Thursday Next: Stories About Stories

IMG_20150409_121001I just finished Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next: First Among Sequels – book five in a series which is, incidentally, included on the Goodreads’ “Cosy Fantasy” list I mentioned last time. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s been quite a few years since I read the first four books (starting with The Eyre Affair), so I’d forgotten a lot of the story – and even if I had remembered it, I don’t know that I appreciated Fforde’s work quite the same way then.

Just to briefly bring you up to speed, Thursday Next (that’s her name, not a reference to a day of the week) is a literary detective. She lives in an alternate-reality England, where part of the secret service’s job is to make sure nothing goes wrong inside the realm of fiction, otherwise known as the BookWorld. She hops in and out of books, interacting with the characters, who are actors putting on the story whenever a reader picks up the book – in their off time, they might be quite a different person than they appear to be when we read their stories – and Thursday’s role as JurisFiction agent is to keep order in the BookWorld.

Fforde’s stories are a feast for book nerds, especially if you’ve done any formal literary studies. That’s what I mean by possibly not having appreciated Thursday Next quite the same way when I read the earlier books – for one, I don’t think I was nearly as familiar with literature then as I am now and so would not have known as many of the books as Fforde is referring to (now, I get about 75% of the references); and for another, I wouldn’t quite have got the allusions to literary theory, or understood just how postmodern the stories are, let alone got as much of a chuckle out of that as I do now. They’re heavily self-referential – stories written about stories about the writing and reading of stories and so on; and they most emphatically do not take themselves seriously (for example, in the BookWorld, there are occasional chunks of back-and-forth dialogue without speech tags – and the characters themselves lose track of who’s talking: “Wait, who just said that? Was it you or me?”).

One of the aspects of First Among Sequels and the book that follows, One of Our Thursdays is Missing, is that they’re great commentaries on literary theories. Here, take this part:

“Reading, I had learned, was as creative a process as writing, sometimes more so. When we read of the dying rays of the setting sun or the boom and swish of the incoming tide, we should reserve as much praise for ourselves as for the author. After all, the reader is doing all the work – the writer might have died long ago.” (p. 52, First Among Sequels. New York: Viking, 2007)

In the story, that refers to the fact that the BookWorld isn’t real, and only becomes so when a reader picks up a book and imbues it with their imagination. But actually, this is an excellent description of Reader-Response Theory (my favourite lit theory), and presented in a context which is a heck of a lot more interesting to read than dusty academic papers.

But don’t worry – you don’t have to have spent the last three years wallowing in capital-T Theory or have read your way through hundreds of linear shelf-feet of literary classics in order to enjoy Jasper Fforde’s stories. They are, above all, cracking good (and hilarious) stories.

Now, what I really set out to write about here, sparked by Thursday Next, was something entirely different – namely the issue of writers creating characters not of their own gender. Males writing female protagonists, and vice versa, and the effects thereof – Fforde writing Thursday Next, Pratchett writing Tiffany Aching, Sayers writing Lord Peter Wimsey… But I think I’ve drivelled on enough today, so I’ll save that for some other time.

Life, the Universe, and Thursday Next. It’ll make you think differently about reading.