Jasper Fforde’s series of books about Thursday Next is perfect reading for book nerds who love a bit of fantasy, a lot of humour and a thought-provoking insight into our own world. I think The Woman Who Died a Lot is probably one of the best, giving me plenty of food for thought about memory, dementia and the stories we tell about ourselves.
By coincidence, this is the second book in a row I have read with a younger character called Phoebe. In ‘Christine Falls’ by Benjamin Black (a pseudonym of John Banville), she was the 19-year-old niece of Quirke, the main character. In ‘The Woman Who Died a Lot’, she is a keen young detective, Phoebe Smalls.
What’s next for Thursday Next?
“All my decisions will be forgotten eventually, but it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t make the right ones.” Thursday Next, (p.333).
This is a book both absurd and thought-provoking. Where public buildings are sponsored and named after companies, including their slogans such as the Lola Vavoom Discount Sofa Warehouse See Press For Details Memorial Hospital. Where the most evil mega corporation of all is the Goliath Corporation.
At the start of the novel, our heroine, former literary detective Thursday Next is still suffering from the effects of major injury and about to be assessed by a psychiatrist for her next post. Assuming she is in line for head of SpecOps, she is downhearted to discover her ex-boss has her in mind for the new Chief Librarian. Mind you, she will be in close contact with the Special Library Service who wear “standard SLS combat fatigues, replete with the distinctive camouflage pattern of book spines for blending into library spaces” and would die protecting any book in the library.
In our world, the image of the librarian is stuffy and old-fashioned on the whole. Remember the librarian in Ghostbusters? In Thursday Next’s world, being a librarian is a cool and enviable job and “The SLS was the Special Library Service, the elite forces charged with protecting the nation’s literary heritage, either in libraries or in transit.” (p.95) I would love one of their T-shirts, ‘I don’t scare easily – I’m a librarian’. Where can I get one? The answer is in Jasper Fforde’s own online shop, wittily called after the Goliath Corporation that runs things in Thursday Next’s world: goliath-merchandising/librarian-ladies-fit-t-shirt.
“Working in fiction does give one a rather tenuous hold on reality, but it’s not the hold that’s tenuous – it’s the reality: which reality, whose reality, does it matter anyway – and will there be cake.” Thursday Next, in the psychiatrist’s chair. (p.34)
Does Jasper Fforde go into bookshops and turn his books face out and recommend them to browsing customers? Quite probably. Thursday Next does.
How the world really works
The wonderful thing about Jasper Fforde’s ridiculous take on local government and bureaucracy is that it completely explains real life. If everything becomes too well-organised, a Stupidity Surplus develops that has to be dissipated, so SpecOps’ new mission is “to generally overspend, change our minds about expensive technical upgrades, commission a plan to regionalise SpecOps with expensive state-of-the-art control rooms that we will never use, and inflate the workforce far beyond the realm of prudent management. And it is from this new culture of waste and mismanagement that we think de Poste hopes to achieve his Stupidity Surplus reduction target.” (p.44)
Dark Reading Matter and storytelling
Another of Fforde’s brilliant ideas is Dark Reading Matter. “Theoretical storyologists had calculated that the readable BookWorld makes up only 22 per cent of visible reading matter – the remainder is thought to be the unobservable remnants of long-lost books, forgotten oral tradition and ideas locked in writers’ heads when they died. A way to enter the Dark Reading Matter was keenly sought as it might offer a vast number of new ideas, plots and characters as well as a better understanding of the very nature of human imagination, and why STORY exists at all.” (p.61)
The Almighty has revealed himself to be real and the Global Religious Unification is now in a position to negotiate. “ ‘There has to be more to the ultimate meaning and purpose of existence than muddling through,’ said Tuesday with disdain. ‘Otherwise there’s no reason for the eternal quest for knowledge, and every reason for celebrity biographies and daytime soaps.’ “ (pp.80-81)
Memory, dementia and the stories we tell
“ ‘Damn,’ said my father, ‘all those memories, and none of them shared.’ “ (p.88)
Thursday’s father, having had a scandalous career at the now-defunct and deleted ChronoGuard, has manufactured memories of a happy family life which none of his family members share as they never really happened. In the book, this is contrasted with people with dementia who remember nothing of their past while their families remember all. I have to say I recognise the former state, too. I have happy memories of time spent with my children when they were young which they were too young to remember, something I hadn’t expected. On the other hand, my own father had a wealth of memories and tall stories we could never verify that have been passed on to me as somewhat hazy family stories.
Another example of Jasper Fforde’s logical explanations of the real world are the Mnemonomorphs – memory manipulators. “The stories we could tell, the things no one ever remembers. It could make your head spin. But if you’ve had that strange feeling that you’re in a room and you don’t know why, or felt that you should be doing something but can’t remember what, you can be pretty sure you’ve just had something erased.” (p.331)
The idea of memory manimpulation provokes interesting thoughts about memory. Is it important that all our memories are completely accurate or is it more important to remember how something made us feel, especially if the memory was good? This might be something we should keep in mind when dealing with people with dementia. Feeling is stronger than memory, so we should do all we can to make good memories then keep them alive by talking about them, looking at photos of happy times. And perhaps it’s worth doing our best to erase unhappy memories. If necessary, even to make false happy memories to cover them up because one day you or I may be the ones who have lost our memories and I’d like to think that the feelings I would have then would be happy ones and that anything that was sad will have evaporated.
Only believe the good stuff
Another moral lesson from this book is ‘be careful of what you wish for’ or, to be more accurate, what you believe in. Like Tinkerbell, who fades when children no longer believe, in this book, the probability of something happening is down to how many people believe it will. So the statisticians calculating the probability of an asteroid hitting the world and the journalists reporting their findings have a heavy responsibility. If the percentage goes up, more people will pay more attention and worry more and then the percentage will go up again until it becomes an inevitability. On the other hand, people have remarkably short attention spans, so they’re easily distracted by the next 5-minute wonder.
All in all, one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read by Jasper Fforde. And the standard is high, so that means this book comes highly recommended.
For extra features, including an interview with Jasper Fforde about the book and a discussion of why authors need to delete part of what they wrote: special features and deleted scenes
For a summary of characters and organisations: www.goodreads.com
For an interesting review by Cassie-la: www.goodreads.com
For a wonderful interview with Jasper Fforde: gulfnews.com/jasper-fforde-genre-is-the-measles-of-the-writing-world