01 March 2005

Big Fun in BookWorld: Jasper Fforde’s The Well of Lost Plots

by Dorothy Hemmo

The Well of Lost Plots is a highly entertaining romp through the strange, yet mostly familiar world from the imagination (and extensive reading list) of Jasper Fforde. This is the third book in a series that continues to grow. In the first two books, The Eyre Affair and Lost in a Good Book, our heroine Thursday Next is a literary detective for the Special Operations Network (or SpecOps) of the British Police Force. She verifies the authenticity of rare books and manuscripts, investigates thefts and other criminal behavior, and looks into anything out of the ordinary related to the literary world.

Thursday Next’s world is our world – with a few twists. Due to the invention of time travel, and subsequent disruptions of the time line, things have turned out a little different in Thursday’s mid-1980’s England. For instance, when the series begins England is still fighting the Crimean War. This world is a strange mixture of high-tech and no-tech. The airplane was never invented, nor apparently needed. But mega-corporations such as the sinister and omnipresent Goliath Corporation engage in genetic experiments that, among other things, reintroduce from extinction both the Dodo bird and Neanderthal man.

In The Eyre Affair Thursday discovers that she has an unexpected talent – she can read herself into books. She discovers BookWorld, the world behind the world of fiction, where characters from literature have lives beyond the pages of their books. In Lost in a Good Book Thursday becomes an agent for Jurisfiction, the agency that keeps order in BookWorld. She is recruited by Miss Havisham (yes, from Dickens’ Great Expectations) and, in addition to retrieving a former enemy from Poe’s The Raven, she manages to save all life on earth from turning into a gooey pink sludge.

In The Well of Lost Plots, the third book of the series, Thursday is living in BookWorld hiding out from the Goliath Corporation and hoping to find some peace and quiet. What she finds instead is bureaucracy, politics, intrigue, and a messy underworld; all of which fuel the creative process of fiction writing. When Jurisfiction agents start dying in freak accidents, Thursday begins an investigation that leads her to uncover corruption at the highest levels in BookWorld.

This series is the embodiment of metafiction, which The American Heritage Dictionary, 4th Edition (http://www.dictionary.com) defines as “fiction that deals, often playfully and self-referentially, with the writing of fiction or its conventions.” A major plot point in The Well of Lost Plots is UltraWord™, a “book operating system” that accomplishes “the smooth transfer of the written word into the reader’s imagination…” (p.113). The previous operating system, BOOK, had in its day replaced SCROLL…you get the idea.

Books are constructed in the Well of Lost Plots, which is the subbasement of the Great Library. The upper floors of the Great Library contain every work ever published (in English), and the floors beneath contain the unpublished works, and works in progress. BookWorld contains Grammasites, creatures that infest works of fiction and parasitically feed off grammar, damaging the text. In the Well plot devises, parts of speech, even punctuation, are commodities to be bought and sold on the black market. Thursday confiscates a stolen freeze-dried plot device labeled Suddenly a Shot Rang Out! “Crack it open and pow! – the story goes off at a tangent” (p.59). One of my favorite devices in the book is the Footnoterphone, which allows characters to communicate with each other anywhere in BookWorld. These communications appear in the book as footnotes, while the main action continues in the body of the text.

Many characters in the series come from the pages of well-known and classic literature. Dickens’ Miss Havisham is Thursday’s mentor and supervisor. Other literary characters make peripheral appearances, always with telling lines or circumstances. Miss Havisham takes Thursday into Wuthering Heights to observe a rage counseling session with the main characters of that book. This is only one example of the author having fun with characters and plots from well-known fiction. The Well of Lost Plots contains scene after scene of amusing (and often laugh-out-loud funny) satire, send-up or inside joke about literature or writing. Anyone with a love of fiction will delight in the constant literary allusions. This book, the entire series, in fact, pays homage to classic literature. The book exudes such an enthusiasm for literature and reading, it seems hard to imagine that everyone does not share it. A reader feels she must read all the referenced books, just to be in on the jokes.

Fforde imagines the ultimate library: not only does it contain every book ever written, published and unpublished, but these books function as literal portals into their respective worlds. What avid reader hasn’t wished for that a time or two! The librarian of the Great Library is none other than the Cheshire Cat. Enigmatic, but helpful, his main interests seem to be scholarly writing and research. (Is this stereotyping?)

The author seems to be making the case for the richness and depth of literature, saying that the reading of it (and the writing of it) is sometimes difficult and complicated, but that it is worth the effort. The book is mostly a light-hearted fantasy/adventure story. But it has inspired me to read some of the classics that I missed in my younger days, and is a truly delightful book.

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