Fforde, Jasper


The Well of Lost Plots

(Thursday Next, Book 3)


Is it too early to suggest that Jasper has jumped the shark? Maybe, but I'm less indulgent about whether Thursday Next has.

Was it sophisticated intentional irony to set a book in a world of chaotic, unfinished, badly written drafts that itself feels chaotic, unfinished and badly written? I carped at Fforde in `Lost in a Good Book' that he'd be better off dropping his pretensions of plot (particularly an `overplot' for the series) and running with enjoyable stand alone surreal episodes. Here he barely bothers: Thursday can't remember Landon but then - after a mere page of unintegrated dream flapdoodle - she can. How nice. Meanwhile she's still done nothing to attempt to restore this supposed core love of her life. OK, lets dismiss the utterly unsatisfying overplot, what about the one for this novel? UltraWord(tm). Oh, I get it - it's a bit like Microsoft. Ho ho, smirk. This joke (I think it'd be stretching things to call it satire) works for about a paragraph - yet he milks this baby dry. Pageturner 1.3. Bookmark version 2.6 (or whatever), Jasper, we get it already.

OK, so the series plot has stalled, and the central one of this particular book is weak. `Lost plots' indeed. Still, plot's never been his strong point - let's get onto some of his traditional strengths: amusing Douglas Adams style leaps of imagination, and charming characters. Well, for the former, yeah, OK, there are some cool ideas here and there (although I'm struggling a bit to recall them, um, maybe the generics. And I did like the way this book connected with `The Big Over Easy'. The mispeling vyrus was mildly amusing the first time - ah, hey, it's misspelt - Oh, Jaaaaasper) - and the whole notion of being able to wander into any book at any time has fantastic potential. But a lot of other writers do this better. For a start, Fforde's pool of books is tiny - it's like he did a couple of undergrad literature courses (Austen, Dickens, Bronte, Shakespeare) - even, perhaps just one on classic English literature - and there's not a lot more going on. We're either supposed to feel impressed that he's dropped some names we might have heard of, and/or smug that we get the reference. Hey, I got the Biggles cameo. I didn't feel that smug. More importantly, he name drops classic characters or genres or settings but that's about it. There's not even an attempt to recreate and improvise with them in novel ways. Ms Havisham is probably the one he tries hardest with, but there's not even a whiff of Dickens in more than name. Even if he had've dropped the Havisham name and tried just creating her as a character, there's very little going on of interest between her and Thursday: somehow they're supposed to have this great professional respect between mentor and acolyte, but this is assumed rather than built. So we don't get a rounded new character to enjoy, nor do we get an avatar of an old one. What we get is a lame reference - and it's not enough.

It would be really cool if we suddenly found ourself in a range of novels with a real awareness (and love of) their conventions. An Asimov novel, say, where Thursday would suddenly find herself stacked and doting on some arrogant lead male - or would deliciously subvert this. Or a few pages of Steven King desperation and suspense. Or dropping in some classic characters who act and talk like they did originally - so we're aware why they ever gained their popularity. In pops Sherlock Holmes, with his quirks and methods. Here's Bertie Wooster, and you know what, he's hilarious - no, he's not just called Bertie Wooster, he says the sort of things Bertie would say, with the same exquisite turn of phrase. Alternatively we could find out it's an act, and once he steps off set he's dry and maliciously urbane. It's not, and I think you might have got my point by now, merely Fforde pulling a name of a book and dropping it into this one. It's not enough.

Charm? It feels a bit like Groundhog Day (not overall - this was, in contrast, generally a clever, charming film. Stick with me, I mean it feels like a bit in the film. You'll get it. Sorry, am I going on a bit long in these parentheses?). You know, where Bill Murray has had some lovely romantic moments with Andy McDowell one night, but in trying to recreate them on the next and the one after that he loses the magic, "OK, OK, c'mon, I pat the dog, you laugh, we slip on the snow into each others arms, you're happy, blah blah, can we get on with it." Thursday's friends and family sometimes used to do and say some charming things, here they more sort of hint at them. Most of the dialogue is transactional, "Hey, look out, it's going to get you." Instead of building emotional ties, Jasper goes for the cheap soap opera technique, "Who will die tonight?" Nobody feels much for these characters, but surely if we kill one of them we'll get some sort of response?! Well, Jasper kills a few (again the irritating conventional clanger of suddenly killing off several characters in a week that have supposedly survived lifetimes of danger and intrigue, while the rookie inexplicably lives on to solve the crime), but we have to manufacture the emotion.

Finally, somewhere along the line I stopped liking Thursday. I really was quite fond of her in `The Eyre Affair', but now I'd really rather hang out with someone else. She's still smart, I suppose, but she's not a particularly sympathetic character. "Plock, plock", says Jasper, "I gave her a pregnant dodo, for goodness sake - how much more charm can you want!?" Sorry, it's trimming, it's not enough.


February 2007