Monday, June 15, 2009

Cold Comfort Farm/Thursday Next: First Among Sequels

One of the problems with having a love of reading but no formal education in literature is not knowing how to classify novels within genres.  To the extent that we covered genre in my high school literature courses or my college freshman English courses (which I actually mostly took in high school), it was only in a cursory way.  So I tend to classify literature in a cursory way.

What I've found is that "real" English majors are always correcting me when I try to classify novels.  Cursory isn't good enough for them.  I understand that; it's how I feel about generalized discussions of the law.  But since, most of the time, the genre really isn't necessary for what I want to talk about when I talk about novels (and since the "correction" often takes the form of an extended lecture that forms a huge digression from the topic at hand) I tend to avoid mentioning genre.

But that's hard to do when talking about novels that fall into genres like, for instance, satire. 

I'm just going to admit right off the bat that I know next to nothing about satire as a genre.  I recognize that there are all kinds of genre classifications that may fall within satire or may well be slightly (or majorly) different from satire.   I've never figured out how those classifications work and, inevitably, whatever I decide to call something, I'm told it is WRONG! 

Maybe that's why I think I don't like satire.  I do think that I don't like satire.  I don't think I hate it.  But I do think I don't like it.

So with all those caveats ...

As I said the other day, I was not fond of Tom Wolfe's novel The Bonfire of the Vanities.  I remember that, mostly, I was bored by it but I kept reading because "everyone" said it was so great.   It took me a while to figure out that it was supposed to be satire and that was partly because it didn't seem all that over-the-top to me, a girl from the midwest.  As far as I was concerned, people from New York really were like that and the things that happened to them really happen to people in New York.  Where was the satire?  Eventually I got it.  But I didn't like it.

My formal introduction to satire (wasn't everyone's?) was Jonathon Swift's A Modest Proposal.  But I had read Huckleberry Finn before that.  I liked Huck Finn. No one told me it was satire but I understood that Twain was playing with me.  On the other hand, I've never wanted to re-read Huck Finn.  I've never wanted to re-read A Modest Proposal.  I've never wanted to re-read anything satirical that I can think of.   The way I look at it, once you "get it" there isn't any point in reading it again.  And that's how I've always looked at satire - as something that is meant to convey a message (usually with blunt force) and once I get the message I can discard the medium.

I sometimes think that the reason I avoid satire is because I'd rather just "get it" by reading a book of non-fiction and really learning about the subject.  The kinds of satire that I like are the short humorous kind that make me laugh.  A Modest Proposal, for all it's cleverness, isn't going to make anyone guffaw.  The Onion, on the other hand, makes me laugh quite often.  But I wouldn't want to read a novel-length version of an Onion story. And is The Onion satire?  I think it is.  But it is also a parody. 

I like parody. And here we get into deep waters because I have no idea if parody is a sub-genre of satire or is it it's own genre or is a technique that is sometimes used in satire?  I'm sure someone will enlighten me.  

I think I like parody because the key to understanding and "getting" parody isn't knowing any fact about society in general (political or religious etc.) but knowing something about the works that are being parodied and what their strengths and weaknesses are.  The Onion is a parody of a newspaper.  It may satirize the news, but it only works because people are familiar with newspapers. The Daily Show  is wonderful because it is a parody of a news broadcast.  It uses that parody to satirize the political news of the day but it only works because people understand news broadcasts and their strengths and weaknesses.

Most parodies that I like have nothing to do with politics but are strictly parodying a particular type of work of literature or film or television.  For instance, I thought the film Galaxy Quest, a parody of the Star Trek franchise, was fabulously funny.   There are certain elements of parody in Buffy the Vampire Slayer that make the entire concept work.  As far as I'm concerned, a good parody is written by someone who loves the underlying work being parodied and is enjoyed most by people who love that underlying work too.  I think that's why I liked the film Australia but other people didn't.

That leads me to Cold Comfort Farm, which is a parody. (Is it also satire?  Google it and you will see it associated with satire.)  I read Cold Comfort Farm because a number of people recommended it.  It took me a while to realize it was a parody and not just some other form of 1930's comic novel (although I was fully on board with the fact of parody by the time that the protagonist got to the farm). 

Cold Comfort Farm is the story of Flora Poste ("Robert Poste's daughter") who is left an orphan after finishing an expensive education that prepared her for nothing.  She has not enough money to support herself so she decides to do what all orphans do in novels, go live with relatives.  She chooses some mysterious relatives who live at a place called Cold Comfort Farm and who owe her father some mysterious debt.  When she arrives she finds that she has stepped into a situation much like a 19th century novel not only in the living conditions but in the mindset of the inhabitants (or, apparently, much like early 20th century popular British fiction).  This pleases her because she can work to change the lives of the people for the better.  And she does.

I never read the popular British novels of the day that Gibbons was parodying, but I have read the Brontes and DH Lawrence and that was enough to "get it".   One of the interesting things to me was that Gibbons wrote the novel in the 1930's (obviously before World War II) and yet the story is set at a later date (the early 1950's?) while the life of the Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm is right out of Lawrence or Bronte.  This gives the novel an unpredictable feel that is, I think, essential to keeping the reader turning the pages.  I kept being pulled into the 19th century aspects of Cold Comfort Farm only to be jerked away by the appearance of telephones and aeroplanes and chevy vans and "talkies". 

