- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 22, 2007

THURSDAY NEXT: FIRST AMONG SEQUELS

By Jasper Fforde

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.’”

A moment later they’re looking through a porthole at tiny points of light that 5 thinks are stars.

“‘Not stars,’ I told her. ‘Books. Each one adrift in the firmament and each one burning not just with the light that the author gave it upon creation but with the warm glow of being read and appreciated. The brighter ones are the most popular.’”

Once the central mission — saving books as we know and love them — is established, Mr. Fforde really unleashes his imagination, and it knows no bounds, especially in reference to specific books, displaying what one critic called his “bibliowit.” Nonetheless, and almost despite all the allusions, illusions, neologisms, puns and other literary sleights-of-hand, the reader comes to see that for all its futuristic, alternate-worldly shenanigans, “Thursday Next, The Final Sequel” is a down-to-earth (well, sort of) cautionary tale about good and evil, as well as a family-centered love story about a good marriage. Why that’s downright subversive!

In addition to owning the wildest imagination I’ve run across in mainline fiction in years, Mr. Fforde can turn a funny line in service to such traditional tools as metaphor. “He was a large man,” Mr. Fforde writes of John Henry Goliath.

V is head of the predatory corporate giant Goliath and one of the book’s main villains. “It looked as though someone had handed his parents a blueprint of a baby and told them to scale it up by a factor of one and a quarter.”

In addition to being a love story, a cautionary tale and a morality play on words, “Thursday Next: First among Sequels” is also a mystery. Will Thursday and company be able to find the secret formula — for unscrambling eggs — in time to stave off the collapse of the literate universe? Nearer the end, in a television interview, Cherie Yogert, MP, the Commonsense Party’s Minister of Culture, reveals the name of the first classic to be turned into a reality book show.

“‘Pride and Prejudice,’ announced Yogert proudly. ‘It will be renamed The Bennets and will be serialized live in your household copy the day after tomorrow. Set in starchy early nineteenth century England, the series will feature Mr. and Mrs. Bennet and their five daughters being given tasks and then voted out of the house one by one, with the winner going on to feature in Northanger Abbey, which itself will be the subject of more “readeractive” changes.’” As you can see, the stakes could not be higher. Quick, do your part to save the written world — buy this book.

Jasper Fforde recently told Newsweek why Lewis Carroll’s classic is his favorite book. “At the age of 7 or 8, I was swept away by Alice’s madcap escapades and respectful irreverence of established nursery characters and situations.” No kidding. Thankfully, he never got over it.

John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.

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