Thursday, February 19, 2009

BY THE CHAPTER: The Eyre Affair: We Change Literature, and Literature Changes Us

Literature changes us. It makes us more knowledgeable and tolerant, it makes us long to see places we've read about, sometimes it makes us want to act like a different kind of person...I'm sure you can think of lots more examples.

In the world of The Eyre Affair, people change literature. By going into it. What a great fantasy! I asked last time what work of fiction you'd like to go into. This time I want you to think about how we do sometimes get to participate in fiction, even if we don't all join the Society for Creative Anachronism, or buy a ticket to a place that recreates a fictional world, like the local Renaissance Festival, Universal Studios in California, or Shannon Hale's fictive "Austenland." If you're my age, you probably went to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show when you were in college, and you didn't just sit there and watch. If you were really gung-ho about it, you dressed up. If not, you at least brought a piece of toast and a lighter. In The Eyre Affair, Thursday Next goes to see a Rocky Horror-type production of Shakespeare's tragedy of Richard III. Because in her world, people don't waste their time learning dialogue like "so come up to the lab and see what's on the slab. I see you shiver with antici... pation" so they can chant along. They open the show by shouting "WHEN is the winter of our discontent?" so that the audience member chosen to play Richard that evening can reply " the winter of our discontent...." They bring sunglasses to put on when Richard says "...made glorious SUMMER by this son of York...." And when the play reaches the point at which the battle of Bosworth field takes place, "most of the audience ended up on the stage."

But with the Prose Portal, Thursday's Uncle Mycroft makes going into literature literal. When the bad guy, Acheron Hades ("I'm not mad, I'm just...well, differently moraled") kidnaps Mycroft and the Prose Portal, he has one of his minions go into his stolen original manuscript of Martin Chuzzlewit, bring back one of the characters (a completely made-up minor character that Fforde names Mr. Quaverly), and then kill him, making him disappear from all copies of the novel, forever. Acheron then threatens to do the same thing to the main character, Martin Chuzzlewit, unless his demands are met, because, as he says, "I was made to study the book at O-level and really got to hate the smug little shit. All that moralizing and endless harking on about the theme of selfishness." But Mycroft foils his diabolical scheme by burning the original manuscripts of Martin Chuzzlewit. Acheron is then forced to steal another manuscript. He regrets that no original Shakespeare manuscripts survive, because he would have loved to "rub out" Hamlet or Romeo, but he considers Pride and Prejudice or something by Trollope before deciding on Jane Eyre. (Just to add to the silliness, Acheron is caught reading the manuscript before he finishes stealing it and says "I hate it when that happens....just when you get to a good bit!")

Other people from Thursday's world have been going into literature without the prose portal. Her childhood visit to Jane Eyre caused Rochester's horse to slip, and he says "your intervention improved the narrative." Thursday learns that "this has happened before" when one of the Litera Tecs she works with tells her about coming across a fictional character named Christopher Sly who had come out of The Taming of the Shrew, and concludes that "the barriers between reality and fiction are softer than we think." He then tells her about a real person who went into Dickens's Dombey and Son and stayed there as a minor character.

That the barriers between fiction and reality have been breaking down is also known to the Goliath corporation and their know-nothing shill, aptly named Jack Schitt. He says "over the last hundred years there has been an inexplicable cross-fertilization between works of fiction and reality." He wants the Prose Portal so that Goliath can control access to the world of fiction. That's the situation at the end of Chapter 28, at any rate.

With some romance for Thursday and a time travel adventure thrown in, the silliness of this novel keeps ratcheting up, like a five-year-old at a really fun birthday party. The names are chosen for comic effect, as we discussed briefly yesterday over at The Printed Page. In this middle section of the novel, they get even more preposterous--Chapter Twenty introduces "Dr. Runcible Spoon," and the buxom woman who is Thursday's romantic rival turns out to be named "Daisy Mutlar." Also the Marlowe claim to authorship of Shakespeare is added to the fun, as Thursday gets to know the barman at the Cheshire Cat well enough to find out that he is the head of the Kit Marlowe society by day. And there's a geographical insult I enjoyed, when Thursday's boss tells her he has a chance to get a promotion if he moves to Ohio, and she asks why he hasn't accepted. "'Have you to Ohio?' he asked in an innocent tone of voice."

For those readers of The Eyre Affair who haven't read Jane Eyre, Thursday helpfully summarizes the entire plot, ostensibly for her boss, on pages 270-272. This is the lead-in to the last third of the book, which takes place in the novel Jane Eyre, and in which all the loose ends are pulled to make a very complicated cat's cradle of a resolution to the story.

If you're reading The Eyre Affair, is there a silly character name that's your favorite so far?


Anonymous said...

The names are passing right by me for the most part but your post is wonderful. I get more out reading your posts that the book itself. You get right into the heart of his book and bring it to life.

Jeanne said...

Thanks, Marcia... I guess I should put out a book and call it "How To Read Literature Like An Underemployed Professor."

Booklogged said...

I think this book is totally creative and fun. Plus the storyline is terrific. It's been awhile since I read the first book, but I do remember Jack Schitt. I don't remember the bad guys' names but I thought at the time that they were very aptly named.

Anonymous said...

Not apropos of the Eyre Affair, which I do love. But apropos of the comment that literature changes us. I have to say that sometimes literature really makes me hungry. I have been listening to a read-out-loud book where the author lovingly describes wonderful, elaborate meals. It definitely makes me hungry.

Jeanne said...

Booklogged: There's the defense correspondent James Backbiter, and then there's Acheron Hades who appears if you say his name!

Cshu: reading one of Peter Mayle's Provence books always makes me hungry. The Eyre Affair is not a book that notices food--even when Mrs. Fairfax feeds Jane (an occasion I found somewhat improbable--isn't it like the food in Faerie and would trap her there, or could it possibly be nourishing and not just imaginary?) the food isn't described much ("cold cuts of meat and some bread").