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Books I've Been Avoiding: Overlooked or Over-hyped?
by Neil Walsh
[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Books I've Been Avoiding: Overlooked or Over-hyped? columns.]

So There Is Somebody Out There!

First off, I'd like to thank everyone who took the time to drop me a line letting me know that there are folks out there reading whatever crazy nonsense I write down here. Now I feel like maybe I ought to be more careful about what I say. (Nah, that's just not in my nature.)

This Month's Book(s)

If you've been following this column, you know that my standard modus operandi is to select a classic SF or fantasy work and evaluate whether all the hype about said classic has been warranted, and to look at it alongside a less well-known work that may have been undeservedly overlooked. But because I'm just madly reading through stacks and stacks of books piled up all over my house in completely chaotic disarray, my choices here don't always make a well-matched pair. Sometimes they do, but not always.

This time I've decided to take on a relatively recent work which may not yet have entered the annals of "classic" speculative fiction, although it did receive something of an instant cult following and, later, a moderately massive amount of hype. But even as it began to take the bookstores by storm, it didn't capture any major awards. So is it a classic? Or is it overlooked? And what happened to Neil's second book for the column? All will be revealed if you read on...

The Eyre Affair (2001)
Jasper Fforde

The Eyre Affair - first edition Jasper Fforde was born in London, England, in 1961. He was educated at the progressive Dartington Hall School. Before devoting himself to his writing career, he had been a focus puller in the film industry. The Eyre Affair was his first published novel.

Fforde also has a passion for aviation, and flies his own Tiger Moth. How cool is that?

The Eyre Affair - 2003 Penguin edition Other books in the Thursday Next series include Lost in a Good Book (2002), The Well of Lost Plots (2003), Something Rotten (2004), and First Among Sequels (2007). At least one more Thursday Next novel is promised. Fforde's Nursery Crimes novels (so far) are The Big Over Easy (2005), and The Fourth Bear (2006). Shades of Gray: Painting by Numbers is coming in 2008.

Is The Eyre Affair a modern classic of speculative fiction? Or is it just another international bestseller, but without real literary merit? Let's answer those questions in reverse order. It's unquestionably an international bestseller, and there's no doubt that it has received a ton of hype. It's also gone through many, many editions in the half-dozen or so years since first publication. I haven't looked up the numbers, but I think it's a fair guess that The Eyre Affair is a chart topper in book sales. But it is certainly not without literary merit. In fact, along with The Eyre Affair you get pretty much all of English literature. OK, not really, but it does lovingly look at English lit, slap it silly and turn it inside out and upside down. And it does this in an utterly charming, clever and innovative way.

This book had been described to me as completely different from anything else, a must-read, unbelievable, blah blah, etc. So of course I avoided the hell out of it. (Yeah, I know, mule-headed stubborn for no good reason.) So, OK, I finally decided to buckle down, read the damn thing and discover for myself just what everyone has been talking about.

Within the first couple of pages, I knew this was the book I wanted to be reading. In an alternate England, it's 1985 and our narrator is a Literary Detective Division Special Operative field agent. In this alternate world, literature is accepted as an ordinary, integral part of society. Everywhere there are "Will-Speak" vending machines (put in a coin and the machine spouts a bit of Shakespearean monologue), there are regular John Milton conventions, Baconians going door to door trying to convince people Bacon wrote the works of Shakespeare, and they actually need a whole nation-wide division of literary detectives hunting down forgeries and fakes, and generally keeping literature safe from corruption and outside interference. But this isn't just alternate history (1985, with the Crimean war in its 131st year between England and Imperial Russia), it's also a book of alternate literature (in this alternate world, Jane Eyre ends with Jane marrying her cousin whatzizface Rivers and going off to India), it's a detective mystery, it's humour, and it's fantasy. It pretty much blends everything imaginable into the mix: there are time travel paradoxes, shootouts, vampires, werewolves, a friendly mad scientist, a bullet-proof evil arch-villain, a deus (pater) ex machina, an unscrupulous mega-corporation pulling all (well... most) of the strings, romance, adventure, and rollicking good fun throughout. And somehow, this hodgepodge of styles and clichés never quite manages to seem at all messy, disjointed or hackneyed. How the hell?

