Thursday, September 23, 2004

23 September 2004: Spinners

A few days ago my sister phoned to say that despite the ongoing turmoil of selling a house in York in order to move to Salisbury (some kind of Cathedral transfer deal, I don't really get it), she is finding solace in the novels of one Jasper Fforde. "They're funny," she said. "It's like reading Douglas Adams but without the science."


Having previously only come across the 'Ff-' beginning of a name in two places (Ffion, wife of the ex-Tory leader William Hague, and Ffergal, a dog belonging to one of my cousins), I wasn't sure whether I could indeed read the books without thinking what a daft name the author had. But yesterday I ventured into Waterstones next door and found the last remaining copy of 'The Eyre Affair', and began perusing its pages last night.

Yes, it's good. I admit that quite readily. An alternative 1985 where the rules of nature are slightly different is very imaginative, and our heroine (one Thursday Next) is very likeable as a secret agent being bounced from secret department to secret department within SpecOps, the Special Operations organisation who seem to employ a lot of people despite offering no career progression. The use of classic literature as a popular medium in the place of, at various times, popular music, religion and even reality, is ingenious, and other nice touches include the fact that certain advances haven't been made: the Crimean War continues, for instance, and the jet engine has never been developed.

But my ears kept burning as I read on. And here's why.

Six years ago, in a fit of boredom, I sat down at my computer keyboard, pulled up a blank document and typed the first thing that came into my head.
"Unfortunately, it was the wig that gave him away."

That sentence became a paragraph and eventually a four-part story called 'Spinners', shared with numerous people down the years but unpublished (except on my website). A tale of public relations, political intrigue and semi-skimmed milk, Spinners was set in 2011. It dealt with the then-burgeoning Spin Doctor culture of the recently-elected New Labour government, detailing a possible future if things continued in the same direction. It followed the exploits of a young government employee, Peter Mackie, as he was bounced from secret department to secret department in an attempt to figure out and eventually foil a plot by the media to overthrow the government and install the Teletubbies as heads of the executive. Mackie eventually has to stand for Prime Minister himself but is beaten by a late challenge from Bill Gates, returning from years of exile, who rigs the pay-per-vote election on the Democracy Channel.

The story is different - Ffffffforde at least has decent characterisation and a more-than-two-dimensional story. But the settings and descriptions keep bothering me. For classic literature I kept reading 'Green Spin'; the Baconions sounded to me like the Parsley Sellers; Thursday's work colleagues Boswell and Paige Turner felt a lot like Lenny the Mouth and the constantly-gender-reversing Shelby. Some critics have panned The Eyre Affair for its lack of decent plotting and its clumsy use of literary devices (at one point Thursday picks up a mirror, essentially just to tell the reader what she looks like), but the point is this: is it readable? Is it a page-turner, just like the character? William Gibson's plots are sometimes a little on the light side, but he gets around that because of his stunning observational and descriptive writing. Fforde gets by, like Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett, through sheer inventiveness. Is it readable? The answer is yes, and I will continue to read The Eyre Affair with great enjoyment. But there are times when part of me thinks 'hmm, I could have written that a bit less clumsily', and times when part of me thinks 'but I already wrote that'. I'm not sure quite how it makes me feel, but it does make me feel something.

The Saga of Spin remains available for public viewing. The glossary I am particularly pleased with.

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