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By Jasper Fforde
Penguin Books Copyright © 2005 Jasper Fforde
All right reserved.
Chapter One A Cretan Minotaur in Nebraska
Jurisfiction is the name given to the policing agency inside books. Working with the intelligence-gathering capabilities of Text Grand Central, the many Prose Resource Operatives at Jurisfiction work tirelessly to maintain the continuity of the narrative within the pages of all the books ever written. Performing this sometimes thankless task, Jurisfiction agents live mostly on their wits as they attempt to reconcile the author's original wishes and readers' expectations against a strict and largely pointless set of bureaucratic guidelines laid down by the Council of Genres. I headed Jurisfiction for over two years and was always astounded by the variety of the work: one day I might be attempting to coax the impossibly shy Darcy from the toilets, and the next I would be thwarting the Martians' latest attempt to invade Barnaby Rudge. It was challenging and full of bizarre twists. But when the peculiar and downright weird becomes commonplace, you begin to yearn for the banal.
Thursday Next, The Jurisfiction Chronicles
The Minotaur had been causing trouble far in excess of his literary importance-first by escaping from the fantasy-genre prison book Sword of the Zenobians, then by leading us on a merry chase across most of fiction and thwarting all attempts to recapture him. The mythological half-man, half-bull son of Queen Pasiphak of Crete had been sighted within Riders of the Purple Sage only a month after his escape. We were still keen on taking him alive at this point, so we had darted him with a small dose of slapstick. Theoretically, we needed only to track outbreaks of custard-pie-in-the-face routines and walking-into-lamppost gags within fiction to lead us to the cannibalistic man-beast. It was an experimental idea and, sadly, also a dismal failure. Aside from Lafeu's celebrated mention of custard in All's Well That Ends Well and the ludicrous four-wheeled-chaise sequence in Pickwick Papers, little was noticed. The slapstick either hadn't been strong enough or had been diluted by the BookWorld's natural disinclination to visual jokes.
In any event we were still searching for him two years later in the western genre, amongst the cattle drives that the Minotaur found most relaxing. And it was for this reason that Commander Bradshaw and I arrived at the top of page 73 of an obscure pulp from the thirties entitled Death at Double-X Ranch.
"What do you think, old girl?" asked Bradshaw, whose pith helmet and safari suit were ideally suited to the hot Nebraskan summer. He was shorter than I by almost a head but led age-wise by four decades; his sun-dried skin and snowy white mustache were a legacy of his many years in colonial African fiction: He had been the lead character in the twenty-three "Commander Bradshaw" novels, last published in 1932 and last read in 1963. Many characters in fiction define themselves by their popularity, but not Commander Bradshaw. Having spent an adventurous and entirely fictional life defending British East Africa against a host of unlikely foes and killing almost every animal it was possible to kill, he now enjoyed his retirement and was much in demand at Jurisfiction, where his fearlessness under fire and knowledge of the BookWorld made him one of the agency's greatest assets.
He was pointing at a weathered board that told us the small township not more than half a mile ahead hailed by the optimistic name of Providence and had a population of 2,387.
I shielded my eyes against the sun and looked around. A carpet of sage stretched all the way to the mountains, less than five miles distant. The vegetation had a repetitive pattern that belied its fictional roots. The chaotic nature of the real world that gave us soft, undulating hills and random patterns of forest and hedges was replaced within fiction by a landscape that relied on ordered repetitions of the author's initial description. In the make-believe world where I had made my home, a forest has only eight different trees, a beach five different pebbles, a sky twelve different clouds. A hedgerow repeats itself every eight feet, a mountain range every sixth peak. It hadn't bothered me that much to begin with, but after two years living inside fiction, I had begun to yearn for a world where every tree and rock and hill and cloud has its own unique shape and identity. And the sunsets. I missed them most of all. Even the best-described ones couldn't hold a candle to a real one. I yearned to witness once again the delicate hues of the sky as the sun dipped below the horizon. From red to orange, to pink, to blue, to navy, to black.
Bradshaw looked across at me and raised an eyebrow quizzically. As the Bellman-the head of Jurisfiction-I shouldn't really be out on assignment at all, but I was never much of a desk jockey, and capturing the Minotaur was important. He had killed one of our own, and that made it unfinished business.
