I am, let me begin by acknowledging it, a lit-geek. An English major, and holder of a Poetic License (in the form of an MFA in writing), I’m one of those people who thinks Alexander Pope was a hoot; I can go on for hours about the difference between Modernism and Post-Modernism; I reread Jane Austen on bleak winter days; and I have a soft spot in my heart for an esoteric allusion or a well-turned pun. All of which would seem to make me the ideal reader of The Eyre Affair–I’m predisposed to like it from the title alone.
And there is much to like about this genre-piece-gone-wild, a detective novel set in England in an alternate version of 1985. In this universe, literary crime is a serious matter, what with forgeries, and thefts of original manuscripts, and terrorist factions determined to convince the world that Francis Bacon, or Christopher Marlowe, was the true author of the plays usually attributed to Shakespeare. So there’s an entire division of the Special Operations Network to deal with these ruffians: the Literary Detectives, or LiteraTecs, of whom our heroine, Thursday Next, is one. Thursday is a rising star among the LiteraTecs, a brilliant rogue agent, equal parts Sherlock Holmes, Sam Spade, and Tom Clancy’s CIA operative Jack Ryan. She doesn’t shrink from using force, she’s all but fearless, and don’t even get her started on the Shakespeare question.
When the original manuscript of Martin Chuzzlewit disappears from its display case, Thursday is enlisted to help track down a master criminal, Acheron Hades, who has mysterious powers and will stop at nothing to bring the literary establishment to its knees. Thursday’s uncle, Mycroft, has invented a device that allows people to pass into, and out of, books. And Hades has figured out that if this device is used on an original manuscript, all copies of the book are affected. His plan: to kidnap major literary characters and hold them for ransom. In a country in which everyone can recite Richard III from memory, this is no small threat. By the time Hades steals Jane from the manuscript of Jane Eyre, everybody’s involved, from the highest branches of the government, to the shadiest offices of the Goliath Corporation (which owns, makes, and oversees pretty much everything, from paper to weaponry), to the fervent fans and laypeople who make up the Brontë Federation.
So far so good, right? And Jasper Fforde gives us lit-geeks even more fun, like the performance of Richard III that plays like a showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, with cast members pulled out of the audience, and the crowd jeering and hooting and prodding the “actors” along, yelling things like “When is the winter of our discontent?” Better still, throughout the novel we see Brontë fans complaining about the denouement of Jane Eyre, in which Jane goes off to India with her cousin, and Mr. Rochester is left alone at Thornfield – so most readers are delighted when Thursday follows Hades into the manuscript and the ending takes a few new twists. (Bertha, Rochester’s mad wife in the attic, proves herself a useful old girl.) So why, with all of this, is The Eyre Affair still such a frustrating read?
Well, some of the problem is plain old plotting. Fforde, while he’s very good at the whiz-bang gimmickry of his alternate universe (and this is clearly where his interest lies), is exceptionally clumsy at exposition, dropping plot points into his story like anvils and then allowing them to disappear as soon as their usefulness is exhausted. The characters are no more developed than figures in a video game – and Fforde seems to have lifted some of his narrative technique from text-adventure games as well, having Thursday pick up a hand mirror for no reason other than to tell the reader what she looks like, or having her only able to describe something after he’s turned her around to look at it, like those games where you can’t learn what’s to your right unless you specifically ask. There are also point-of-view violations that should bring the LiteraTecs screaming down to arrest Fforde: in a first-person narration, it is simply against the rules to suddenly drop into other characters’ heads for a sentence, or to depict scenes in which the narrator is absent.
And then there are the puns. As if it’s not enough to name the heroine Thursday Next and the villain Acheron Hades, we’ve also got elderly LiteraTecs named Boswell and Analogy, we’ve got a thug named Felix Tabularasa, a colleague of Thursday’s named Paige Turner, an old love interest named Landen Parke-Laine, and, most groan-inducing of all, a Goliath executive named Jack Schitt. It could be argued that these names are self-consciously Dickensian, but Dickens could be pretty cloying with this stuff too. Fforde also doesn’t trust his readers enough; at one point Schitt asks Thursday what she knows about Acheron, and she replies “It’s one of the rivers that flow to the underworld.” Which, yes, is true, and a witty enough response in that situation, but it reads too much like the author stepping in and saying, “Okay, for those of you who were too dim to catch my clever mythology reference, here, let me spell it out for you.” Esoteric allusions only work if you assume that your readers are well-read enough to pick up on them. They fall flat if they have to be explained.
On the whole The Eyre Affair is a disappointment. Much of it is good fun, and to a reader like myself (and I suspect there are a decent number of us, though not so many as in the world of the novel) it’s chock full of candy. But candy, ultimately, does not a meal make. And flashing lights and an assortment of shiny bells and whistles are no substitute for a compelling, well-told story. For his next trick, Fforde might want to give the gimmicks a rest and brush up on his basics.