Saturday, September 29, 2007

First Among Sequels

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned Click, a minicomic by Sara Ryan and Dylan Meconis. By now it's probably far too late to use that as a segue into Jasper Fforde's First Among Sequels, which Meconis illustrated, but that's not going to stop me trying.

First Among Sequels, whatever the title might suggest, is the fifth book in Fforde's Thursday Next series. But there's at least some logic to the title. The first four - The Eyre Affair, Lost in a Good Book, The Well of Lost Plots and Something Rotten - form a complete story. FAS is the start of another quadrilogy, hence the name.

The Thursday Next books are downright weird (and explaining precisely how they're connected in continuity with the even weirder Nursery Crime series is virtually impossible without giving a lecture on Ffordian cosmology). A lot of people say that you can get away with just about anything in stories, so long as you pick one big idea and run with the consequences of that. The audience will suspend their disbelief for one thing, but there's only so far you can push them. For most writers, this seems to be a pretty good rule of thumb.

Fforde has no truck with such nonsense. It's hard to know where to begin in sketching Thursday Next's world, which diverges from our own somewhere around the end of the Crimean War, and which has degenerated somewhere along the line into a world of borderline absurdist chaos, something to which its inhabitants seem entirely oblivious. It's not that Fforde's characters have failed to notice that their timeline is in perpetual flux or that there's a herd of migrating mammoths destroying small country towns; they just treat it as absolutely normal.

Literature is an inexplicably big deal in this world, and Thursday, our heroine, starts off as a member of the specialist Literary Detective police force, based in the thrilling modern metropolis of Swindon. The first few books largely involve her learning how to enter the world of fiction - in which every book, and a central governing authority, exist as worlds in their own right - and picking up a dual role with the local police force, Jurisfiction.

First Among Sequels picks up years after the first series, with the Literary Detectives semi-disbanded. Thursday is now aged 52 with three kids, and the Bookworld is getting increasingly worried about the drop in readership. Complicating an already convoluted world still further, Thursday now has two doppelgangers running around the Bookworld, thanks to an ill-advised decision to licence her life story. Thursday1-4, the star of the first four novels, is a gun-toting sex-crazed adolescent moron. Thursday 5, the result of the real Thursday's horrified complaints, is an ultra-liberal loser.

Meanwhile, the evil Goliath Corporation has somehow returned from its defeat in book four (when Thursday thwarted its attempt to become a religion), and the time-travelling Chronoguard are getting very worried about Thursday's teenage son Friday, who has inexplicably failed to sign up as a trainee the way he was meant to. He's already running the Chronoguard as an adult, so if he fails to join in the first place, there will be serious problems.

The precise mechanics of the Bookworld don't make entirely consistent sense, but somehow that's part of the charm. Fforde is even more explicit about the fact that his time travel plots are utterly nonsensical. Playing breezily off the fact that we all expect fictional time travel to involve inexplicably paradox, Fforde deliberately pushes his time travel stories to the edge of incomprehensibility. "Yes," the books sometimes seem to be saying, "of course this doesn't make any sense. What's your point?"

Fforde gets away with it thanks to a mixture of well-defined characters and
strong plotting instincts. No matter how bizarre events may get, the plot is always well enough defined to make sure you have something to hang onto. He really is proof that a good storyteller can get away with murder.

That said, he won't be to everyone's taste. There are elements of Fforde's style that would undoubtedly irritate the life out of a lot of people reading this. Imagine Douglas Adams (with a much stronger sense of structure), plus a dash of Grant Morrison at his most metafictional, but all mixed in with a hefty dose of an old-school Radio 4 panel game. Which is to say that the Thursday Next books are very middle class indeed (not necessarily a problem), but also feature loads of excruciating puns and display a shaky grasp of characters under the age of 25. It may be done in a very knowing way, but Friday is still a rampaging stereotype.

For me, though, these points are all outweighed by Fforde's ability to build coherent stories out of seemingly random nonsense, and, just when you think he's drifting into safe and cosy territory, to blindside you with inspired ideas and bravura messing about with the form. All logic says this stuff shouldn't work, but it does, because beneath the aura of benign silliness, Fforde really knows what he's doing.