During the past week, we had searched unsuccessfully through six Civil War epics, three frontier stories, twenty-eight high-quality westerns and ninety-seven dubiously penned novellas before finding ourselves within Death at Double-X Ranch, right on the outer rim of what might be described as acceptably written prose. We had drawn a blank in every single book. No Minotaur, nor even the merest whiff of one, and believe me, they can whiff.
"A possibility?" asked Bradshaw, pointing at the PROVIDENCE sign.
"We'll give it a try," I replied, slipping on a pair of dark glasses and consulting my list of potential Minotaur hiding places. "If we draw a blank, we'll stop for lunch before heading off into The Oklahoma Kid."
Bradshaw nodded and opened the breech of the hunting rifle he was carrying and slipped in a cartridge. It was a conventional weapon, but loaded with unconventional ammunition. Our position as the policing agency within fiction gave us licensed access to abstract technology. One blast from the eraserhead in Bradshaw's rifle and the Minotaur would be reduced to the building blocks of his fictional existence: text and a bluish mist-all that is left when the bonds that link text to meaning are severed. Charges of cruelty failed to have any meaning when at the last Beast Census there were over a million almost identical Minotaurs, all safely within the hundreds of books, graphic novels and urns that featured him. Ours was different-an escapee. A PageRunner.
As we walked closer, the sounds of a busy Nebraskan frontier town reached our ears. A new building was being erected, and the hammering of nails into lumber punctuated the clop of horses' hooves, the clink of harnesses and the rumble of cartwheels on compacted earth. The metallic ring of the blacksmith's hammer mixed with the distant tones of a choir from the clapboard church, and all about was the general conversational hubbub of busy townsfolk. We reached the corner by Eckley's Livery Stables and peered cautiously down the main street.
Providence as we now saw it was happily enjoying the uninterrupted backstory, patiently awaiting the protagonist's arrival in two pages' time. Blundering into the main narrative thread and finding ourselves included within the story was not something we cared to do, and since the Minotaur avoided the primary story line for fear of discovery, we were likely to stumble across him only in places like this. But if for any reason the story did come anywhere near, I would be warned-I had a Narrative Proximity Device in my pocket that would sound an alarm if the thread came too close. We could hide ourselves until it passed by.
A horse trotted past as we stepped up onto the creaky decking that ran along in front of the saloon. I stopped Bradshaw when we got to the swinging doors as the town drunk was thrown out into the road. The bartender walked out after him, wiping his hands on a linen cloth.
"And don't come back till you can pay your way!" he yelled, glancing at us both suspiciously.
I showed the barkeeper my Jurisfiction badge as Bradshaw kept a vigilant lookout. The whole western genre had far too many gunslingers for its own good; there had been some confusion over the numbers required on the order form when the genre was inaugurated. Working in westerns could sometimes entail up to twenty-nine gunfights an hour.
"Jurisfiction," I told him. "This is Bradshaw, I'm Next. We're looking for the Minotaur."
The barkeeper stared at me coldly. "Think you's in the wrong genre, pod'ner," he said.
All characters or Generics within a book are graded A to D, one through ten. A-grades are the Gatsbys and Jane Eyres, D-grades the grunts who make up street scenes and crowded rooms. The barkeeper had lines, so he was probably a C-2. Smart enough to get answers from but not smart enough to have much character latitude.
"He might be using the alias Norman Johnson," I went on, showing him a photo. "Tall, body of a man, head of a bull, likes to eat people?"
"Can't help you," he said, shaking his head slowly as he peered at the photo.
"How about any outbreaks of slapstick?" asked Bradshaw. "Boxing glove popping out of a box, sixteen-ton weights dropping on people, that sort of thing?"
"Ain't seen no weights droppin' on nobody," laughed the barkeeper, "but I hear tell the sheriff got hit in the face with a frying pan last Toosday."
Bradshaw and I exchanged glances.
"Where do we find the sheriff?" I asked.
