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Wit's End

Reviewed by Elizabeth Hand

Sunday, August 15, 2004; Page BW07


By Jasper Fforde. Viking. 385 pp. $24.95

Thursday Next is back. Jasper Fforde's time-jaunting, book-hopping Jurisfiction agent has won legions of admirers through her adventures in three previous bestselling novels -- The Eyre Affair, Lost in a Good Book and The Well of Lost Plots. Something Rotten, Thursday's latest caper, won't disappoint devoted readers; but newcomers to the series may want to acquaint themselves with one of the earlier books, or at the very least get a good night's sleep before starting this one. Reading Something Rotten is somewhat akin to sitting through a 24-hour Monty Python marathon: After a while, even the most diehard fan may find herself yawning and wishing for -- well, something completely different.

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Jasper Fforde's novels posit a relentlessly clever alternate history of our world, one in which Jurisfiction agents pursue renegade fictional characters through cross-genre landscapes, and time-traveling ChronoGuards "maintain the integrity of the Standard History Eventline (SHE) and police the time stream against any unauthorized changes or usage." By Thursday's calendar, it's now 1988, three years after The Eyre Affair, and she's awaiting sentencing for her part in giving Charlotte Brontë's novel its happy resolution. Not that Thursday has been sitting still all that time. Among other things, she's found and lost a husband, Landen Parke-Laine, eradicated by the nefarious Goliath Corporation but not before he fathered Thursday's child, Friday.

At its onset, Something Rotten finds Thursday burned out and bummed out by her job and the travails of single parenthood. She's reduced to living with her mother in suburban Swindon, where Thursday attempts to juggle childcare, her job and her continuing effort to get her husband reinstated by the Goliath Corporation -- one of the advantages of time travel is that the dead don't have to stay that way. The novel's plot -- take a deep breath now -- involves cloned Shakespeares; a dictator who's escaped from a very, very badly written romance novel; a British ban on all things Danish; the prophecies of a lewd 13th-century saint; a contract killer known as the Windowmaker; and the imminent destruction of our entire world in a fiery conflagration. This last, "an apocalyptic disaster of life-extinguishing capabilities Level III" -- can be prevented only if Thursday somehow helps the Swindon Mallets beat the Reading Whackers at the Superhoop Croquet finals. One can see why she needs reliable childcare.

The Thursday Next books have been compared to Monty Python, Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, "Dr. Who" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." I would respectfully add MAD magazine, the films "Time Bandits" and "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," as well as Jonathan Lethem's Gun, with Occasional Music and Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, though Fforde's novels are neither as brilliant as Lethem's book nor as consistently funny as Mr. Snicket's accounts of the Baudelaire orphans. The Thursday Next series is more like director David Zucker's "Naked Gun" and "Scary Movie" franchises, bombarding readers or viewers with gags -- wordshtick rather than slapstick.

I'll admit to having a taste for this kind of stuff. But the humor in Something Rotten is often scattershot, and the pacing is glacial. I suspect that, just as with Zucker's movies, one will hear the sound of halfhearted laughter more than genuine bellylaughs. Still, Fforde can be extremely funny, as in his throwaway gags on the use of performance-enhancing drugs by novelists ("Last year's Booker speedwriting winner was stripped of his award when he tested positive for Cartlandromin") and the plight of Max de Winter from Rebecca, who has been arrested on charges of insurance fraud -- seems he made a claim on the boat that sank with the first Mrs. de Winter in it.

Also successful is a running joke involving dictator Yorrick Kaine's anti-Danish propaganda campaign: "All Bang & Olufsen entertainment systems have been withdrawn due to 'safety' concerns, and Lego has been banned pending 'choking hazard' investigations. The list of outlawed Danish writers is becoming longer by the second. Kierkegaard's works have already been declared illegal under the Undesirable Danish Literature Act and will be burnt. Hans Christian Andersen will be next, we're told -- and after that maybe even Karen Blixen."

"They can pull my copy of Out of Africa from my cold, dead fingers."

"Mine, too. You'd better make sure Hamlet doesn't tell anyone where he's from." Ah, Hamlet! He nearly gets lost in the fray; but the Danish prince is the other comedic treasure in Something Rotten. The page lights up whenever he appears, which isn't often enough. Hamlet can perhaps be forgiven for these absences -- he's busy hiding out from Kaine's Dane-bashing lackeys in Thursday's house, where he's introduced as Cousin Eddie. Hamlet passes the time by engaging in passionate foreplay with Emma Hamilton, herself a chronological refugee in Swindon. He also catches up with all the various filmed enactments of himself (he's particularly partial to Mel Gibson's).

But the prince's extended stay with Thursday Next is wreaking havoc back in BookWorld, where Ophelia has attempted a coup de plot, spurring other characters from "Hamlet" to seize the play -- "Their father, Polonius, was in a 'have a go' mood and joined in. He also made changes, and together they renamed it: The Tragedy of the Very Witty and Not Remotely Boring Polonius, Father of the Noble Laertes, Who Avenges His Fair Sister, Ophelia, Driven Mad by the Callous, Murderous and Outrageously Disrespectful Hamlet, Prince of Denmark." Even the famously prevaricating prince can't take this sitting down. He signs up with a conflict-management specialist, and before you can say "Shagspear," Hamlet has become the master of his fate -- "By this time tomorrow, Hamlet will be a dynamic tale of one man's revenge and the rise to power as the single greatest king Denmark has ever seen. . . . There's something rotten in the state of Denmark, and Hamlet says. . . it's payback time!"

Jasper Fforde might have taken to heart another bit of "Hamlet" -- Polonius's remark that "brevity is the soul of wit." At nearly 400 pages, Something Rotten is too long and too ramshackle to sustain its overly elaborated narrative, and not as funny as its predecessors. I suspect that many of this novel's failures can be blamed on Fforde's rate of production -- The Well of Lost Plots, the third and most recent Thursday Next book, appeared just last year in the U.K.

Still, I laughed out loud five times and snickered 31: not a bad rate. In these troubled times, we need all the laughs we can get.

It's good to know Thursday Next is on the job. •

Elizabeth Hand's most recent novel is "Mortal Love."

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