I think this is important because one of the reasons I don't go out of my way to read parodies is because I fear being bored.  If you are familiar with the underlying work that is being parodied then you essentially know what is going to happen.  Humor can only go so far in keeping my interest.  What I need is a "new" problem for the author to solve.  And in Cold Comfort Farm the problem that Gibbons set for herself was how to integrate this "modern" woman into a 19th century setting without destroying the subject that was being parodied and while still keeping the woman "modern". 

I think she succeeded in part by making Flora Poste (the heroine) not really very likeable.  I didn't become invested in Flora for a very long time.  In fact, at the beginning, I wondered how I was going to tolerate her long enough to follow her through a novel.  But Gibbons uses some of the characteristics of Flora that could be annoying (her self-assuredness, her insistence on having things her way, her refusal to listen to naysaying) as a counterpoint to the people at Cold Comfort Farm who are stuck in their 19th century life simply because they can't bring themselves to act to change their lives.

In 19th century and early 20th century novels the heroine who brings change to the people "set in their ways" doesn't do it through force of character.  Jane Eyre is constantly described as quiet and unassertive.  Mary in The Secret Garden gets nowhere when she is assertive in her temper tantrums, it is only when she becomes a "good child" that she is able to work change.

Flora has no interest in being like those kinds of heroines.  She is a "modern" woman. And that is what makes this an interesting parody.  She is, in some ways, a parody within a parody.

I admit that it took me about half of the novel to really begin enjoying it.  It was only when I saw that Flora really was going to follow through on her intention to force changes that I became interested in what was going to happen and how she was going to make it happen.  I feel that it is a novel that I will read again some day because I know that I missed a lot on first reading.  But when I put it down I didn't think much about it and I did not intend to even write about it.  (Partly because of the whole parody/satire connection /dichotomy.)

Then I picked up Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next: First Among Sequels.  As Fforde says, fiction is "strange, unpredictable and fun!" 

In this novel, there is an agency known as Jurisfiction that patrols BookWorld and keeps plots in order and stops rogue fictional characters from leaping from novel to novel or worse, leaping out into the real world (or Outland, as it is referred to).  As an Outlander, Thursday Next works with fictional characters (mostly from books that are seldom read anymore, because those characters have more free time to do other things).  They meet in locations that are "back story", for instance the ballroom of the Dashwood estate in Sense and Sensibility.   It is a difficult concept to explain but by this, his fourth book in the series, it is understood by his readers.

Think of books as you think of them when you read them - as a small universe that you enter and that really exists.  Or at least exists in the sense that a television set with actors playing the characters exists.  In Fforde's fiction a few chosen people really can enter into books and walk among the characters, as long as they stay in the back story so that the reader doesn't "see" them.

But a book in Bookworld doesn't have all the detail that readers imagine when they read a book.  As Thursday ponders:

Reading, I had learned, was as creative a process as writing, sometimes more so.  When we read of the dying rays of the setting sun or the boom and swish of the incoming tide, we should reserve as much praise for ourselves as for the author. After all, the reader is doing all the work -- the author might have died a long time ago.

In Bookworld, each book floats in the great Nothing in which text cannot exist.  But the books also exist in clumps (maybe like galaxies) that are composed of genres. (Groan.  Genre again) Characters have learned how to communicate and jump from novel to novel (except no one can get into Sherlock Holmes yet) and they have, collectively, formed their own type of government complete with a legislature and an enforcement branch.  Thursday and the fictional characters on her team do the monitoring as well as keeping the peace between genres.

For instance, in this novel one of the subplots involves a border dispute between the Racy Novel genre and its neighbors, Feminist and Ecclesiastical.  The senator for Racy Novel reveals they have developed a "dirty bomb", a "tightly packed mass of inappropriate plot devices, explicit suggestions and sexual scenes of an expressly gratuitous nature" and threatens to detonate it.  This is of great concern to the Feminist and Ecclesiastical genres. As Thursday  explains:

A well placed dirty bomb could scatter poorly described fornication all across drab theological debate or drop a wholly unwarranted scene of a sexually exploitive nature right into the middle of Mrs. Dalloway.

I can't really classify Fforde's novels.  They are fantasy.  They are comic.  They are mysteries.  Are they parodies?  Maybe Fforde tries to answer that in this novel.   

At one point Thursday is cast out of her own Thursday Next novel into the great Nothing.  Because she is not text she can survive where a fictional character cannot (that part of the novel is a graphic novel - no text, get it?) and she eventually manages to make her way to the next book ... Cold Comfort Farm.   (Where she incidentally discovers there really is something nasty in the woodshed.)

So Cold Comfort Farm and Thursday Next. Neighbors.  Linked by genre. At least in the mind of Jasper Fforde.   Is it because they are both in the parody genre?  Or is it because they parody multiple genres?  As I said, I avoid those discussions. :)

By the way Thursday Next was one of the books I was going to read this year in What's in a Name Challenge.  Two down.