Saturday, July 07, 2007

Out of this world

It’s always entertaining to blur the lines between fact and fiction, to make fact unfamiliar with an injection of fiction, and distort fiction by adding a pinch of fact—or more fiction—and I’m not just talking about journalism.

One of the most imaginative, talented and entertaining proponents of this pursuit is Jasper Fforde, who has been called a writer of comic metafiction. Among other things, he writes about a literary detective named Thursday Next who chases bad elements through a fantastic parallel universe of time travel and general madness in which (real) texts such as Jane Eyre or Martin Chuzzlewit exist in a well-regulated environment, including the department of ‘Jurisfiction’, to protect beloved manuscripts and prevent any disruptions to the plot. His new novel, First Among Sequels is due out this month. I’m betting I’ll be less disappointed in it than I was in Shrek III and Pirates of the Caribbean III—though I still hold out some hope for Die Hard 4.

I’m always gobsmacked by the imaginative powers of writers like Neil Gaiman, who in Neverwhere creates a parallel universe below ours, in which London’s tube stations turn out to be more than meets the eye—there really is an Angel of Islington, and a Knight of Knightsbridge. Douglas Adams’ romp through intergalactic space in his four-book Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy mixes wild imagination with a goodly dollop of human irony for an interesting take on everything from cricket to rebirth.

My favourite parallel universes, however, must be the ones created by Philip Pullman, who recently won the ‘Carnegie of Carnegies’ honour in the Carnegie Medal’s 70-year history, for the His Dark Materials trilogy, about two flawed children named Lyra and Will upon whom the fate of mankind turn; if you haven’t read it, you have much to look forward to.

Just as unpredictable and exciting are imagined encounters between historical people. Spanish director Ines Paris is making a movie called William and Miguel, about the relationship between Shakespeare and Cervantes in the last few years of the 16th century, a period that is a bit of a blank in historical accounts of Shakespeare’s life. It’s not that he was missing, the film suggests: he was working for the English embassy in Madrid, and the literary giants shared both ideas and a lady love.

A few years ago there was a prize-winning novel called The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes by Jamyang Norbu, which mixed both approaches, and took advantage of an indeterminate time period in the life of the fictional Sherlock Holmes—the two years between his assumed death and resurrection. Norbu got to construct his own two bits in the hallowed detective’s life, throwing in an encounter with Huree Chunder Mookerjee, of Kim fame, to wonderful effect, so much so that his version of the famous hiatus was even endorsed by Arthur Conan Doyle’s publishers.

There’s no end to the number of imagined interactions I’d love to witness as a fly on the wall. Imagine listening in on Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Maria Vargas Llosa bumping into each other and reminiscing about why they once punched each other in a cinema hall, starting a thirty-year cold war. Or how about setting up a dinner for M.K. Gandhi and Paris Hilton; I’m not sure what they would talk about most of the time, but they might end with a general agreement about the benefits of going to prison. Imagine having Tom Cruise and Brooke Shields co-teach a Lamaze class. I’d love for someone to come up with a really good tale about what really happened to Subhas Chandra Bose.

It all makes it easier to keep plodding through one’s humdrum life.


icecreamassassin said...

i agree. now how do we convince those harry potter readers to start afresh?

Anonymous said...

Hmmm - ubiquitous humdrumness.

Fëanor said...

I say, another Jasper Fforde aficionado! Coolness indeed. Have you taken a look at the Nursery Crimes division stories of his?

Reimaginings of real historical or fictional characters meeting and engaging with each other seem to be a champion genre. And yet, it's not that new a genre. The Flashman series by George Macdonald Fraser are a good example. Apropos Will and Miguel, you could even consider Rosencranz and Guildenstern are Dead, which is clever and funny to boot.

But I would recommend the absolutely top-notch Jem (and Sam) by Ferdinand Mount, which cleverly depicts the life of a fictional ancestor of the author's as it weaves around that of Samuel Pepys', and indeed puts to superb use excerpts from the famed diary that reference a Mr. Mount.