You will not find solutions here to the war in Iraq, the chaos in Sudan, the trauma in Haiti. You will not find the cure for cancer (oh how I wish), or global warming. These are not serious books. But quite frankly, I don't think all books must sell themselves as intellectual or deep or intense. All too often I find those types of books boring. Very, very boring. I promise you that the adventures of Thursday Next are not dull.
If you want to have an enjoyable reading experience, then read this series, in order! And if you like the works of Jane Austen or the Bronte sisters or Charles Dickens or Beatrix Potter... or heck, Lewis Carroll, then you will find quite a bit to love in the world of Thursday Next. You will be transported for a little while to someplace that is wholly and completely its own, something I think is a rare enough commodity in the publishing world these days that it should be celebrated.
And dear Kevin. I feel I should confess right now that I own and watch incessantly The Gilmore Girls, The Fifth Element and The Mummy. I collect Batman comic books and sometimes just want to play Jimmy Buffet as loud as my speakers will allow. My favorite books include Something Wicked This Way Comes, A Wrinkle in Time, and The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. I write things that are serious, I research things that are dangerous, and I have seen far too many people whom I care about die. Sometimes, I just want something fun, something that will not hurt me, and I am very grateful to Jasper Fforde for giving me that kind of pleasure. It's not saving the world, but it's something.
What would Herman Hesse or Roland Barthes think of Something Rotten? I don't know. But I'm ever hopeful that Kevin will get himself a copy of The Eyre Affair and spend a pleasant summer afternoon on a porch swing with a pitcher of lemonade, a plate of ham sandwiches, and Book One in the Adventures of Thursday Next. It's a good way to spend a day, and I highly recommend it.