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Originally published July 27, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 27, 2007 at 2:02 AM

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Book review

"Thursday Next" takes delightful liberties with literature

asper Fforde's mind-blowing books consistently defy — nay, mock — easy description. Are they fantasy? Mystery? Espionage? Science fiction? Absurdist humor?

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Jasper Fforde will read from "Thursday Next: First Among Sequels," 7 p.m. Wednesday, Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way N.E., Lake Forest Park; free (206-366-3333 or www.thirdplacebooks.com).

Jasper Fforde's mind-blowing books consistently defy — nay, mock — easy description. Are they fantasy? Mystery? Espionage? Science fiction? Absurdist humor? Shaggy, gleeful, scrambled combinations of the above?

Answer: Yup.

The Welsh writer has created a dazzling alternate world out of the friction between highbrow literature and lowbrow baloney. It's sui generis, although faint traces of Douglas Adams, Kurt Vonnegut and Fforde's avowed literary hero, Lewis Carroll, can sometimes be detected.

His best-known character is literary detective Thursday Next. In Thursday's world, time and history are remarkably elastic. The Crimean War still rages, Wales is a Socialist Republic, and cheese is a hot commodity on the black market. Sometimes Thursday's husband is dead, sometimes not. It depends.

Literature exists, but with a twist. Books comprise a huge, jury-rigged, amazingly complex storytelling technology, and all the characters in them are actors. As soon as a reader stops, they can relax and go about their own lives.

But books are vulnerable, which is where Thursday comes in. Working for a shadowy agency called SpecOps (now officially disbanded but still operating through a front called Acme Carpets), she fearlessly protects literature through her ability to jump from "the Outland" into the backstage regions of books.

Our heroine's got a lot on her hands in "Thursday Next: First Among Sequels" (Viking, 379 pp., $24.95). For one thing, her son Friday (an infant in earlier tales) is now a slobby teenager; the fate of the world hangs on his getting out of bed and showering — but, exercising his prerogative as a teen, he refuses.

Then there's the sinister Goliath Corporation (motto: "Solving Evolution's Problems"), which wants to make books into tourist destinations. It's also working to merge reality TV with the classics. So, in addition to existing shows such as "Sell Your Granny" and "Celebrity Kidney Swap," we'll have the book form of "Pride and Prejudice" replaced by "The Bennets," a lively elimination contest pitting Jane, Elizabeth and the other young ladies against each other.

These are just a few highlights of the wild plot lines in "First Among Sequels." In a recent interview, Fforde said he loves hooking such seemingly disparate ideas together: "If something amuses or grabs my attention then I try to attach it leechlike to the story and ... let it grow."

Some ideas are tossed off casually, such as the passing reference to a Martin-Bacon Eject-o-Hat. (Where can I buy one, please?) Others are crucial: England's dangerously high Stupidity Surplus, for example, or the top-secret recipe for unscrambling eggs. Some are weirdly funny, such as the Stiltonistas, a band of underground cheese-smugglers. And others exist simply to make underemployed English majors giggle, such as the SpecOps cadet who is "as green as 'Brighton Rock.' "

Then there's "Schrödinger Night Fever," which uses the famous thought experiment in quantum mechanics known as Schrödinger's Cat to explain why John Travolta movies can be both awful and great at the same time.

Believe it or not, though, Fforde likes to make a serious point periodically. Here's Thursday on the art of reading:

"Reading, I had learned, was as creative a process as writing, sometimes more so. When we read of the dying rays of the setting sun or the boom and swish of the incoming tide, we should reserve as much praise for ourselves as for the author. After all, the reader is doing all the work — the writer might have died long ago."

"Thursday Next: First Among Sequels" is so jampacked with goofy jokes and shaggy plot lines that some readers may tire before the end. That would be a shame, since they'd miss the book's exciting conclusion on the dangerous high seas of piratical swashbuckling. Argh!

Meanwhile, die-hard Fforde ffanatics can check out his very cool Web sites (all accessible through www.jasperfforde.com). They offer "deleted scenes" from his books, details about the Goliath Corporation, and much more. All of it, as Thursday comments about fiction in general, is "strange, unpredictable — and fun."

Adam Woog reviews crime fiction for The Seattle Times.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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