Viking, 2011, 362 pages, C$30.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-670-02252-6
Jasper Fforde is not what we’d call an ordinary writer, and his novels are not what we’d call ordinary fiction. Euphemistically called a “writer of humorous fantasy”, Fforde is constantly willing to engage in a playful exploration of genre fiction. His novels feature characters breaking out of their novels, communications by footnotes, time-travel from one volume to another, an exploration of genre fiction as a grand library, cheerfully absurd parallel universe and more meta-fictional jokes than can be listed on a single bibliography.
The fifth entry in the “Thursday Next” ended, as faithful readers may recall, with a heck of a send-off: the Bookworld threatened by a serial killer, a dirigible going down in flames and Thursday radioing back to headquarters that they may have a problem.
If you were expecting a sequel to that particular moment, however, expect to be mystified: As One of Our Thursdays is Missing begins, we’re dealing with an entirely different Thursday: The written one, portraying the “real” Thursday Next’s adventures within Bookworld. Never mind continuity, especially when Bookworld itself is remade into a geographically-based metaphorical island. (There’s a map.) The new plot is that the real Thursday Next is missing, and the written one feels compelled to take a leave of absence to find her. Among other perils, the written Thursday has to leave Bookworld to go investigate in the real world… becoming a human for the first time, and trying to figure out how the real Thursday lives from the clues left to her in the fictionalized novels in which she plays the real one.
Yes, the meta is quite heavy with this one.
Fortunately, it’s all handled with Fforde’s usual light-hearted flair. The rules of the universe having changed (there are several hilarious excerpt to “Bradshaw’s BookWorld Companion” to help us along the way), and re-learning them alongside the similarly-befuddled Thursday isn’t too painless. Fforde’s usual invention is on display as he features a robot companion, a dangerous mimefield, a battle in micro-gravity, peace talks between warring genres, a trip upriver in a rigidly-defined subgenre and more meta-fictional games than you can quite grasp at first. (One word: Toast.)
The highlight of the book, however, has to be the sequence in which the written Thursday is thrown into the real world. Suddenly, life becomes far more complicated for someone who has to get used to gravity, heartbeats and the rest of real life that never makes it into fiction. It’s not a brilliant piece of invention, but it’s a neat and revealing take on the venerable “visiting alien asking what it means to be human” trope.
It’s all amusing and eminently readable, but in-between the inventions and wordplay there’s a real question as to whether Fforde has simply given up on the continuity of his series (if continuity was ever his intent) and where the series can go from here. But that may not be much of a concern given the twists and turns that Fforde has provided in his series so far. It does feel like a discontinuity, though, and it will be up to the next volume to patch things up: Fans can hope to get a satisfying closure to the fifth volume, but at this point the entire series is really in Fforde’s very unusual hands.