Something Rotten, Jasper Fforde

Hodder & Stoughton, 2004, 393 pages, C$24.95 tpb, ISBN 0-340-83827-2

There’s something rotten in the state of England. Fortunately, Thursday Next is back on the case, two years after the events of The Well of Lost Plots. As Something Rotten begins, the twin pressures of Jurisfiction leadership and homesickness are getting to her: After a problem in a genre Western is solved in an entirely unsatisfactory fashion, she decides to get out of the Bookworld, come back to Swinton and finally get her eradicated husband back.

This fourth book in the Thursday Next series is meant to be a conclusion of sorts to the series, and so a whole bunch of errant plot threads are tied back together one after another in the madcap fashion by now so familiar to Fforde fans. Something Rotten reaches back all the way to The Eyre Affair and Lost in a Good Book for references and in-jokes, successfully concluding the series. (Maybe.)

This being said, there’s enough new material here to keep everyone interested. Next doesn’t come back alone from the Bookworld. For one thing, her infant son (Friday Next, of course) comes back with her, giving rise to all sorts of complicated situations of which finding day care is the least difficult. For another, she’s shepherding Hamlet as he visits the real world to assess his own reputation. This wouldn’t be a Fforde novel without tons of subplots, so you can also expect Thursday Next to confront assassins, coach a cricket team, save the world, team up with agent Spike for another supernatural adventure, get news from her deceased time-travelling father, deal with Neanderthals, find cloned Shakespeares, deal with the Goliath corporation and fight the evil Yorrick Kaine. Whew!

Given the depth and complexity of Fforde’s imagined universe as developed over the first three books, I can’t imagine how a new reader would react at the sight of all this stuff. But for faithful fans of the series, Something Rotten is pure gold. Fforde doesn’t necessarily preclude further volumes in the series (you can even see hooks for something called The Great Samuel Pepys Fiasco buried into the plot-line of the novel), but we should be grateful that he’s willing to bow out in style. After setting most of The Well of Lost Plots in the fictional Bookworld, Fforde wisely re-sets Something Rotten to take place almost entirely is Next’s “Real World”. It gains in plausibility, but loses in invention. While it would be an exaggeration to say that the world of Thursday Next has gotten boring, it’s true that it doesn’t offer as much that’s completely new.

Still, Swinton is a pleasant place to visit, and the fevered pace of Fforde’s invention is almost as manic as in the previous books. What’s more, it even finds a very dramatic ending that deftly balances real emotion and amusing slapstick. Also included is gentle political satire (as Denmark is designated as the root of all evil as part of a dastardly plan by Yorrick Kaine), the usual typographical finds (here, a historical figure speaking in Gothic fonts) and two or three revelations about the characters’ future. All told, Something Rotten is just as readable, just as enjoyable and just as amusing as the first three books of the series, giving form to a quartet that’s well worth recommending to every ardent reader on your Christmas list.

With this, a natural end to the Thursday Next series, Fforde and ffans find themselves at a branching point: The author surely has some other universes to create, but it remains to be seen whether he’ll allow his readers to box him into a narrow series of books that is perhaps best left complete. We’ll see: His next book, The Big Over Easy, is supposed to be a stand-alone book. Better a singleton than overcooking a series which, at this time, seems to have reached its potential.

City Of Angels (1998)

<strong class="MovieTitle">City Of Angels</strong> (1998)

(On DVD, March 2005) It would be too easy to dismiss City Of Angels as romantic clap-trap about angels, impossible fairytale romance and cheap existential questions. It would be even easier to dismiss the film as a slow-moving morass of fabricated sentiment with an unclear mythology and a script that couldn’t be more obvious if it included subtitles about the screenwriter’s intentions. But to do so would be to ignore, unfairly, the delicious frisson of wonder at some of the film’s visuals: The “angels” watching over Los Angeles like so many dark crows. The idea that angels hang out at libraries (oh, c’mon; even stone-cold atheists would like this one to be true). The handful of scenes that make you go “hey… that’s nice.” Dennis Franz’s performance as a fallen angel who has learnt to appreciate life. Granted, in order to get to these things you have to suffer through love scenes between Meg Ryan and Nicolas Cage. (Ergh.) And possibly fast-forward through chunks of the film. And certainly try not to giggle at the splat-ending, or the contrived death scenes. But even cynics may find two or three things worth keeping about this film, and that’s almost two or three more than they would expect.

