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The Well Of Lost Plots
Jasper Fforde
N.E.L. paperback £6.99

review by Tom Matic

Jasper Fforde's first two books introduced the novel-hopping detective Thursday Next. In The Eyre Affair, Thursday rescued Jane Eyre from those who had kidnapped her from Charlotte Bronte's novel. In the sequel, Lost in a Good Book, she encountered her abrasive mentor, Great Expectations' resident harpy Miss Havisham.
   In this latest novel, the trequel, Thursday finds herself in a somewhat less auspicious fictional space, an unpublished, routine police procedural entitled 'Caversham Heights'. The Well of Lost Plots however is far from routine, though it parodies the clichés and conventions of this and other fictional subgenres, from twee Enid Blyton animal adventures to 'chick lit', and it further develops its heroine's career as a 'Jurisfiction' agent under Miss Havisham's tutelage. In the course of her adventures, Thursday has to face charges of 'fiction infraction' for changing the plot of Jane Eyre in The Eyre Affair. This however is the least of her worries: for a new fictional 'operating system', UltraWordTM, is set to revolutionise the way stories are created and read, and fellow Jurisfiction agents are being bumped off in fantastically unpleasant ways.
   Those readers unfamiliar with the first two novels may feel as if they themselves have lost the plot, for all the wrong reasons, notably with regard to the passages set in a Crimean War that has continued throughout the 20th century. Not only does the reader have to negotiate the 'BookWorld' that the narrator has taken refuge, but they have to understand that the real world she is escaping is a radically different from the one they know. On the other hand, the initiated will appreciate the extensive and growing backstory and vast lexicon of jargon (fictioneers, footnoterphone, grammasites, etc.), which are sure to guarantee the Thursday Next series cult status and a loyal fan following.
   This makes Fforde's writing sound like fodder for nerds. But while the BookWorld is full of quasi-IT terminology, Fforde's wild and playful imagination gives rise to some ingenious jokes and devices; such as the footnoterphones the Jurisfiction agents use to communicate. Wittily the book even advertises DVD-style 'special features', such as 'deleted scenes' from all three Thursday Next books, which can be accessed by visiting Fforde's website. If this is metafictional fantasy for the digital age, its imagery often belongs to the 19th century industrial age, the source of many of the fictional characters (Heathcliff, Jude Fawley, Miss Havisham, the Cheshire Cat) who make guest appearances in The Well of Lost Plots. In Fforde's terminology, fiction is based on an "Imagino-Transference Recording Device: A machine used to write books in the Well, the ITRD resembles a large horn (typically eight feet across and made of brass) attached to a polished mahogany mixing board a little like a church organ but with many stops and levers.". Fforde's imagination is one where the Victorian age and 1985, where the Crimean War has only just finished, and where Swindon is a town in Hardy's 'Wessex'.
   But the quality about Fforde's writing, that has made Terry Pratchett nervous and has drawn favourable comparisons with Douglas Adams, is the humour. Particularly funny is Thursday's bid to teach or instruct the two 'generics' (blank slate characters, who have yet to be developed) Ibb and Obb in the art of sarcasm. Fforde's tone is light-hearted and irreverent, even when referring to weighty classics such as Wuthering Heights. However there are too many scenes of fictional cameos interacting somewhat facetiously at times, and this does make the novel sag in the middle. Still, in some ways the general sense of playfulness makes the murders more frightening when they do occur. This is partly because the causes of death are so bizarre, such as the 'Mispeling Vyrus', which is rather like dying from being caught in the Guardian Weekend's 'Lost Consonants'. But it also serves to remind the reader that even though the denizens of the BookWorld are fictional characters, they can still die horribly. It is this that makes the climax compelling and exciting, as well as the sense that something important is at stake, the future of imaginative writing. Depressingly the real future of fiction looks all too like the homogenising rationalisation represented by UltraWordTM.
The Well Of Lost Plots

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