Noah Chinn Reviews: The Woman Who Died A Lot by Jasper Fforde

Jasper Fforde can best be described as a bizarre literary genius. Like Terry Pratchett, he creates fantasy worlds that are bizarre yet coherent, and consistent despite their oddness. Like Douglas Adams, he uses wordplay to great effect, bringing comedy out of illogically sound logic. Take this passage, for example, describing one of the problems currently facing this alternate England:

The problem was this: Prime Minister Redmond Van de Poste and the ruling Commonsense Party had been discharging their duties in such a dangerously competent fashion over the past decade that the nation’s stupidity–usually discharged on a harmless drip feed of minor bungling–had now risen far beyond the capacity for the nation to dispose of it in a safe and sensible fashion. The stupidity surplus was so high, in fact, that three years ago Van de Poste had sanctioned the hideously expensive Anti-Smite Shields, in order to guard against the damaging–yet unlikely–wrath of an angry God, eager to cleanse mankind of sin. It was hoped that building a chain of Anti-Smite Shields at massive expense would lower the stupidity surplus and bring the country back towards the safer realms of woolly-headed complacency.

Unfortunately for Van de Poste, and to many people’s surprise, the Almighty had decided to reveal Himself and, in a spate of Old Testamentism not seen for over two millennia, began to punish mankind for its many transgressions. Damage to people and property aside, this had the unintended consequence of making the Anti-Smite Shield de facto sensible, a state of affairs that required a new and increasingly expensive outlet for the nation’s increasing stupidity surplus.

Tell me that doesn’t ring of Douglas Adams-esque logic. But Fforde stands in a class all on his own, and here’s why: he is able to write about things that can’t possibly be described outside of the realm of written fiction.  There is no real way for most of Fforde’s books to be made into a movie, for example.  His use of wordplay goes beyond simply being used for comedic effect and integrates itself into the world itself.

Some examples: in the Book World, there’s an emergency communication device known as a footnoterphone, which allows people in the bookworld to communicate via footnotes.  There are people who might communicate in Courier New or Sans Serif. There are grammercites, pests that infest books, devouring punctuation (even as you’re reading it). The Book World is simply full of things that can only be conveyed in text, and maybe (MAYBE) a graphic novel.

In another book, Shades of Grey, the entire far future world is based on the inability for people to see color other than a single part of the spectrum (for example, if you can see red, then everything else is black and white except for things with red in it), which not only becomes an element of societal structure (almost Victorian in nature), but medical and scientific technology as well (using colours to treat illness, for example).

How do you convey that on screen? Simply showing it from one character’s POV with red showing up like something out of Schindler’s List simply cannot do the premise justice.

It’s almost as if he defies the very notion of transferring his stories to any other medium, and so sets up safeguards to make it difficult if not impossible.

The Woman Who Died A Lot is the latest in his Thursday Next series, which had started with The Eyre Affair with the heroine in 1985, and has now come to 2004, with her ageing from 35 to 55, and in really bad physical shape (due to injuries sustained in an earlier book).  This is one of the things I admire about the series. Not only does it have a strong female protagonist, but it’s one who starts off in her mid thirties instead of twenties, and isn’t afraid to let her get older.

The main problem with trying to describe a Thursday Next book is… you can’t. You really can’t. Not without sounding like you should be sent on a paid trip to a pleasant vacation facility with nice soft walls while wearing a snug comfortable robe whose extra long sleeves strap neatly around the back. So let me try it like this. In no particular order of events…

God is recently discovered to be real and is smiting cities around the world. Humans, recently unified under the Global Standard Deity religion (GSD) which manages to accommodate all faiths, are demanding negotiations. An asteroid is en route to earth and might hit us in 2041, but didn’t in an alternate future timeline. Time travel was recently discovered to be impossible and so all the time travel officers have been pre-retired before they were hired. Thursday Next is about to become Chief Librarian of Swindon, which has its own heavily armed Special Forces. There have been several attempts to get secret information from people who know Thursday by using synthetic replicas of Thursday. And, um… someone is destroying random pages from old books written by a drunk lecherous saint for no apparent reason.

Make any sense? No? See, can’t be done. But you have to believe me, when you read the books they make sense. It’s kind of like a far more logical Alice in Wonderland, in the sense that Alice is a Nonsense Story (very popular at one time). The Thursday Next series could also be called a Nonsense Story, except it isn’t… it’s complicated. Rather than just making things up that your brain then struggles to bring logic to (like a third of the words in Jaberwocky), the bizarreness in these books stem from things that you can actually picture, not have to invent.

Despite my jibbering, I highly recommend the entire Thursday Next series, but it is definitely NOT one to jump into in the middle. You need to start at the beginning, The Eyre Affair, and work your way forward. Let the sane insanity worm its way into your brain. It’s amazing how sucked into his various worlds you can get.

Source: Noah Chinn Reviews: The Woman Who Died A Lot by Jasper Fforde

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