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The Eyre Affair: A Novel. By Jasper Fforde. NY: Viking Press, 2001. 374 pages.   Polar. By T. R. Pearson. NY: Viking Press, 2001. 244 pages.

Reviewed by Margaret Black

Those who write that poor damned thing called literary fiction often try to escape their preordained oblivion by cross-dressing as mystery story writers. It is true that many deservedly famous authors in the past, like Dostoevsky, did, in fact, write mysteries. But that was incidental to their material, not part of their marketing plan. Nowadays the genre of mystery has far-flung, misty boundaries, but when a contemporary new literary author like Jasper Fforde tries to capture our attention with a "mystery," or eighth-time literary novelist T.R. Pearson offers up a "mystery," I figure it's simply a disguise to get their books off the shelf and into our hands.

Fforde's "Eyre Affair" is an exhaustingly energetic romp that takes place in an alternative England. It's 1985. The Crimean War has been slogging along for over 130 years, dirigibles carry folk around rather than airplanes, some people engage in time travel, and everyone is deliriously obsessed with literature. Young thugs take a break from stealing hubcaps to trade bubblegum cards of Fielding's Squire Allworthy and Tom Jones. An insanely long-running production of Shakespeare's "Richard III" draws crowds who behave like "Rocky Horror Picture Show" addicts. Shabby Baconians canvass neighborhoods in pairs like Jehovah's Witnesses, trying to persuade bored housewives that Shakespeare did not write his plays.

And the mystery here? Someone has stolen the original manuscript of "Martin Chuzzlewit" without leaving any trace of breaking, entering, leaving, or disrupting the secure case the manuscript rested in. It falls to Thursday Next, our feisty heroine from Special Operations-27, or LiteraTec, the police agency responsible for protecting literature, to find the thief and the goods. She quickly gets on the trail of Acheron Hades, third most wanted criminal in the world and author of "Degeneracy for Pleasure and Profit." Hades' scheme, however, proves to be far grander than mere extortion. Moreover, the theft has also attracted the lethal interest of the Goliath Corporation, the mega-firm that runs everything, openly or secretly, including the government and the supplying of weapons.

Not only do characters slip around in time, but some move in and out of books as well. When she was a child, Thursday accidentally found herself inside "Jane Eyre" just in time to cause Rochester's fall from his horse and subsequent meeting with Jane Eyre. Later Thursday will play a crucial part in establishing the denouement of that novel. It's amusing to compare how Fforde moves fictional and real characters between their respective worlds with Roderick Townley's method in his marvelous new juvenile fiction story called "A Great Good Thing", a book that I strongly recommend for adults as well.

"The Eyre Affair" reads like a cross between Allan Kurzweil's "The Grand Complication" and Jeff Noon's "Automated Alice." It's as though Lewis Carroll decided to grow up a little. The characters all have delicious names-the twins Jeff and Geoff come to mind, or Inspector Paige Turner, or Jack Schitt, Goliath's special operative. I'm particularly partial, as someone who's been pregnant, to Commander Braxton Hicks. But Fforde's characters aren't just names, they're marvelous individuals, including Thursday's uncle, Mycroft, who's invented a way to send pizza by fax and who's put a spell-checker into #2 pencils.

Alas, the book has some gaping holes in the plot and myriad unrealized possibilities concerning time travel. And although I could hardly believe it, the author actually has Thursday look in a mirror in order to give us a description of her. Fforde borrows rather freely from others, as when he has Acheron scratching phonograph records (remember them?) in his spare time like the Devil in the 1967 film version of "Bedazzled." But the novel also has such humor, invention, and energy that one forgives the author a great deal.


T.R. Pearson is a totally different sort of writer, and yet he's attractive for precisely the same reasons. According to the publisher, he's on the verge of wresting Faulkner's laurels off his brow. They probably chose Faulkner because Pearson's world is a rural South inhabited by characters who make the Snopeses look clean, upstanding, and honorable, and his style is a unstoppable juggernaut of gossip told in a convincing regional accent.

After winning a small, but devoted following, particularly for a trilogy centered on a small town in North Carolina, Pearson seems to have branched into mystery as a way to increase his audience. Mystery story readers will try practically anything. "Polar," Pearson's second novel involving an extremely laconic police deputy named Ray Tatum, does have a "mystery" at its center-the disappearance of a little girl-which is actually solved at the conclusion, if any reader cares.

No one would take up this book for thrills or suspense. On the contrary, one page in, and you're overwhelmed by the endlessly branching account of every blessed creature that crosses the narrator's attention. This is Southern storytelling gone haywire. Yes, there's a tad of puzzle-solving, since most readers will want to know why Clayton, an unusually (even for this community) dirty, lazy, and loquacious good ol' boy, suddenly clams up, calls himself Titus, and begins to draw a curious design in charcoal on the wall by his chimney. He also suddenly exhibits a gift for completely trivial prophecy and starts suffering signs of frostbite. And yes, those readers who can remember the little girl by the end of the book do want to know what happened to her.

Redneck humor has rarely had a workout like this outside the Internet or an old episode of "The Dukes of Hazzard." In the often-hilarious volcanic spewing of the narrative, the author portrays a world where it's hard to find anyone who earns an honest living, where duplicity and violence vie with sex and stupidity as dominant traits of the population. The endless farting, explosive shitting, and explicitly described vomiting would be right at home in a Farrelly brothers movie. But the sheer energy of the author's relentless voice, his perfect ear for dialect, and his immensely fertile invention will stun most readers into stumbling along after him.

Mysteries in the genre sense these two books are not, and perhaps it's a shame that they even had to pretend. Both "The Eyre Affair" and "Polar" may be flawed, but they are works by talented writers which would deserve a wide readership even without police officers at their centers.



 
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