Saturday, April 23, 2011

One of Our Thursdays Is Missing by Jasper Fforde

Out in the disreputable speculative end of fantasy, there's a little-read series of five books -- politely, no one mentions The Great Samuel Pepys Affair, which was expunged -- about a woman named Thursday Next, who is an agent for peace and harmony inside books. This is not the sixth book in that series. That series, though, is the setting for much of the action of One of Our Thursdays Is Missing, which takes the already heavily metafictional apparatus of the earlier books (as they exist in our world, under the same titles as they do in this book) and twists them another half-turn by making our heroine this time the fictional Thursday Next -- the woman who plays the part of Thursday in that series of books, each one by a different ghostwriter, as they were published in the world in which Thursday is a real person.

So, to recap: Thursday Next, in her first adventure, The Eyre Affair, learned that there was a way of jumping into fictional works, saved the plot of Jane Eyre, and was recruited by Jurisfiction, the policing outfit of the fictional end of the bookworld. That adventure, and four more, were written up and published in her world, without any reference to Jurisfiction and other highly secret elements of the bookworld, which do appear in the books as we read them in our world. (Whether there are other, even more secret, elements which have had to be suppressed from the books as we read them is a question that I obviously cannot answer here.) That series was not as popular in her world as it has been in ours, and now it languishes, little-read and barely in print, hanging onto an important piece of bookworldian real estate primarily because of the real Thursday's patronage and position.

The fictional Thursday -- whom I'll just call "Thursday" from now on, since she's our protagonist and doing otherwise would be tediously convoluted -- has an extra-textual love interest in Whitby Jett, traveling salesman for E-Z Read's Laborsaving Narrative Devices, though he doesn't become particularly important to the plot of Missing. She has a quiet life, playing the role of the real Thursday for the few dozen readers who find their way into her books now and then. And she has a small sideline as an occasional investigator for the Jurisfiction Accident Investigation Department (JAID), primarily to look into incidents where little-read novels break up and crash while being flown off to the bookworld's equivalent of Siberia, in which her real job is to inevitably decide that there were no problems with the system and the current crash was an inevitable accident.

But the bookworld itself -- recently Remade into a Dyson Sphere-esque internal globe speckled with islands corresponding to various genres and areas of activity -- is in turmoil, with a brewing border war between Racy Novel and its neighbors, Comedy and Women's Fiction, over very important resources of raw metaphor. The real Thursday was supposed to be one of the main negotiators in a series of imminent peace talks -- but she, as the title implies, now seems to be missing, though no one officially is saying so.

Then, as so often happens in a thriller, Thursday is pulled into a larger conspiracy and a wider sphere through what looks like a routine investigation of a vanity novel that broke up above Conspiracy, dropping most of a scene intact. Soon, she has an assistant, a clockwork butler named Sprocket, an understudy and rival named Scarlett, and what seem to be powerful enemies trying to stop her. Before Thursday uncovers the truth -- and saves the real Thursday Next -- she'll find herself taking a dangerous boat journey up the river of metaphor, dodging the fearsome Men in Plaid in a flying car, investigating the seamier side of Vanity Press, and even taking a quick trip to Thursday Next's real world and life. And, since this is fiction, that means that the good end happily and the bad unhappily.

Fforde is wry and amusing throughout, and only very rarely tries to punch the reader's ribs with obvious jokes. One of Our Thursdays Is Missing is very funny, but it's funny in essential conception rather than due to its decorations -- the humor is baked deep into the center of the novel. This time out, he's rebooted his fictional world pretty seriously, and also stepped back from the character of the real Thursday, who had been getting rapidly all-powerful in the last couple of books. That all suits the series well; what makes these books most enjoyable is the way they -- like similar books such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit? -- look behind the scenes and make up their own stories for what the characters of fiction get up to when they're not busy acting out their "day jobs." I have to admit that I was worried that Fforde was returning to Thursday, which I saw as a step backwards into jokey metafiction after the triumph of his last novel, Shades of Grey (see my review). But Missing -- while it doesn't have the essential depth and ambition of Shades -- is a strong step forward for the series, clearing away much of the extraneous clutter that had built up in previous books and introducing a new protagonist without the Superman problem that the real Thursday had. And there's plenty of scope for amusement for readers, from conversations in which the characters lose track of who's speaking to Fforde's half-buried musings on the places and relationships of the various genres to each other.

One of Our Thursdays Is Missing is also the best new-reader introduction to the series since The Eyre Affair; since it's essentially a reboot, I can enthusiastically recommend this to anyone who hasn't read Fforde before. He's smart without being annoying about it and funny without telegraphing his jokes, and tells a great story along the way. How much more do you want from a series at the disreputable end of Fantasy?

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