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Something Rotten

By Jasper Fforde

Hodder & Stoughton,

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393 pages $24.95

I have spent my entire professional life (and almost half my biological one) among professional readers, people for whom reading is to the mind what breathing is to the body, for whom literature is religion, love and (sadly) stock market, and yet only the most inhumanly asocial of these bibliophiles could possibly enjoy the "literary detective work" of Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series, and its latest instalment, Something Rotten.

Although cunningly plotted, Something Rotten further challenges its imprudent "Book World" plot with clumsy and grating exposition.

Speaking of historical fiction (such as his delightful English Passengers), 2000 Booker nominee Matthew Kneale once warned of the perils of bald exposition, knowing that description must render the picture of (in his case) a smuggler's tall ship or a New World penal settlement without crowding it. Clanging, gratuitous exposition alone condemns Something Rotten.

As in the previous Thursday Next novels, such as The Eyre Affair and The Well of Lost Plots, "Literary Detective" Thursday Next is able and required to enter into The Book World (a web of all published stories) to keep characters from dodging their assigned roles or (gasp!) skipping between books, while also punching a clock in a "real" Wales where she's a young, widowed mother and a member of a family with a time-travelling father.

The book's one redemption is the orchestration of this non-bookish plot, in which an evil multinational corporation funds an evil politician (excuse the repetitions) in his bid to become dictator. In addition to saving the world, Thursday must do some time-travelling and devil-dealing to bring back her dead husband and manage an international, full-contact croquet tournament (more fallout from publishing's Harry Potter H-Bomb), while managing her mother's houseguests, Bismarck, Lady Hamilton, Hamlet and the (talking) gorilla who babysits her toddler, Friday Next.

Although some exposition is necessary to help us enter and navigate these alternative worlds, that exposition should be part and parcel of an arresting voice, not the shrill edge to necessary information. Here, long-time co-workers suddenly explain their jobs to each other ("Legend is always far more readable, and don't forget we're in pulp at present -- poor prose is far more common than good prose") and announcers of "premier" television shows remind their audiences how they work ("Tonight, as every night . . .").

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Dialogue is one of the most glaring lights that can be shed on this kind of excessive exposition (as in, "Cindy, you've been my girlfriend for 18 months now . . ."), and its crimes are not just unnaturalness but also condescension. Fforde's dialogue insultingly refuses to trust the reader, as when one character tells another (and, of course, us), "The old Goliath Internal Security Service is now known as Goliath Is Seriously Sorry -- you see, we even kept the old initials." Thanks, without the spelling and the capitalization and the pattern, I'd never have caught that.

Matthew Kneale or Peter Carey or Douglas Glover would know that glaring and unnatural exposition should not be forgiven as simply a necessary admission tax that goes with the fantastical or historical genre. In Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie's voice never suffers in its transition to the exposition necessary to sketch and evolve the story's network of telepathic orphans. If too much licence is taken here from the fantasy genre, too little is taken from the literary novel.Every Michael Ondaatje novel is part western, part journey, part romance. Guy Vanderhaeghe and Cormac McCarthy write mature, intelligent dusters. Why doesn't Jasper Fforde?

If you've been hunting for an epigraph-light version of A. S. Byatt's Possession fused with your favourite Dr. Who episode, Something Rotten is for you. If a resurrected monk swapping titty jokes in Old English printed in the Old English font with a narrator who tells you that the font is Old English strikes you as funny, read Something Rotten. If, however, you agree that sex and humour are inevitable and crucial aspects of human existence, and that chuckling is invaluable if not inseparable from the privacies of reading, but you need some of what Faulkner's Nobel-acceptance speech calls "the human heart in conflict with itself," reach instead for any of Mordecai Richler's long novels or Russell Smith's recent Muriella Pent. Darryl Whetter is the author of A Sharp Tooth in the Fur and a professor of creative writing and English at the University of Windsor.

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