Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1579
In Jasper Fforde's fourth installment of the Thursday Next series, the literary detective returns to the real world, known as the Outland, from her stint as the BookWorld Bellman, the person in charge of the policing agency inside books whose task it is to maintain story lines within fiction, known as Jurisfiction. As a single mother (her husband having been eradicated in the second book of the series), Thursday has her hands full. Not only does she have her son, Friday, to care for, she also has her pet dodo bird, Pickwick, and Hamlet, the prince of Denmark, in tow.
Like the earlier books in the series, Something Rotten is set in Swindon, England, in the 1980's; however, this is a very different England from the one with which readers may be familiar and a very different 1980's from those that readers may remember. In this alternate reality, Wales is a socialist republic; croquet has the cachet of world-league soccer; fictional characters leap out of books, and real characters leap into them; dirigibles ply the sky rather than airplanes; extinct species such as dodos and Neanderthals have been genetically reengineered; and members of the ChronoGuard slip in and out of the time stream.
The wildly imaginative alternative reality and plot structures can be very confusing for the uninitiated reader, and the fourth book of the series is probably not the place to start an exploration into Thursday's world. Rather, a first-time reader ought to look up The Eyre Affair(2001) and read the other books sequentially to follow the complicated construction of a strange, yet oddly cohesive, alternate world.
For readers who have already met Thursday and her gang, however, Something Rotten offers another foray into a familiar, albeit wacky, landscape. The book picks up where The Well of Lost Plots (2003) closes. As Something Rotten opens, Thursday is still the Bellman and is still in BookWorld, tracking the escaped Minotaur by following a series of custard-pie-throwing incidents occurring unexpectedly in a number of Westerns. When Emperor Zhark comes to the rescue of Thursday and Colonel Bradshaw, destroying most of the book they are in, Thursday decides that she has had enough of the BookWorld and wants to return to Swindon, her home, and begin anew her search for her eradicated husband, Landen Parke-Laine.
The Council of Genres, however, refuses to accept Thursday's resignation and gives her a leave of absence instead, instructing her to deal with escaped fictional character Yorrick Kaine, who is trying to become dictator of England in the Outland. In addition, Thursday finds herself saddled with Hamlet, prince of Denmark, who is concerned that he is not being interpreted properly in the Outland. To complicate matters further, Thursday must find ways to provide child care for her son, including importing Mrs. Bradshaw (a dress-wearing gorilla married to the colonel) from the BookWorld.
The plot then branches in several directions. In one subplot, Thursday works toward reactualizing her husband by approaching the Goliath Corporation, which has now become a “faith-based corporate-management system” complete with “Apologaria,” places where people who have been wronged by Goliath can go to receive apologies. In one such visit, Thursday encounters her former nemesis, Jack Schitt, and ultimately recovers her husband, although Landen flickers in and out of the time line for several chapters.
In a second subplot, Thursday tries to avoid being assassinated by the notorious hit woman known as the Windowmaker. In reality, the assassin is Cindy Stoker, mother of an infant child and wife of Thursday's friend Spike. Spike and Cindy's roles in the novel turn out to be crucial to the climactic ending.
Another branch of the plot occurs because of Hamlet's sojourn to the Outland. While Hamlet has been gone from BookWorld, his lover Ophelia has taken control of the play Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601), turning it into a conglomeration of The Merry Wives of Windsor (pr. 1597) and the Polonius family called “The Merry Wives of Elsinore.” Thursday must scramble to find a William Shakespeare clone in the Outland to rescue the play from Ophelia's crazed rewriting. In a further twist to this plot, Stiggins, the Neanderthal, helps Thursday find the place where both Shakespeares and Neanderthals were cloned. For Stiggins, this discovery may mean that the Neanderthals will be able to reproduce.
Meanwhile, Yorrick Kaine fans anti-Danish sentiment across the country, leading to the burning of books and persecution of all things Danish. As a result, Hamlet must pose as Thursday's cousin Eddie to avoid problems. Later, Thursday identifies the source of Kaine's frantic anti-Danish pogrom: Kaine is a fictional character from Danish writer Daphne Farquitt's romance novel “At Long Last Lust.” By burning Danish books, Kaine hopes to eradicate all copies of the book where he belongs and thus prevent anyone from sending him back into fiction.