The main thrust of the story involves the bullet-proof arch-villain getting hold of the friendly mad scientist's latest invention, which will enable him to enter a work of literature and influence it. Or take a character back out with him. Or leave someone from the real world inside the narrative. Can you imagine being trapped forever in one of Wordsworth's insipid daffodil poems? Or worse, can you imagine Dickens' Martin Chuzzlewit without the character of Martin Chuzzlewit? Now, imagine it in a world where literature was such an integral part of everyday life that everyone was actually familiar with all the classics.

So, is The Eyre Affair an instant classic? Yeah, it probably is. Or should be. It definitely captured my attention sufficiently to make me want to read the sequels, to see if the author can actually sustain this level of mastery of his zany material over multiple volumes. Humour, it is said, is one of the most difficult things to write well. Fforde has managed to make it look easy.

Why Read the Classics?

I believe Italo Calvino said it best: "reading the classics is always better than not reading them." For myself, I believe that the more you have read, the more you will hear echoes and resonances of what you have read in what you are reading, which can only enhance your enjoyment and understanding. I haven't read Martin Chuzzlewit, and even though I've read enough Dickens to get a sense of what Fforde was on about, I still feel certain I missed some of the parallels, and hence the 'inside' jokes. I have read Jane Eyre and I believe The Eyre Affair would mean much more to someone who is familiar with Brontë's work than to someone who is not, and yet it isn't an absolute prerequisite. Knowing something of Milton, Wordsworth, Shakespeare, Dickens, the Brontës, and Bacon -- their works and their lives -- it all enhances your reading of a work like The Eyre Affair. But if you haven't read everything referred to in this novel, you shouldn't feel too much at a loss. Who knows: it could even encourage you to broaden your reading.

A friend of mine, pursuing a degree in English Literature, once asked me for a list of the 100 must-read books. Even though it was painfully difficult to decide which ones would make the cut, I did manage to come up with a list, which of course included some science fiction and fantasy titles -- but it was my list. Everyone needs to make their own list of the greats, and compile their own library of books read and waiting to be read. Calvino again: "All that can be done is for each of us to invent our own ideal library of our classics; and I would say that one half of it should consist of books we have read and that have meant something for us, and the other half of books which we intend to read and which we suppose might mean something to us. We should also leave a section of empty spaces for surprises and chance discoveries."

I recommend you put The Eyre Affair in your own ideal library.

Why No Second Book?

I know, you were expecting me to talk about The Eyre Affair and some other book. In going through my "garage sale refugee" stack of books, I tried a couple of different ones this month: Viravax by Bill Ransom (1993), and Einstein's Bridge by John Cramer (1997). I started to read both of these, but I couldn't get into either one and finally abandoned them unfinished. Sometimes a book is overlooked for good reason. Not everything in the first half of my library makes it to the second half.

Copyright © 2007 Neil Walsh

Neil Walsh vastly prefers to read good books. In addition to the Fforde, the best thing he read this month was a short story anthology, Logorrhea, edited by John Klima (2007). He also enjoyed Hunter's Moon by David Devereux (2007), but would only recommend it if you have a somewhat twisted dark side. Some graphic novels he liked recently include the following: I Killed Adolf Hitler by Jason, translated by Kim Thompson (2007) -- more strange loop time travel; Order of the Stick: Start of Darkness by Rich Burlew (2007) -- but only if you're familiar with RPGs and the other OOTS books; The Nightmare Factory by Thomas Ligotti, et al. (2007) -- creepy, atmospheric horror; and Jack of Fables, Book 2: Jack of Hearts by Bill Willingham, et al. (2007), although Book 1 was better -- maybe the series is losing momentum. Other ongoing graphic series he's enjoying right now include Y the Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan et al., The Sword by the Luna Brothers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 8 by Joss Wheadon et al., and Crossing Midnight by Mike Carey et al. As for non-genre reading, Neil recently re-read The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (1952), and experienced his first Charles Bukowski novel, Post Office (1971).

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