We followed the barkeeper's directions and walked along the wooden decking past a barbershop and two grizzled prospectors who were talking animatedly in authentic frontier gibberish. I stopped Bradshaw when we got to an alleyway. There was a gunfight in progress. Or at least, there would have been a gunfight had not some dispute arisen over the times allocated for their respective showdowns. Both sets of gunmen-two dressed in light-colored clothes, two in dark-with low-slung gun belts decorated with rows of shiny cartridges-were arguing over their gunfight time slots as two identical ladyfolk looked on anxiously. The town's mayor intervened and told them that if there were any more arguments, they would both lose their slot times and would have to come back tomorrow, so they reluctantly agreed to toss a coin. The winners of the toss scampered into the main street as everyone dutifully ran for cover. They squared up to one another, hands hovering over their Colt .45s at twenty paces. There was a flurry of action, two loud detonations, and then the gunman in black hit the dirt while the victor looked on grimly, his opponent's shot having dramatically only removed his hat. His lady rushed up to hug him as he reholstered his revolver with a flourish.
"What a load of tripe," muttered Bradshaw. "The real West wasn't like this!"
Death at Double-X Ranch was set in 1875 and written in 1908. Close enough to be historically accurate, you would have thought, but no. Most westerns tended to show a glamorized version of the Old West that hadn't really existed. In the real West, a gunfight was a rarity, hitting someone with a short-barreled Colt .45 at anything other than point-blank range a virtual impossibility. The 1870s gunpowder generated a huge amount of smoke; two shots in a crowded bar and you would be coughing-and almost blind.
"That's not the point," I replied as the dead gunslinger was dragged away. "Legend is always far more readable, and don't forget we're in pulp at present-poor prose always outnumbers good prose, and it would be too much to hope that our bullish friend would be hiding out in Zane Grey or Owen Wister."
We continued on past the Majestic Hotel as a stagecoach rumbled by in a cloud of dust, the driver cracking his long whip above the horses' heads.
"Over there," said Bradshaw, pointing at a building opposite that differentiated itself from the rest of the clapboard town by being made of brick. It had SHERIFF painted above the door, and we walked quickly across the road, our nonwestern garb somewhat out of place amongst the long dresses, bonnets and breeches, jackets, dusters, vests, gun belts and bootlace ties. Only permanently billeted Jurisfiction officers troubled to dress up, and many of the agents actively policing the westerns are characters from the books they patrol-so they don't need to dress up anyway.
We knocked and entered. It was dark inside after the bright exterior, and we blinked for few moments as we accustomed ourselves to the gloom. On the wall to our right was a notice board liberally covered with wanted posters-pertaining not only to Nebraska but also to the BookWorld in general; a yellowed example offered three hundred dollars for information leading to the whereabouts of Big Martin. Below this was a chipped enameled coffeepot sitting atop a cast-iron stove, and next to the wall to the left were a gun cabinet and a tabby cat sprawled upon a large bureau. The far wall was the barred frontage to the cells, one of which held a drunk fast asleep and snoring loudly on a bunk bed. In the middle of the room was a large desk that was stacked high with paperwork-circulars from the Nebraska State Legislature, a few Council of Genres Narrative Law amendments, a Campanology Society newsletter and a Sears, Roebuck catalog open to the "fancy goods" section. Also on the desk were a pair of worn leather boots, and inside these were a pair of feet, attached in turn to the sheriff. His clothes were predominantly black and could have done with a good wash. A tin star was pinned to his vest, and all we could see of his face were the ends of a large gray mustache that poked out from beneath his downturned Stetson. He, too, was fast asleep, and balanced precariously on the rear two legs of a chair that creaked as he snored.
He awoke with a start, began to get up, overbalanced and tipped over backwards. He crashed heavily on the floor and knocked against the bureau, which just happened to have a jug of water resting upon it. The jug overbalanced as well, and its contents drenched the sheriff, who roared with shock. The noise up-set the cat, who awoke with a cry and leapt up the curtains, which collapsed with a crash on the cast-iron stove, spilling the coffee and setting fire to the tinder-dry linen drapes. I ran to put it out and knocked against the desk, dislodging the lawman's loaded revolver, which fell to the floor, discharging a single shot, which cut the cord of a stuffed moose's head, which fell upon Bradshaw. So there were the three of us: me trying to put out the fire, the sheriff covered in water and Bradshaw walking into furniture as he tried to get the moose's head off him. It was precisely what we were looking for: an outbreak of unconstrained and wholly inappropriate slapstick.
"Sheriff, I'm so sorry about this," I muttered apologetically, having doused the fire, demoosed Bradshaw and helped a very damp lawman to his feet.
Excerpted from Something Rotten by Jasper Fforde Copyright © 2005 by Jasper Fforde. Excerpted by permission.
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