The return of St. Zvlkx, Swindon's patron saint, causes additional plot trauma for Thursday. St. Zvlkx speaks only Old English, and Fforde assigns him a different font from the rest of the text to mark this. The thirteenth century monk is known for his prophecies, which usually come true. One such prophecy is that the terrible Swindon croquet team, the Mallets, will win the SuperHoop competition. Although there is virtually no chance of this happening, Thursday's father, a member of the ChronoGuard, appears to Thursday and informs her that if the Mallets do not win the SuperHoop, the entire world will be destroyed in a thermonuclear explosion. Thursday, a former croquet player herself, becomes the manager of the Mallets and recruits a band of Neanderthals to play for Swindon. Yorrick Kaine and Goliath Corporation, however, try to sabotage the game for the Mallets by threatening their players. In order to have any chance at all, Thursday must take the field herself. The results of the game fulfill prophecy and place Thursday in mortal danger.
Fforde adds a final twist to the book with a scene between Thursday and Granny Next. A neat little surprise, the meeting between the young woman and the old is both touching and complicated as streams of time intersect and diverge from each other.
In addition to his signature plot gyrations, Fforde loads the book with puns, double entendres, literary inside jokes, and cameo appearances from some of literature's most famous characters. “The Cat formerly known as Cheshire” and Mrs. Tiggy-winkle make frequent appearances, as does the historical character Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson in the midst of the Battle of Trafalgar. In a nod to both the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Bram Stoker, the original author of Dracula, Fforde names Thursday's friend who heads the SpecOps division concerned with vampires Spike Stoker. Fforde also references George Eliot in the naming of Thursday's stalker, Millon de Floss. In a less literary example of Fforde's punning. the commander of the Swindon SpecOps Network is called Braxton Hicks.
Further, Hamlet provides some of the book's funnier moments. Angry with psychiatrist Sigmund Freud for suggesting anything improper in his relationship with his mother, Hamlet fills his days in the Outland watching film versions of his play and offers this critique before returning to BookWorld: “I liked [Mel] Gibson's because it has the least amount of dithering, Orson [Welles] because he did it with the best voice, [John] Gielgud for the ease in which he placed himself within the role and [Derek] Jacobi for his passion. By the way, have you heard of this [Kenneth] Branagh fellow? …I’ve got a feeling his Hamlet will be stupendous.”
At its best moments, Something Rotten provides tongue-in-cheek social commentary, postmodern literary humor, and, at times, comments on literary theory. For example, Thursday explains to Hamlet why there are so many interpretations of any piece of literature, suggesting “the reader does most of the work.” In a clearly stated summary of reader response theory, Thursday says, “Because every reader's experiences are different, each book is unique for each reader…. In fact, I’d argue that every time a book is read by the same person it is different again—because the reader's experiences have changed, or he is in a different frame of mind.”
In its weaker moments, however, the book drags; there is a limit, after all, to the number of puns per page even the most patient reader can endure or the number of wild plot turns a reader will follow. Nevertheless, even at its lowest points, the book remains enjoyable. That this is so is largely because of Fforde's heroine, Thursday. In spite of the silliness, in spite of the crazy twisting plot, Thursday is utterly believable in a fully unbelievable universe. She is strong without being overbearing, smart without being smug, and true to her husband without being sentimental. She is a young woman who, quite simply and most endearingly, loves her family and her friends. Her understanding of and love for the Neanderthals, for example, demonstrate both tolerance and compassion; her steadfast devotion to her husband and son suggest both loyalty and strength. Most of all, Thursday is unflinchingly willing to take on tasks, no matter how dangerous or unpleasant, because they just need to be done for the welfare of the world. In the BookWorld or in the Outland, such a character is a treasure.
Booklist 100, no. 21 (July 1, 2004): 1797.
Entertainment Weekly, August 6, 2004, p. 85.
The New York Times, August 5, 2004, p. E9.
People 62, no. 8 (August 23, 3004): 49.
Publishers Weekly 251, no. 33 (August 16, 2004): 44.
School Library Journal 50, no. 11 (November, 2004): 176.
Time 164, no. 5 (August 2, 2004): 80.
The Washington Post, August 15, 2004, p. T07.
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