THURSDAY NEXT: FIRST AMONG SEQUELS
Viking, $24.95, 362 pages
REVIEWED BY JOHN GREENYA
Warning to anyone venturing beyond page one of this novel: That way lies madcapness. Think Benny Hill on bennies, Monty Python on speed, the Beatles’ “Help” on fast forward. Two things are certain: It’s fiction, and it’s funny. After that, your faithful reader is not quite sure. Color me alternately dazed and dazzled. Oh, before you go any further, you should probably know that the author’s all-time favorite book is “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”
In this, the fifth book in the series and the author’s eighth novel overall, we again meet Thursday Next, a kind of British Nancy Drew grown quite nicely, thank you, into full adulthood. The setting is Swindon, an actual town in England, but there all ties to reality cease. The year is 2002, and Thursday and Landen, her treasured husband, are both writers, though only she can still be called successful.
In disfavor with his publisher, he works at home, writing self-help books with titles like “Men Are from Earth, Women Are from Earth — Just Deal with It.” Mainly, he keeps house and sees to the care and feeding of their children, 16-year-old son Friday and his sisters, Tuesday, 12, and Jenny, 10. Thursday may be the resident Alpha, but their marriage is still clearly a love match.
Up to page four, Swindon and the Nexts seem to be in the same world and universe we inhabit, but then Thursday, describing her son, tells us, “He was now 16, and instead of gearing himself up for a successful career with the time industry’s elite operatives known as the ChronoGuard, he was a tedious teenage cliche — staying in bed until past midday, then slouching around the house in a state of semiconsciousness that would do credit to a zombie.” The time industry? What gives here? We soon find out.
The Nexts live in the Outland, the real world, where Thursday, whose fifth novel may have been her last, earns their living by working for Acme Carpet. But, aha, that’s just her cover. Beyond the Outland, there’s also the BookWorld, a somewhat parallel universe comprised of all the books ever written, and Thursday serves that world as a Literary Detective. She used to do that as a highly regarded and successful agent for Special Operations, or SpecOps.
As Mr. Fforde told us in the last book, “Something Rotten,” SpecOps was disbanded 14 years ago, but that didn’t eliminate the need for its services in the name of good (reading), so, unbeknownst to her family, Thursday now operates undercover. And then, as if that isn’t enough for one superwoman, Thursday also works as a Jurisfiction Agent — “if Landen found out about SpecOps, he’d be annoyed — if he found out about Jurisfiction, he’d go bonkers.”
“Jurisfiction agents,” Thursday tells us, “live mostly on their wits as they attempt to reconcile the author’s original wishes and the reader’s expectations against a strict and largely pointless set of bureaucratic guidelines laid down by the Council of Genres.” In order to do their work, jurisfiction agents have to get inside the books themselves, and they do this by using the prime piece of their assigned equipment, their Travelbook.
On her first visit to Jurisfiction’s offices — “the disused ballroom of Mr. and Mrs. John Dashwood’s residence of Norland Park, safely hidden in the backstory of Jane Austen’s ‘Sense and Sensibility’” — Thursday is accompanied by her latest Jurisfiction cadet, Thursday Next 5 — not to be confused with her evil predecessor Thursday Next 1-4 — whose acceptance as a cadet is entirely up to the “real” Thursday. (Are you still with me?)
There they learn that the Council of Genres has come up with a scheme to combat the plunging ReadRates in the Outland (the declining number of real people reading real books) by introducing reality books in which the characters could vote one of their number out of the book — for good. Once this problem is introduced, the author feels free to pull back the veil a bit and show not just the heart of his story but also his own heart. Thursday and her good cadet have this exchange:
“Thursday5 looked thoughtful. ‘The readers are everything, aren’t they?’
“‘Now you’ve got it,’ I replied, ‘Everything.’”