The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde
(Viking, $23.95, G) ISBN 0-670-03064-3
****
Anglophiles, bibliophiles and dodophiles (if there are such individuals), rejoice! Jasper Fforde’s debut novel, The Eyre Affair, an astounding combination of Douglas Adams, Lewis Carroll, Connie Willis and even Woody Allen, is the most hilarious and ingenious novel of the millennium to date.

When reviewing a comical book, it’s tempting to share the funniest lines, but I’ll try to contain myself so fortunate readers can discover them on their own. Setting the stage is impressive enough. Welcome to an alternate England, circa 1985. The Crimean War between England and Russia is still raging after 131 years, and Wales is an independent, hostile nation. Looming over everything is the Goliath Corporation, “for all you’ll ever need,” and if you think Enron acted above the law you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Literature has become so important that organized crime has moved onto the scene, requiring an entire cadre of Special Operations Network Literary Detectives. Our heroine, Thursday Next, has been an LiteraTec for eight years. Her accomplishments include arresting the gang who were “stealing and selling Samuel Johnson first editions” and uncovering “an attempt to authenticate a flagrantly unrealistic version of Shakespeare’s lost work, Cardenio.” The solitary Thursday’s only companion is her regenerated pet dodo, Pickwick, “left over from the days when reverse extinction was all the rage and you could buy home cloning kits over the counter.”

(Okay, I know I said I wouldn’t quote too much, but all of the above occurs within the first 3 pages. I promise, you’ve got 371 pages left to uncover and I won’t spoil any more of them! Watch out - you, too, will want to read aloud multiple excerpts to your friends and family members, whether they want to hear them or not.)

The plot really picks up when the original manuscript of Charles Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit is stolen, despite heavy security, and Thursday is called in on a special mission to track down the suspected culprit. Diabolical Acheron Hades, the #3 most-wanted man on the planet, was briefly a lecturer at Thursday’s university before he switched to a career in crime. Thursday was one of the few people who could resist his evil charm, hence her impromptu involvement. The search for Hades eventually leads Thursday back to her home town of Swindon, site of bad memories and lost love.

The trail will also encompass the great works of literature themselves, for Hades has obtained the means to travel through a Prose Portal into works of fiction. If he can change the original manuscript, then every single copy of that work will be forever altered. Kidnapping and disposing of a minor character in Martin Chuzzlewit is just the beginning - because now Hades has his sights set on holding Jane Eyre hostage until his ransom demands are met. Can Thursday stop him, with the help of her time-traveling father (whose face can stop a clock, literally), her mad-as-pants but brilliant inventor uncle and some helpful fictional characters? The answer may change the outcome of a literary classic forever.

The Eyre Affair is unpredictable, bizarre, fiendishly clever and refreshingly original. Some of the humor is extremely broad, such as Fforde’s insistence on using dreadful puns for the names of secondary characters (Paige Turner, Victor Analogy). Other jokes require a sophisticated knowledge of classic British literature (you’ll never look at Richard III in the same light again). But, like a good Airplane! movie, the jokes just keep coming, and most of them stick.

The Eyre Affair wouldn’t be successful, however, if it didn’t have at least one character with some substance. Thursday Next is a tough, no-nonsense detective who is faintly reminiscent of Kinsey Millhone and V.I. Warshawski. But her fondness for literature, as well as the tragic past that haunts her, give her additional vulnerability and warmth. Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series never engaged me because the books sacrificed character development for one-liners. At times The Eyre Affair comes awfully close to that same fate, but Thursday anchors the book and provides it with some humanity. However, most of the other characters are either ciphers or throwaways. Discriminating romance readers should be aware that there is a bit of a lost-and-found love story for our intrepid heroine, but it, too, is under-developed.

The Eyre Affair is already a huge hit in Great Britain and is generating a lot of buzz in the United States as well. A sequel, Lost in a Good Book, will be published in the U.K. this summer (but not until 2003 in the U.S., alas), and Fforde is under contract to write at least five Thursday Next books. My level of commitment to the entire series will depend on the direction Fforde takes Thurday’s character and his ability to create three-dimensional supporting players for her. It will certainly be difficult to top his debut for frenzied funniness and literary lunacy.

Prospective readers might want to check out Thursday’s personal website, thursdaynext.com, to learn more about Thursday, Swindon, and the top five favourite toppings for toast.

--Susan Scribner


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