Saturday, March 15, 2008

The crazy world of Jasper Fforde

"Easter was always bad for him."

Humpty Dumpty's ex-wife

Blurbs I've seen for Jasper Fforde's novels tend toward stunned, amazed cheering, and it's easy to see why. There is nothing else like his Nursery Crimes books. I've just read the first of them, The Big Over Easy, and I'm happy to join the chorus. But I'll also try to suggest a few reasons why the book is far more than yuk-it-up parody of hard-boiled tropes.

1) I wrote tropes rather clichés deliberately. Fforde pokes fun at the hard-working, browbeaten cop, the trusty sidekick, the evil genius, the femme fatale, the hero in peril and more. Nothing is easier than making fun of a cliché; it's like kicking a man when he's down. But Fforde manages the far more difficult feat of making his fun affectionate. He obviously loves the genre conventions at which he pokes such delightful fun. And what a range of genres!

2) His imagination runs riot. The victim in The Big Over Easy is Humpty Dumpty. The investigating officers are Detective Inspector Jack Spratt of the Reading Police Department, Nursery Crime Division, and his sidekick, Mary Mary. Need I say more? I will anyway:

3) The nursery-rhyme motif is ingenious. One can imagine the early Woody Allen building a humorous essay around it, in the manner of his gangster parodies. But Fforde spins it out into a 380-page novel that never flags. How does he manage this? By ringing constant changes. Jack Spratt is not merely a hardworking detective who likes his meat lean. At unexpected moments, Fforde has him evoke other nursery-rhyme Jacks as well, one of them in a highly amusing running joke.

4) So far, Fforde has played with nursery-rhyme characters and crime-fiction conventions. But there's more. He has equally affectionate fun with a science-fiction trope or two and with a thriller-style plague that threatens if not to destroy the world, then at least to make it uncomfortable.

5) Fforde enhances the illusion of a weird but real parallel universe by heading each chapter with a mock newspaper article, usually very funny.

6) Both in the mock articles and in the body of the novel, Fforde shows a sharp ear for vacuously breathless journalistic prose.

7) The novel has at least one serious message about the contemporary world. Here's a well-meaning superior officer urging Jack to gently fudge details of an investigation:
"Times change, Jack, and we have to change with them. Public approval is a currency we cannot afford to fritter away."
If that's not a sobering comment on market-driven pandering in just about every aspect of contemporary life including the mainstream media, well, then, I don't work in the mainstream media.

8) In addition to the ingenuity of its conception, the book is just plain fun to read. Here's one of many examples:

"`Interfering fool!' she spat. `The bastard Jellyman has escaped. Ten long years of planning for nothing. Do you know how long it took me to engineer my little friend up there?'

"`You just said. Ten years – '

"`Don't patronize me!' she screeched."

Maybe this post is just so much more stunned, amazed cheering afteer all. So go see what the fuss is about, and read some Jasper Fforde.

P.S. Does anyone else see a bit of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy's Arthur Dent in Fforde's Jack Spratt – and of that book's chapter headings in Fforde's mock newspaper articles?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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