|Jasper Fforde’s fourth novel featuring intrepid Literary Detective Thursday Next is hardly Something Rotten – in fact, it’s a fine return to form after a slight misstep in last year’s Well of Lost Plots. If you like the offbeat humor of Douglas Adams, Monty Python and Lewis Carroll, you should not miss out on this fiendishly clever series.
Thursday Next has spent two years living in the Book World as the head of Jurisfiction, managing the fictional characters’ efforts to police themselves, but she has grown weary of the “peculiar and downright weird.” After a disastrous attempt to locate an escaped minotaur within the pages of a Western novel, Thursday decides to go home to Swindon, England, where at least the weirdness has some basis in reality. Her son Friday is now two years old and it’s time for him to meet his Daddy. Unfortunately, Thursday’s husband Landon was eradicated several years ago by the evil Goliath Corporation, a fate decidedly worse than death because to everyone but Thursday, Landon never existed.
But fortunately, big changes are afoot in this alternate 1988 England. Goliath is in the midst of transforming itself from a mega-corporation into a recognized religion, and they’re eager to make amends for past wrong-doings. This may be Thursday’s best opportunity Thursday to get Landon un-eradicated. But even if she manages that feat, she faces many other challenges. Corrupt politician Yorrick Kaine, a fictional character who escaped from the Book World, is angling to become dictator by blaming all of England’s social and economic problems on Denmark. According to the revelations of Swindon’s patron St. Zvlkx, who is scheduled to be spontaneously resurrected the day after tomorrow, Goliath and Kaine can only be stopped if Swindon’s pathetic croquet team wins the SuperHoop tournament. And Thursday may be back in Swindon, but she hasn’t completely left the Book World behind; Jurisfiction agents keep popping up to ask her advice on various problems. She’s also responsible for an unusual tourist – Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, who, despite his notorious indecision, isn’t too happy to learn that his homeland is being used as a scapegoat.
In his four Thursday Next novels, Jasper Fforde has created a unique alternate reality that almost defies description. In some ways Thursday’s England is incredibly advanced (Thursday’s pet dodo Pickwick was manufactured from a home cloning kit) yet also rather backwards (airplanes haven’t been invented yet) and also eerily familiar (politicians speak out of both sides of their mouths, greedy corporations try to steal even more money). The humor is sometimes broad and occasionally groaningly bad, but you have to shake your head in amazement at Fforde’s agile mind that keeps manufacturing jokes at such a rapid pace. Unlike several of the earlier installments, Something Rotten’s plot starts off at a fast clip and keeps its momentum; there are fewer chapters that seem to have been included just so Fforde can demonstrate his cleverness. I don’t think he knows much about children, however; little Friday may be an active toddler, but he never cries, whines or clings to Thursday. Yet he’s surprisingly engaging, and the story’s best joke revolves around the unusual language he has developed from living in the Book World during his formative years.
I was pleasantly surprised by Fforde’s ability to imbue his characters with some genuine emotion in this installment. While no one will ever accuse him of being sentimental, Fforde does invest Thursday’s quest for Landen with a touch of poignancy. Another unusual character, the re-engineered Neanderthal Stig, has a sad, noble dignity that serves as a chilling warning about the dangers of science gone too far.
Fforde brings the book, as well as the series (at least temporarily) to a close in a mind-blowing scene that ties up ends left loose since The Eyre Affair. According to Fforde’s website, Thursday will be back eventually, but his upcoming 2005 release will go in a new direction. Meanwhile, those of us who have followed Thursday on her through-the-looking-glass type adventures for the past three years will have to be content with re-reading the series. If, like myself you are fascinated by the creative process, I recommend that you check out the “special features” at JasperFforde.com which contains a “wordamentary” on the making of Something Rotten. Understanding the process that went into the final version of the novel does nothing to lessen the impact of Fforde’s creative genius.