Jasper Fforde makes two references to the Christian scholar and writer, C.S.Lewis, in his latest book, The Constant Rabbit. He offers some trivia: there are no talking rabbits in Lewis’s Narnia series. There is also a piece of wisdom paraphrased by Doc for Peter Knox from Lewis’s Screwtape Letters:
You think you might be doing no harm, but when you’ve lusted after bacon and eggs, my friend, you’ve already committed breakfast in your soul. It’s an odd aphorism about the nature of lust and infidelity. Even odder is that Doc is, himself, a talking rabbit, Peter Knox is a human, and Doc is referring to the latent relationship between Knox and his wife, Constance (also, a rabbit). If Doc suspects their relationship to have become more serious, he will call Knox out for a duel with pistols, because that’s what rabbits do. The prevalence of bucks with bullet holes in their ears is a testament to this.
Fforde again offers an alternate reality of our own world, this time where human-sized talking rabbits exist, as do foxes and an assortment of other animals, due to an Anthropomorphising Event fifty-five years earlier. There are approximately 1.2 million anthropomorphised rabbits living in Britain, and while they may have been initially greeted with kindness, they are increasingly despised as a foreign element within the community, with fears that rabbits may outbreed humans and change the culture irrevocably. No one knows how they were changed happened (experiments on animals are alluded to) and Fforde is not silly enough to bore us with the pointless detail. Rather, characters in the novel are more concerned with the ‘why’ of the matter, and each inevitably draws the same conclusion: the event was satirical.
Indeed, this is really where Fforde is going with this. The Constant Rabbit is a light-hearted dig at some of the forces that have been shaping our world over the last decade. He’s willing to take a chip at everything from the Global Financial Crisis and overpopulation, to xenophobia and hate crimes. In Fforde’s new universe bankers, dodgy corporate accountants and their ilk form one of the largest groups in the prison population after the crash:
If life were only like this Fforde quips in a footnote. It is easier in this world to focus on the issue of rabbit populations than the problems posed by human overpopulation. And most importantly, plans to corral rabbits into a MegaWarren, along with the unfettered violence allowed foxes against rabbits (many of whom are tasked with official positions in Rabbit Compliance Taskforce (RabCoT)), speaks to the reality of shifts to the extreme right in our own world. In Fforde’s reality, rabbits face a ghettoization reminiscent of the Jews in Nazi Germany.
The Constant Rabbit is therefore a darker novel than some of Fforde’s other offerings, despite its fluffy trappings. The Thursday Next novels, along with the Nursery Crime novels and other stand-alone novels like Early Riser are all based on the detective genre, with the attendant grittiness one might expect from that. But the magical quality of those novels is deeper. The Thursday Next novels posit a universe in which the world of books is real and can be entered, while Early Riser does a similar thing with the reality of dreams. There is little of that here beyond the fact of talking animals who are, by the admission of satirical intent, mostly ciphers for our human ills. There is little in the way of the detective genre here, either. Knox remains a hapless victim of circumstance for much of the novel. His rare skill – his ability to tell rabbits apart – puts him into the thick of the action as a ‘spotter’ for RabCoT – but he is mostly propelled through the plot, either by the evil machinations of his boss, Mr Ffoxe, by Pippa, his daughter, and her romantic connections to the rabbit world, or because of the interest shown him by his new neighbour and former university friend, Constance Rabbit. Knox becomes the meat in the sandwich, between the desire of Leporiphobics’ in his village to use him to drive his new neighbours out, and his desire to befriend the rabbit family.
Nevertheless, much of the charm of Ffrode’s previous novels is realised here. While Britain (pre-COVID19 of course given the book was in production prior to the outbreak) may suffer cuts to public spending, Fforde at least manages to make the British response to the problem admirable. In a nod to his Thursday Next novels, The Constant Rabbit opens with Speed Librarying. Due to public expenditure cuts, libraries can only be open for six minutes once a fortnight with only one official librarian in attendance. The library functionaries are volunteers, like Knox, each of whom adopt the sobriquet of an English Prime Minister, reminding us of the dauntless resolve with which Britain has faced other crises in the past, I guess.
There is other fun authorial play, too. Fforde doesn’t miss the opportunity to tease at the possibilities of the many spellings of ‘fox’ adopted by foxes for their surnames:
Foxe, Ffoxe, Phocks, Forcks, Fforkse, Fourks, Fourxe, Foix, Fux, Foxx and Phourxes Notwithstanding the risqué pronunciation some of these spellings might invite, Fforde assures us,
All, without exception, were pronounced ‘Fox’. He even goes further, lightly mocking his own name with the introduction of a new Senior Group Leader into the plot called ‘Jocaminca fforkes’:
with two small ‘f’s – as if having two ‘f’s wasn’t pretentious enough. This, from a well-beloved author who is brazen enough to call his protagonist ‘Peter Knox’, and then play on the old Dr Seuss classic:
‘Yes, sir, Mr Ffoxe, sir,’ I said, ‘that’s my name – it’s Mr Knox, sir.’
Fans of Jasper Fforde should enjoy this book, despite its darker qualities and less complex storyline. Fforde’s invention is always impressive, as is his wit and erudition. Perhaps one aspect of the book that may disturb some readers, especially those who are able to form clear mental images from their reading, is the sexualised nature of the anthropomorphic rabbits. Many viewers of Cats, the movie version, found the overt sexuality of the cats and the CG rendition of the cat outfits troubling. Constance Rabbit in a bikini is easy to visualise and her taking a shower – naked of course – in Knox’s house leaves little to imagine about the lurid possibilities of the scene. Of course, Fforde makes it funny: a rabbit hiding in a cupboard from her jealous husband, with a copy of The Count of Monte Cristo to keep her company, of all things. It’s typical of Fforde’s humour and his ability to draw his audience towards the absurd realities of his proposition, not to mention the absurd realities of our own lives. This is not Fforde’s best work, but it is still entertaining and worth a look.