Although an overabundance of postmodern conventions can alienate a reader from the story, adding a touch of metafiction can go a long way towards defining the relationship between several distinct works tied together across an extended universe. As mentioned in a previous entry in this series, using a touch of metafiction to obviate reader confusion has a history that extends all the way back to Don Quixote, a work often credited with being the first Western novel. While Cervantes judiciously applied pressure on the fourth wall, this article examines an extended universe that delights in constructing an entire room of fourth walls before gleefully knocking down the building: Jasper Fforde’s Nextian universe.
Introduced in 2001 in The Eyre Affair, Fforde’s Nextian universe is unapologetically convoluted. The protagonist, Thursday Next, lives in a parallel universe version of 1985 England. During the events of the first novel, she discovers that the world of fiction is an accessible realm, and ultimately must infiltrate Jane Eyre in order to protect the novel from destruction at the hands of a criminal from Next’s world.
Interestingly enough, this technique effectively incorporates Brontë’s seminal novel to be into Fforde’s Nextian universe. By borrowing character’s from the novel, and relying substantially upon the substance of Jane Eyre in order to drive the plot of The Eyre Affair, Fforde’s debut novel co-opts Brontë’s classic without overshadowing it. By allowing a deep understanding of Jane Eyre to inform its inclusion in The Eyre Affair, Fforde shows respect for the source material, allowing a companion piece that works alongside the novel to which it pays homage. It’s a technique Fforde has continued to apply throughout the Thursday Next series, which includes different elements of the English literary canon as narrative anchors in all seven of the novels that have been published so far.
However, with an extended universe that seeks to explain and co-opt the entirety of fiction, a few additional structural considerations are necessary. Fforde accomplishes the majority of these through the second novel in the series, Lost in a Good Book. In the Eyre Affair’s sequel, Thursday discovers that within the realm of fiction, there is a regulatory agency called Jurisfiction.
Jurisfiction is responsible for policing the world of fiction, and as Thursday begins working for the organization, she learns that this means every book contained with The Great Library – a library located within fiction that houses a copy of every novel ever written (including unfinished and/or unpublished volumes, which are stored in the lower levels, an area called The Well of Lost Plots). With the introduction of the Great Library, Fforde has not only managed to define the parameters of his own fictional world, he has explained the relationship it has to all other fictional worlds. In essence, every fiction has become a part of the Nextian extended universe.
The idea would be interesting enough in and of itself, but Fforde elevates the Nextian universe by taking it one step further. In The Well of Lost Plots, the third entry in the Next series, Thursday flees her world to take refuge in Caversham Heights, an unpublished novel hidden within the Well of Lost Plots. A major subplot sees Thursday meeting the protagonists of Caversham Heights, and ultimately altering the original narrative. Although it is not mentioned by name, the novel that replaces Heights is The Big Over Easy, the first book in Fforde’s Nursery Rhyme series.
In effect, Fforde’s first series explains the creation of his second series, and then defines the relationship between them: The Big Over Easy is a fictional novel to Thursday (although she created it from the inside out – try not to get a nosebleed). As a result, Fforde has created an extended universe that not only includes several series of his own, it also has a defined relationship to the entirety of fiction. The net result is an overarching narrative with more verisimilitude that one might expect: instead of making The Big Over Easy seem less essential because it is a fiction to the protagonist, the explanation of the novel’s formation makes some of its more fantastical genre elements seem more plausible.
Explaining the mechanics of an extended universe can become a clunky and convoluted affair, pushing the reader further than they’re willing to tread in order to understand how one volume relates to another. Fforde ingeniously bypasses this uninteresting exposition by allowing the structure of his extended universe to unfold through story over the first few volumes of his series, allowing for the natural creation of a compelling extended universe without having sacrificing the narrative integrity of each individual novel.