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First Among Sequels
Jasper Fforde
Viking, 384 pages

First Among Sequels
Jasper Fforde
Jasper Fforde was born in Wales. He spent several years as a focus puller on big-budget Hollywood productions. In the early 90s, he began to spend much of his free time writing short stories and then novels. His first published novel was The Eyre Affair.

Jasper Fforde Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Something Rotten
SF Site Review: The Well of Lost Plots
SF Site Review: The Eyre Affair
SF Site Review: Lost In A Good Book
SF Site Review: Lost In A Good Book

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

In Woody Allen's "The Kugelmass Episode," (originally published in The New Yorker and collected in Side Effects) the titular character, an unhappily married college professor, conducts an affair with one of the classic adulteresses of literature -- Madame Bovary. He is able to do this quite literally thanks to the magician Persky the Great, whose contraption can project Kugelmass into the book. The overt joke is that after Kugelmass tires of Bovary, he asks to be thrust into Portnoy's Complaint, but instead is accidentally inserted in a remedial Spanish textbook, with unexpected consequences.

It also pokes fun at a literary theory called reader-response criticism (which perhaps explains its publication in a magazine with highbrow pretensions). The theory posits that reading is not a passive experience in which the author bestows meaning through plot, tone of voice, symbolism, metaphor and all those other things you learned about in high school English class; rather, the reader is an active agent whose "experience" of the text also determines a story's meaning, even if that meaning is at variance with authorial intention. Allen takes that notion to the absurdism of the reader literally appearing in the novel and interacting with its characters. Much fun ensues.

Jasper Fforde has taken that joke and turned it into a multi-volume series (as well as "special features" and "deleted scenes" you can access on the author's web site), featuring Thursday Next, of which First Among Sequels is the latest. Actually, according to the Fforde web site, it is the first part of "the next four parter," the first four parter having taken place in an alternate England of 1980s, with this next sequence beginning fourteen years later. You might think the joke could be wearing thin by this point, but the great thing about the satire beat is that the human condition provides so much material to work with. For example,

Noting with dismay that most cross-religion bickering was only because all the major religions were convinced they had the right one, and every other religion was the wrong one. The founders of the Global Standard Deity based their fledgling "portmanteau" faith on the premise that most religions want the same thing once all the shameless manipulative power-play has been subtracted: Peace, stability, equality and justice -- the same as the non-faiths. As soon as they found that centralizing thread that unites all people and made a dialogue of sorts with a Being of Supreme Moral Authority mostly optional, the GSD flourished.
p. 128
If you don't find that amusing, then read no further, and certainly don't read any of these books. Otherwise, please continue.

Here's the overall premise as begun in The Eyre Affair. In the alternate England of 1984 (obvious literary joke there, among tons of others because, after all, that's the point), people get as excited about literature as they do about football (translation, soccer, the sport that's actually played with the feet), so right from the start we're in fantasyland. Thursday, a literary detective on the hunt of a manuscript theft, is at one point saved by Edward Rochester stepping right of Jane Eyre, a copy of which in her pocket has stopped an otherwise fatal bullet. Among various plot complications, which frequently hinge upon time travel, Thursday is able to go through a Prose Portal to actually enter the world of Jane Eyre (see Kugelmass above). Thursday either has to capture escaped characters or fix plot resolutions. And so forth and so onů

Flash forward hurriedly to First Among Sequels. Thursday is now a fiftyish wife and mother. Her son could become very important in the future, but seems to be acting in contradiction to the self he's supposed to become, which upsets some folks in the future, including his future self. If that weren't sufficiently confusing, one of Thursday's daughters doesn't really exist. The series is full of these kind of paradoxes, so the jokes are not only literary, but scientific and spiritual as well as genre related.

Thursday's husband is an unsuccessful novelist supposedly unaware that her seemingly regular job at a carpet store is a front for her continuing covert activities as a Special Ops agent working in Jurisification, charged with ensuring that everything goes as the authors intended in Bookworld (i.e., all the books ever written). Bookworld houses an elaborate Victorian-esque "operating system" in which novels are physically constructed much like theater stages and actors play character roles. It's Thursday's job to make sure the characters follow the script and the stage settings abide the narration.

Further complicating matters, and further layering on the jokes about narrative strategies and alternate universes, is that Thursday's adventures have been published in four volumes that bear the same titles as the ones Jasper Fforde has written, but evidently recount a different version of events than the ones we might have read. Thursday Next herself feels the books are inaccurate recountings of her life. And she certainly doesn't like the way she is portrayed.

Plus, there's The Great Samuel Pepys Fiasco, presenting a warmer, more sensitive, new age-ish kind of Thursday Next, which may be why it was remaindered within six months. Don't try to find this book, because it doesn't exist anywhere except in the pages of First Among Sequels, for reasons that are part of the plot.

Now, the fact that there are books written about her means that other versions of Thursday exist. As it happens, part of the "real" Thursday Next's job in Jurisfiction is to train a cadet who is the very same wimpy Thursday from the The Great Samuel Pepys Fiasco. The "real" Thursday hasn't high hopes for the cadet passing muster. Meanwhile, the Thursday of the first four books has her sights on taking over as the "real" Thursday Next.

Somewhere, Philip K. Dick is smiling.

And I haven't begun to touch on all the subplots. Suffice it to say, is that fans will find the usual suspects they've come to expect in a Thursday Next novel, including Jack Schitt and the Goliath Corporation. Then there are some new things, like cheese smuggling and the Stupidity Surplus.

Bemused English majors will smirk wryly at the inter-genre wars, as well as the feebleminded attempt by the Council of Genres to make books more interactive to counter flagging readership levels and the public's penchant for reality TV. Can Thursday Next save the day?

Well, of course, because One of Our Thursdays is Missing, an actual book, at least in our reality, is scheduled for release in 2009. Here's looking forward to what's Next.

Copyright © 2008 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

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