(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 29)

Welsh novelist Jasper Fforde spent fourteen years working as a cameraman in the film industry before turning his ambitions to the printed page. The Eyre Affair, featuring LiteraTec Thursday Next, is his first novel (a second, Lost in a Good Book, was published in Britain in the summer of 2002 and he is under contract to write two more), and despite its almost compulsively literary frame of reference, the effects of a life in the movies are, for better and worse, quite evident.

The Eyre Affair is one of the latest examples of the trend toward the blurring of boundaries between literary genres, a testament to the attenuated influence of Magical Realism, which introduced elements of fantasy into literary fiction. The basic plot structure follows the conventions of the spy thriller, with a main character who is an iconoclastic investigator within a government agency—an agent of the Establishment who is nonetheless her own woman, with all the potential for conflict with not only the villains but also the reactionary forces on her own side that such a position entails. This underlying architecture is overlaid with a facade of alternate-universe elaboration. Although it is 1985, the Crimean War is still in progress, a martial morass that has absorbed the energies and resources of Britain and Russia for over 130 years. (As a result, Russia is still czarist, but Wales has broken away from England to form its own socialist republic; the Iron Curtain lies not between Western and Eastern Europe but along the Welsh Marches.) Cloning is commonplace and the most popular household pets are dodoes. Most importantly, classic literature is the currency of popular culture; movies, television, and rock and roll do not exist.

Thursday Next is an operative for the Literary Detective Division, SO-27, of the labyrinthine Special Operations Network (or SpecOps) in charge of maintaining public order. Since England is essentially a police state, there is a great deal of order to maintain. Thursday’s father, for instance, is a rogue ChronoGuard, fighting a temporally incoherent rearguard (or possibly front line) battle against the Office for Special Temporal Stability. Thursday spends her time tracking down forgers and copyright infringers until she is loaned to SO-5, a SpecOps division so secret they will not reveal to her what, precisely, they do.

SO-5 is interested in Thursday because she is one of the few people able to identify master criminal Acheron Hades, the third- most-wanted man in the world. Hades is suspected of having stolen the original manuscript of Charles Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-1844) for purposes that are no doubt nefarious. A stake-out goes awry, with Thursday’s confederates (one of whom is a former lover, Filbert Snood) killed by Hades, Thursday only saved by the mysterious intervention of a figure who bears a strange resemblance to Edward Rochester, the hero of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), and Hades apparently dead in a car crash. In the aftermath of the investigation, Thursday encounters Jack Schitt, the putative head of internal security for the Goliath Corporation, a military-industrial multinational that has used the ongoing Crimean conflict to become the power behind the nominal English government. Goliath is developing a plasma rifle that, it is rumored, will prove to be the key to England’s victory. While recovering in the hospital, Thursday is visited by her own time-traveling future self, who advises her to take a job in Swindon, her home town. When a job at the Swindon branch of LiteraTec opens up, Thursday takes her own advice and transfers.

It seems that Thursday’s tour of duty in the Crimea was marked by disaster. In one of the few actual engagements between the English and Russians, Thursday’s brother Anton was involved in some kind of military debacle that seems decidedly reminiscent of the charge of the Light Brigade; Thursday’s fiancé Landen Parke-Laine, also Anton’s best friend, publically blamed Anton for the disaster, a betrayal for which Thursday has never forgiven him. It also seems that in this alternate universe, Jane Eyre ends with Jane leaving Mr. Rochester to live in India with her cousins the Riverses.

In Swindon, Thursday visits her mother, Uncle...

(The entire section is 1753 words.)