I just finished reading yet another Jasper Fforde book, I think the 9th one I’ve read. While not a household name, Fforde has a very devoted following among certain sects of peculiar readers. The sort of people who can read Bronte and Dickens, then switch over to Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett without batting an eye. His books are often re-workings of classic stories, fairytales, even nursery rhymes. He has no fear when it comes to taking well-known characters and stories, and changing them. It’s the sort of thing that might be posted on a fanfiction website in a strange corner of the internet, if it weren’t actually in book form.
While not Nabokov or Proust, Fforde has a few qualities that make his books extremely interesting and very different from what you normally find on the bookshelf. For one thing, he’s a world-builder. Like J.K. Rowling, he can introduce a new set of rules and parameters, a new way of looking at a familiar place. There are always rules to his worlds, and they make sense in your brain. Suddenly, you begin to think it could all be a possibility, the same way you think, maybe if you stand in the right place in King’s Cross, you can see someone disappear into Platform 9 3/4. His most famous character, Thursday Next, becomes part of a police force that operates inside books. Jurisfiction, it’s called. Thursday can travel inside books, right into Netherfield or Manderley or Thornfield Hall. Of course, if I had this ability, it would be straight to Hogsmeade for me. But I digress. Fforde is very good at establishing these worlds, their rules. Just strange and nonsensical enough to be new and exciting, just familiar and rational enough to make it relatable. Fictional characters can easily jump from their own books to visit others. But if someone is reading their book, they have to stay put and play their parts. Apparently, a 1st person story is much harder on the protagonist, since it demands that his/her words, actions, and thoughts match those written in the book. A 3rd person story allows the characters much more freedom. It’s like an acting job they can never quit, in that sense. Very interesting way to think about it.
Thursday Next has starred in 7 books so far: The Eyre Affair, 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. During that time, she alters the ending of Jane Eyre, her brother Mycroft becomes Sherlock Holmes brother, and Thursday spends some time in a half-written, long-forgotten novel, stored in the Well of Lost Plots, inside the ‘Great Library’, where all the books are stored.
Another series Fforde has written/is writing, is called the Nursery Crime series.
A detective named Jack Spratt (who could eat no fat; his wife could eat no lean) investigates the deaths of nursery rhyme characters. His first case, called The Big Over Easy is the apparent suicide of Humpty Dumpty, who took a fall. His next case involves the death of Goldilocks, and is called The Fourth Bear.
These plots sort of mirror the Thursday Next series, delving into the world of fictional characters and finding new ways to look at old stories.
The book I just finished was called Shades of Grey. Not to be confused, ever, with 50 Shades of Grey. This book takes place in a world where human beings can only see one color, rather than the entire spectrum. The social hierarchy is entirely dependent upon what you can see. Purples rule the roost, because they fall at the good end of the Roy G Biv color spectrum.
Greys are colorblind, and are the serfs of this society. The society is also very 1984, with a pretty serious, if totally nonsensical, set of rules. No new spoons can ever be made–that’s probably the weirdest one. No one can marry a complimentary color (red/green), I believe because of the fear of any offspring being Browns.
Fforde’s other enduring quality is his humorous turn of phrase. It reminds me of Douglas Adams, but not quite as wonderfully strange–but no one is quite as wonderfully strange as Douglas Adams. He does have a quirky way of looking at the world. Here are a few quotes from his books:
Books may look like nothing more than words on a page, but they are actually an infinitely complex imaginotransference technology that translates odd, inky squiggles into pictures inside your head.
there is no problem on Earth that can’t be ameliorated by a hot bath and a cup of tea.
the Real-World was a sprawling mess of a book in need of a good editor
In my opinion, the key to enjoying a Fforde book is a pretty extensive knowledge of literature in general. These books were written for book lovers. If you can’t appreciate a reference to Miss Havisham’s yellowed wedding gown or understand why Heathcliff won the ‘Most Troubled Romantic Lead’ award without some googling, you won’t get these books. They aren’t for you. They’re for people who would, let’s just be honest, prefer to live in the world of a book than to live anywhere else. Shades of Grey doesn’t rely as heavily on that sort of book knowledge, which might make it easier for a beginner Fforde fan to get into. On the other hand, I didn’t enjoy it as much as the others, partially because there weren’t so many winks and nods I felt pleased to understand.
I mentioned the adoring Fforde ffans, yes? They’ve started a quasi-yearly event in Swindon (Thursday Next’s home, near London), called the Fforde Ffiesta. Fforde shows up and gives readings, but mostly people re-enact strange customs from his books. Favorites include ‘Spot the Lobster’, ‘Celebrity Name that Fruit’, and speed reading of Hamlet. I’m not quite that extreme (look, if I’m going all the way to the UK, I’m not going to go to Swindon), but I think it’s all quite lovely that people a-read his books, b-like his books, and c-embrace the strangeness of his imagined worlds so fully that they want to make it real. As someone with a wand and a Ravenclaw scarf, I can comprehend that idea all too well.