Book Review 50: The Fourth Bear

It had been twenty-five years ago, to be exact. Jack had been a mere subordinate in the Nursery Crime Division which he now ran. Technically speaking, cautionary crime was 'juvenilia' rather than 'nursery' but jurisdiction boundaries had blurred since the NCD's inception in 1958 and their remit now included anything unexplainable. Sometimes Jack thought the NCD was just a mop that sponged up weird.

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I picked up my copy of "The Fourth Bear" at Powell's last year. I found a signed, first edition on the shelf, put it in my basket and spent the next 20 minutes trying to decide if I wanted to spent so much money on a book that's not a huge collector's item, by an author I have never met. In the end, I bought it, though I'm still not sure made the right call. But it wasn't that outragously priced and I did like the first book so I try not to think about it too often.

Jasper Fforde's The Fourth Bear is a fun return the world of the Nursery Crimes Division characters we first met in The Big Over Easy (which I reviewed here). It's clever, intelligent and funny. At the same time it's a darker more complex book. Since this is the second book it the series, I suggest reading The Big Over Easy first, but it's not strictly necesary to understand what's happening in The Fourth Bear. The Fourth Bear, however, will spoil the first book's ending if you skip it.

The plot involves the brutal prison escape of the psychopathic killer know as The Ginerbreadman, the mysterious disappearance of reporter Henrietta "Goldy" Hatchett, odd explosions (with terrible, awesome puns), a huge wealthy corporation, a WW I theme park, a mysterious car, and the politics of the bear community.

I enjoyed the book and can recomend it. At the same time I didn't enjoy quite as much as I enjoyed the previous one. The novelty of the novel has worn off a bit. The integration of the nursery rhyme world with our world isn't quite as fresh.

At the same time, starting with a basic familiarity with Fforde's wacky world, or more accuratly a mindset that is already recepetive to the basic rules and metaphysics, means this book can be more complex. Fforde is able to expand on the nature of this real/unreal universe.

That means he can make the plot more complex, and bring other issues to the forefront. In addition to the mystery, Fforde is able to grow the characters, and let them go through their own personal crises.

So while not as hysterically funny as the first book, it's still a great, if more subtle, read.

Beyond the plot, Fforde explores the nature of the nursery rhyme characters we encounter. Exactly how are they different from normal people?

'We call them PDRs,' explained Mary. 'Persons of Dubious Reality. Refugees from the collective consciousness. Uninvited visitors who have fallen through the grating that divides the real from the written. They arrive with their actions hardwired due to their repetitious existence, and the older and more basic they are, the more rigidly they stick to them. Characters from Cautionary Tales are particularly mindless. They do what they do because it's what they've always done - and it's up to us to stop them.'

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By telling stories, and repeating them, we bring these characters into exisitence. Stories aren't just things we know, stories are things we create by knowing. Enough people knowing, telling, and believing a story brings that story to life.

Many PDRs even forget their nature. Jack Spratt came to see himself as real.

Jack's heart nearly bounced out of his chest. He'd hidden it for so long that he'd almost forgotten that he was himself a PDR - a Person of Dubious Reality

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When I first encountered this idea from Fforde, it reminded me of time spent studying the White Wolf RPG system in the early 90s. Under their Mage game, the world of technology was opposed to the world of magic. And as people chose to believe more in reason and less in magic, that very thought process led to the decline of magic as a force. As fewer people believed in magic it gradually, and actually, began to disappear from our universe.

It's an idea addressed just slightly less literally by Matt Ruff in his book, "Bad Monkees" in which the overall theme is "Omnes Mundus Facimus," or, "We all make the world." The power of belief, story-telling and faith, can actually alter our world.

It also reminded me of Voltaire's famous statement, "If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him."

But Fforde isn't just sneaking in a philosophical discussion in the book. He also explores current issues in a much more blatant fashion.

In the Fourth Bear, anthropomorphized bears have certain rights, and a community, but they are also segregated from the human population. They interact, but relations are strained. Fforde handles the bear/human relationships with all the subtlety of Star Trek's, "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield"

Porridge consumption is highly regulated in this book, much like drugs are in our own society. Main character Jack Spratt disagrees.

'Here's to the day when they repeal porribition,' said Jack as they walked out of the car park and into the sunshine. 'The associated criminal element of supply far outweighs the harm that it does to the bear population.'

'What's the alternative?' said Mary. 'Unregulated porridge use? We'd have trippy spaced-out bears wandering around the town, hallucinating who knows what in the Oracle centre.'

'If I made the laws I'd let them,' said Jack. 'Porridge is a great deal less harmful than alcohol - and we seem to embrace and promote the sale of that almost everywhere!

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The passage works, and doesn't come across as heavy-handed because of how committed Fforde is to the joke. Had he mentioned it in passing, it may be eye-roll inducing, but he pushes it far enough that I found myself suppressing a great deal of laughter on the airplane.

Fforde uses a variety of pun techniques in the book, including this dialogue that sounds like it's straight out of "Airplane!"

'When did he escape?'

'Ninety-seven minutes ago,' replied Copperfield. 'Killed two male nurses and his doctor with his bare hands. The other three orderlies who accompanied him are critical in hospital.'


'Yes; don't like the food, beds uncomfortable, waiting lists too long - usual crap. Other than that, they're fine.'

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Fforde spends plenty of time on Jack's personal life. He has his own existential crisis. He has a Greek god living in his house. Yet he still has a healthy, humorous relationship with his second wife (his first died from eating too much fat).

'I'd like you to accompany me,' she replied with a smile, 'but I can go on my own and flirt outrageously and in a totally undignified manner with young single men of a morally casual demeanour.'

'You know, I don't feel quite so pooped any more.'

'Good. We should be out of the door by seven-thirty.'

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Jack spends time dealing with his new neighbors, too. PDRs Punch and Judy are a married couple engaged in regular, significant domestic violence. Their fights and beating on one another annoys the neighbors wherever they live. But when confronting neighbors they are a solid team. The extensive violence between the husband and wife is not something typically played for comic effect in novels. But because they aren't quite "real" and instead are PDRs doing exactly what their nature dictates, Fforde gets away with it.

One town that figures prominently in the story is the town of Obscurity. Fforde never misses and opportunity to play up the puns.

'Large graveyard,' observed Jack as he peered over the wall.

'You'd be surprised by the number of people who die in Obscurity,' observed the vicar. 'The gravediggers are rarely out of work.'

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I also appreciated some other subtle allusions. I'm guessing Fforde is a fan of Neal Stephenson for throwing in this minor character at a party:

'Ladies and gentlemen. Admiral Robert Shaftoe. Never lost a ship, a man, or in retreat, a second.'

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So while "The Fourth Bear" isn't quite as much fun as "The Big Over Easy" it makes up for that in the more complex story, character development, and social commentary. It's a more serious book without being a serious, or preachy, book. If you've already read "The Big Over Easy," you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy of "The Fourth Bear."

If you're a fan of puns, literary allusions, nursery rhymes, and the mixing of worlds, pick up a copy of "The Big Over Easy," and then pick up a copy of "The Fourth Bear."

Looks like it's time for me start Ffordes other series where he gives similar treatment to traditional literature.

1 comment:

Alan said...

Fforde is one of those authors whose books I've handled a zillion times but never actually read. I'm not sure if the nursery rhyme puns would really do it for me. Great review.