Friday, December 11, 2009

The Reading List: "The Eyre Affair"

In dissenting from The Eyre Affair’s nomination to the Reading List, Critical Bill suggested that it would probably best be read “with too much Zima in you.” In the time since the Reading List was compiled, lamentably, the Miller Brewing Company has ceased North American production of the iconic 1990s marketing concept cum alcoholic beverage, so I read this installment of the List more or less cold sober.

The Eyre Affair wouldn’t be on the List, of course, if readers had not nominated it and voted for it, and I know that some of you find this to be a very funny book. Let me be blunt: I didn’t. Indeed – and regrettably – I literally do not have a single good thing to say about it. So fans may want to bail at this point; we’re not likely to reach common ground on this one.

Also, you have to realize that my dislike of the book is exaggerated by circumstance. Ordinarily you don’t have to suffer all the way through a book you think is bad; you abandon it as soon as the badness is obvious. But in this case, well, a project is a project. I was required by the rules of the game, so to speak, to fight my way through Eyre Affair, so I ended up with more complaints than anyone would normally have about a book.

So Having Said All That....

The point of obvious badness, the point where I ordinarily would have abandoned ship, comes in the first two sentences. It is a singularly inauspicious beginning, combining an especially lame figure of speech with immediately tiresome exposition in an opening flourish worthy of the Bulwer-Lytton contest:

My father had a face that could stop a clock. I don’t mean that he was ugly or anything; it was a phrase the ChronoGuard used to describe someone who had the power to reduce time to an ultraslow trickle.
This sets the tone, and by “the tone” I mean poor writing. Fforde’s prose is inexpert at pretty much every level. Characters are one-note cartoons when they have any distinguishing characteristics at all, dialogue is wooden, the humor is juvenile (the protagonist’s name is “Thursday Next”; one of her antagonists' is “Jack Schitt”), and plotting is rendered irrelevant by foreshadowing that might as well be set in flashing neon. Each chapter has a long, pointless epigraph from an imagined book in Thursday Next’s world. (Often Thursday Next, the first-person narrator, uses long quotes from books by Thursday Next. Why? She is not otherwise depicted as titanically vain.) Throughout, exposition is ruthless.

Even the technical aspects of writing – the things that the publisher’s editorial staff should have caught – are botched. The book is ostensibly written in the first person, but the narrator becomes suddenly omniscient whenever convenient, and whole chapters in third person wander in with no explanation, as if from some other book. Fforde bombards us with sentence after sentence in simple subject-verb-object constructions, as often as not tied together with the less-than-electrifying verb "was." Antecedents are frequently unclear, and in dialog it is not always obvious who is speaking. Unusually for a book published since 1980, there is a modest but significant sprinkling of right-out grammatical and usage errors.

The plot is a fairly straightforward business of catching a villain and pursuing a love interest. The setting is a roughed-out alternative history with one salient characteristic (England and Russia are still fighting the Crimean War) and occasional arbitrary details tossed out to remind us we’re in an alternative history. There are Studebakers. Wales is a Stalinist state. People travel across Britain by blimp, despite the presence of much faster cars and trains; they are apparently motivated by an altruistic desire to make it obvious that commercial fixed-wing aircraft do not exist in their reality.

Oh, and the other thing about the setting: the boundary between fiction and reality is relaxed, so for various reasons the book’s “real” characters are occasionally able to interact with characters from far better books. Eventually, Fforde writes dialog for the characters of Jane Eyre, a task he is embarrassingly unready for.

The Eyre Affair’s most obvious antecedent is a Woody Allen short story called, if memory serves, “The Kugelmass Episode.” It’s about a man who has himself sent into Madame Bovary in order to pursue an romance with that novel’s title character. It’s not a great story, especially, but it covers the possibilities of the breakdown-between-fiction-and-reality plot rather more compactly than The Eyre Affair. (I note, however, that at least four Eyre Affair sequels have been published, so if you are a fan, you’re in luck).

Wait: I thought of a good thing to say about The Eyre Affair. It made me read Jane Eyre! And for that I will always be sincerely grateful. Fforde’s book, however, is not really a worthy, or for me even an entertaining, contribution to its namesake’s legacy.

The L&TM5K Advent Calendar
December 11

Paul Gauguin. Baby (The Nativity). 1896. Oil on canvas. The Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia.


sister jen said...

Ah. I'm sure if I had had to continue the Eyre Affair, I would have reviewed it just as you have. As it was, I--having reacted exactly as you did to the first two sentences--soldiered on for another page and a half, partly because I was hoping that the dreadful writing was going to turn out to be somehow purposeful, and partly because I was, unusually, sans children in a restaurant, and I didn't have anything else to read. I finally tossed it aside and watched whatever was playing on the History channel (without sound) from across the room.

It intrigues me that this book has been so well received by so many. If it's made people read Bronte, well, that's okay by me. (BTW, Jane has just become part of the Mr. St. John household in my re-reading; in fact, it's time for my nightly read before bed--gotta go!)

DrSchnell said...

Just for the record, I'll dissent, though I know I won't change your mind. I found it a highly entertaining summer beach read last summer, and thoroughly enjoyed it, wooden prose and all.

Michael5000 said...

@DrSchnell: Yeah, but that was when Zima was still on the market.

Kidding! Kidding!

Elaine said...

I'm with Dr. Schnell.... I did read the whole thing. The concept was unique enough and the entertainment solid enough to float you past the clunky writing. I tried the next book but just couldn't stick with that. (Save yourself the trouble.)

Jenners said...

That is a Bulwer-Lytton contest entry if I've ever seen one!

Jenners said...

Had to come back and reread this. Now I must read this book.

Michael5000 said...

Or, you could smack yourself with a hammer!