Monday, 20 May 2013

Week Twenty - Jeanette

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde (2001)
Recommended by Alix

My hands were shaking.

I’d been interviewing Steven Collins of The Owl Service for Seasons They Change. Halfway through the conversation, I realised my purse had been stolen. Somehow I managed to complete the interview; very surreal talking of Blood On Satan’s Claw and Vashti Bunyan’s comeback while knowing someone might be racing to the nearest Rhythm ‘n’ Booze for a case of Remy Martin on your dollar.

Outside the pub, I called Alix. ‘I don’t know what to do,’ I burbled. I was staying with Alix and her husband Malcolm. ‘I just don’t know what to do’. I didn’t. My security walls were always so high, and I couldn’t believe they’d been breached.

Alix, her voice rock solid, checked that I had enough money to get back to hers (I did; the compassionate Steven had loaned me the fare), advised me to go directly to my bank to cancel my cards, then told me to come right back. That night, she and Malcolm took me to one of their favourite foodie pubs, where the chef too was kind; he kept cooking after the advertised time, and didn’t mind having a vegan sprung on him.

That incident definitely intensified the friendship between Alix and I. Since then, we’ve supported one another over various creative projects, and we’ve even been jilted brides in a video together:

(Alix is a professional actor. I am not. It shows: while she creates a character, I fall off the bottom of a child’s slide and flash my knickers.)

Alix and I have talked of our mutual love for the great English novelists on several occasions. I wonder if that was something behind her recommendation of The Eyre Affair: a nerd’s paradise for Jane Eyre fans that masquerades as a detective story.

I’ve read Jane Eyre but once, and a long time ago. I personally prefer Charlotte Bronte’s last novel, Vilette, yet Jane Eyre is so very striking that I remember a huge amount of the plot, purpose and imagery of it. This was a real help when reading The Eyre Affair; in fact, I’d say it’s essential to have a basic knowledge of Jane Eyre, and ideally a hearty love for it, to appreciate much of this book (and especially towards the end).

The Eyre Affair is set in a quasi-parallel England where supervillain Acheron Hades runs riot, dodos have been recreated, and (more unbelievably) the government is prepared to fund a department devoted to protecting literary integrity. This, SO-27, is where Thursday Next works. She chases Hades as he steals the Martin Chuzzlewit and Jane Eyre manuscripts, penetrates their worlds, disrupts their plots, and kidnaps their characters.

Within twenty seconds of Jane’s kidnapping the first worried member of the public had noticed strange goings-on around the area of page one hundred and seven of their deluxe hide-bound edition of Jane Eyre. Within thirty minutes all the lines into the English Museum were jammed.

In the age of Kindle, this is a very interesting idea. As we travel ever more towards the all-electronic reading experience, what is to stop a Nineteen Eighty-Four-ish control of text in this way? After all, that’s what happened to ancient works. We’re at the mercy of what survives, or what controlling forces choose to let survive. This makes Fforde’s choice of Jane Eyre, and Charlotte Bronte, especially biting. There is a never-proven rumour (first told to me by my sixth form English teacher) that Charlotte, jealous of Wuthering Heights, destroyed the manuscript of Emily’s second novel immediately after her sister’s death. If true, then Charlotte herself is a kind of Acheron Hades.

While it served the plot for Hades to be so overblown, I had a problem with Next’s character. Perhaps satire was Fforde’s intention (and her name does suggest it), but she is so much the spunky-yet-emotionally-vulnerable heroine that I found her, often, completely unrelatable. Her love interest, Landen Parke-Laine, is even worse, and I wish the romantic aspect of the book wasn’t in it at all. Perhaps Fforde thinks he’s created a new Mr. Rochester but, for me, Parke-Laine is both unbelievable and reprehensible. He’s happy to marry someone he doesn’t love, yet equally happy to call it all off for Next if she says the word. Of course, people do sometimes marry people that they don’t love, and don’t marry people that they do love, but I’d wager that this is a fearsomely complex process that almost never works out well. Next and Parke-Laine’s happy splashing in this very real emotional effluent seemed insulting.

(EDIT: I've thought a lot about this in the last few hours. I wondered, was I too guilty of 'happy splashing in very real emotional effluent' in the video I posted above? Being left at the altar (or leaving someone there) must be one of the most traumatic experiences of a life. All I can say is that I felt the video was cathartic, depicted a moment, and was celebratory of how women can help one another through a crisis, while I do feel Fforde's take on ill-advised marriage was insufferably glib.)

There are a lot of ideas in The Eyre Affair. It’s as if, once Fforde decided that he had to break the rules of physics to get people in and out of Victorian novels, he thinks what the hell and does anything he pleases with the rest of reality, too.

            ‘New car, Uncle?’
            ‘No, no,’ said Mycroft hurriedly. ‘I don’t drive. A friend of mine who hires these out was    lamenting about the cost of keeping two, one black for funerals and the other white for weddings – so I came up with this.’
He reached in a turned a large knob on the dashboard. There was a low hum and the car turned slowly off-white, grey, dark grey and then finally to black.

Some vignettes (as above) are charming. And, I’m sure for many tastes, this is the central appeal of the book: the reader is pelted with so many incongruities that it feels almost Pythonesque. However, much like my main criticism of Jonathan Carroll’s The Panic Hand back in week nineit generally didn’t suit me. I felt sometimes as if I was sitting in Fforde’s brainstorming session rather than reading his novel. I would have loved to understand a bit more of Fforde’s philosophies on impermanence and state support for the arts, on reader interpretation and the culture of literary superfans, all of which were brought up in The Eyre Affair. But it simply felt Fforde would rather get on with his next bright idea.

I’m starting to sound like Andrei Tarkovsky, wanting things to be slower and duller.

To be fair to Fforde, he became more measured in the final Jane Eyre-fixated section, and I really did enjoy that. It would be interesting to know – as this is his first book, and he has written further Thursday Next adventures – what happens to his style. I suspect the multicoloured chaos will ramp up, and that would be a shame for me, because I like him best when he calms down and looks around Thornfield Hall for a while.