Beauty Shop (2005)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Beauty Shop</strong> (2005)

(In theaters, March 2005) This second spin-off of the surprise hit Barbershop dilutes the formula so much and treats it with such contempt that you’ll have a hard time seeing it as anything better than a fluffy comedy. Queen Latifah is often irritating as a protagonist who doubles as the film’s most racist character (seriously, why bring the “coloured” word in discussions that have nothing to do with it?). The supporting characters aren’t much better as the whole range of black stereotypes are exploited without a moment’s worth of self-reflexion. Heck, the entire female gender is exploited without a moment’s self-reflexion: It may be nice and all to see bootyology elevated to a science, but curvy actresses aren’t much of a relief when the script they have is so bad. It’s not just the bad jokes as much as the lame plot, the awful coincidences and the dumb characters. Suuure, the annoying vid-kid just happens to catch a payoff between the antagonist and the city inspector (both white). Suuure, the beauty shop just happens to be underneath an electrician’s apartment, an electrician who just happens to be handsome, single, artistic and non-threatening. Suuure, the client who walks though the door in a panic just happens to be a famous radio DJ. Such plot cheats are unforgivable, and it’s not just a white/black, male/female thing: Dumb is dumb, lazy is lazy and even my panting fascination for Andie McDowell has its limits.

Call of the Mall, Paco Underhill

Simon & Schuster, 2004, 227 pages, C$37.10 hc, ISBN 0-7432-3591-6

After explaining Why We Buy, retail naturalist Paco Underhill sets his sights on shopping malls in Call of the Mall, his second book on the nature of today’s shopping environment. Focused and dramatized through fictive conversations with fellow mall-goers, this follow-up on “the science of shopping” is both a retread and an improvement on the previous book.

Successfully structured as “a day in the mall with Paco Underhill”, Call of the Mall examines the modern institution known as the shopping mall from a variety of aspects, from retail to architecture, security to wilful inaccessibility. In doing so, Underhill shows what’s wrong with malls and why they’re doomed to failure. But don’t take this book for what it’s not: Neither scientific textbook nor anti-capitalistic screed, Call of the Mall is just as focused as Why We Buy on improving the performance of stores, sometimes at the shoppers’ expense and sometimes not.

To give you an idea of how Underhill approaches his subject, consider that he doesn’t take us inside a mall until Chapter 5: In the meantime, he discusses what malls are (a real estate business more than a retail one: mall owners make their money renting space to stores, not selling products), where they’re built (far away from anything else, to keep customers inside as long as possible), how they’re built (not very esthetically) and the whole problematic of finding a parking space. Underhill clearly knows malls: His day job, after all, is to study shopper’s habits, spending hours and hours “in the field”, shadowing shoppers as they normally behave in retail environments. So when he discusses his own emotional attachment to malls, he knows what he’s talking about.

It helps that his writing style is readable like few others. It’s all too easy to be taken with Underhill as he invites us to spend a day at the mall with him. It doesn’t take much to imagine this as a documentary film, as he dramatizes shopping situations with typical customers or invites us to see a food court through his well-trained eyes. Call of the Mall is unpretentious, sometimes superficial, but seldom boring.

At most it can be repetitive, especially if you’re already familiar with his previous Why We Buy: Underhill, after all, has spent his professional career establishing his consulting firm and building his own theories of shopping: If he sticks to the same ideas from one book to another, it’s not dogmatism as much as it’s professional experience. While his tendency to systematize experience can be exasperating, they’re generally on-target: The way he describes male shoppers in malls isn’t quite a perfect match for me, but it’s close enough to make me trust his descriptions of other demographic groups.

But beyond the easy entertainment value of the book lies a series of insights in the world of malls and how they work. If you have ever wondered about food courts, mall toilets, pushcarts, the disappearance of bookstores from suburban malls (hint; it’s not because people don’t read, it’s because people browse more than they buy, especially where they’re waiting for other people), why similar stores are located in clusters or secret entrances to malls, don’t worry: Underhill has studied these things and now he’s ready to tell all about them.

Ironically, Underhill concludes his book by saying that malls are past their heydays. Their “lack of mercantile DNA” [P.202] will prove fatal: Built away from transit routes, slapped together without regard to architecture or communities, those self-sufficient island of shopping are not going to find any supporters when they start falling down (often literally, as they reach their thirtieth or fortieth year). What’s the next step, then? “Big boxes” retailers, on-line shopping or a return to shopping districts? Maybe we’ll have to wait until Underhill’s next book to find out.

Fascinating conclusion, but I couldn’t read the book without tying it to the malls I know and it seems to me as if the Ottawa-area malls have at least a fighting chance. For one thing, they’re all built near transit routes (my own morning bus ride takes me through or near four malls) and often act as transit for people going from one place to another. For another, they’re covered and heated: When you’re dealing with Canadian winters, that’s not an inconsequential factor.