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Lost in a Good Book
Jasper Fforde
Hodder & Stoughton, 372 pages

Lost in a Good Book
Jasper Fforde
Jasper Fforde was born in Wales. He spent several years as a focus puller on big-budget Hollywood productions. In the early 90s, he began to spend much of his free time writing short stories and then novels. His first published novel was The Eyre Affair.

Jasper Fforde Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by William Thompson

Taking a page or three from Terry Pratchett's repertoire, Fforde's debut novel, The Eyre Affair, proved to be one of last year's more critically acclaimed novels, bridging both mainstream and genre audiences. While possessing more than a passing resemblance to some of Discworld's formulas and conventions, and told in a spirit reminiscent of Pratchett's fabrications, as well as that of Adams and Carroll, The Eyre Affair nonetheless established its own ground, becoming a homage as well as satire of both fiction and its readers.

Set within an alternate English reality of 1985, Wales has become an independent republic, Russia and Britain have been squabbling over Crimea since 1854, and the Nazis actually occupied the British Isles for a short while during the forties. In many respects the society that has evolved is familiar to our own: dominated by petty and often preposterous political posturing and an increasingly monolithic and manipulative economy governed by Goliath, a single corporate conglomerate that prides itself upon its ability to provide England's citizens with every material necessity: "Cots to Coffins: Goliath. All You'll Ever Need." However air travel is confined to dirigibles and the space program was passed over in favor of the development of the Gravitube, a boring through the Earth to create a subterraneous transportation system based upon frictionless freefall. Reverse engineering has allowed the re-establishment of various extinct species -- dodos, mammoths, Tasmanian tigers, Neanderthals -- some of which have become quite popular as pets. A Diatryma is said to be thriving in a local forest. Fiction as well as the visual arts have taken on all the trappings of stardom, with the advocates of various authors and artists divided into often fractious and militant camps, analogous to some of today's soccer or sports fans, willing to take to the streets in defense of their literary heroes. "Richard III" has usurped the role of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Baconians haunt one's doorstep like Seventh Day Adventists, pitching Francis Bacon as the true author of Shakespeare's dramas. And Britain has become a police state, both Kafkaesque and studiedly Orwellian (see date above). The resulting world conjured is at once recognizable and absurd, an accustomed yet surreal pastiche of the past, the present and the future seen as a fiction through fictions, and expressed within the probable, the possible and utterly implausible.

The heroine of this fictional stew is SpecOps officer Thursday Next, SO-27 (of 32, including departments of Domestic Horticulture Enforcement, Good Taste Education Authority, Search and Containment, Vampire and Werewolf Disposal Squad, and others too mysterious or ominous to be mentioned or publicly identified). As a LiteraTec or literary detective, it is Ms Next's vocation, along with peers Bowden Cable and Victor Analogy, to ferret out and prevent literary fraud and forgery -- a lucrative crime, both for profit as well as aesthetic correction -- and to protect the integrity of the existing literary tradition. However, Thursday is decidedly independent in her thinking -- some might say stubborn, others insubordinate and rebellious, a trait she perhaps inherits from her father, a former and now rogue ChronoGuard (SO-12) who uses time not only to elude capture but to pursue his own unauthorized investigations, learning along the way that others may be manipulating chronology, such as the French Revisionists to alter history, or the non-existence (or is it disappearance?) of Winston Churchill and Victor Borges. Like father like daughter, by the end of The Eyre Affair Thursday's unorthodox methods and an ability to physically intrude upon narrative have earned her both acclaim and censure within SpecOps, in addition to some very nasty enemies.

Lost in a Good Book only in part refers to Thursday's rather singular ability to transpose herself into text, as usual for Fforde representing a play upon words that contextually carries more than a singular meaning. Picking up directly where The Eyre Affair left off, Thursday soon finds herself embroiled in further plots and stratagems, some new, others outgrowths of the previous book. Though she has gained celebrity from her rescue and accidental revision of Jane Eyre, her superiors in SpecOps are far from pleased with her performance, and Goliath Corporation has demanded the return of Jack Schitt from his imprisonment within "The Raven." Between appearances on The Adrian Lush Show and offers to tape The Thursday Next Workout Video, she tries to return to the normalcy of work at Swindon SpecOps as well as to enjoy the domestic pleasures of her recent marriage to author Landon Parke-Laine. However, not unexpectedly, both the past and the future are to intrude upon her tranquility, nor is she able, despite many efforts, to entirely escape her celebrity. She soon begins to hear voices, becomes endangered by death through coincidence, almost has a Hispano-Suiza dropped on her while picnicking watching the annual mammoth migration, learns the world may end in a fortnight, and is involved in the discovery of Shakespeare's missing play, "Cardenio." Shortly after, her husband disappears; she learns SpecOps is intending to bring her up on a charge of purloined cheddar; two SO-5 operatives, Walken and Dedmen (you figure it out) have been assigned to tail her; a mysterious figure known only by the initials A.H. may be linked to the series of deadly coincidences; and Thursday has to spend a night moonlighting with Spike Stoker (SO-17) to capture a SEB (Supreme Evil Being) in order to pay her back rent. Oh, and her pet dodo, Pickwick, lays an egg! On the more fictional side of things, Thursday appears before the magistrate of Kafka's Trial, encounters the Cheshire Cat, escapes The Questing Beast, and becomes the apprentice of Miss Havisham (really, once one gets to know her, quite a nice character, even if as an auto driver a "personn of low moral turpithtude").

As may be gleaned, Fforde's approach to plot possesses some of the same wide-ranging, constantly shifting absurdism applied by Pratchett, and is told in a tone of similar humor. And I suspect readers who enjoy the latter may enjoy the former equally as well. However, so far this series is centrally focused around literature, both as trope and springboard for exploring the literary themes and conventions of the past while at the same time subverting them to the author's own humoresque intentions. Part parody and part social satire, with a smack of the burlesque, a lack of background in literature will blunt some of the author's barbs, and a passing familiarity with Western literature, especially of the Elizabethan and 19th century periods, will help in picking up on all the various references, literary in-jokes and asides present in the novel. A basic grasp of grammar, sentence construction, and composition will hardly harm one, either. Otherwise fabulations such as the grammasite or the short, brief criticism of Sterne's Tristram Shandy will be lost to the casual reader. The same can be said for certain instances of punning and word play that abound throughout the novel, such as the author Millon de Floss or the chapter entitled "Cardenio unbound," though many of these should appear obvious.

The author's social satire, however, should be more widely accessible, regardless of whether one actually read Moby Dick in high school or instead relied upon the Cliff Notes. Ranging from the bald Toad Network News (TNN) to the relativism of scientific theory and its comparable relevance to the world of fashion or as an equation with boy bands ("where we would regard Einstein as someone who glimpsed a truth, played one good chord on seven forgettable albums"), the author liberally pokes fun at a variety of human foibles, practices and beliefs. Random anecdote abounds, and reportage such as that concerning the turning over of Tunbridge Wells to the Russians as a war reparation are amply amusing, with its reference to "panic warm-clothing-shopping" and the name of TNN's lead anchorwoman, Lydia Startright. The accidental blood sacrifice of a contestant on the reality re-enactment series Surviving Cortez slices parallel directions, and the image of Odysseus brought up on charges of grievous bodily harm against Polyphemus tongues the cheek of political correctness. There is little not open to Fforde's irreverence, from the Global Standard Deity (GSD) to the posturing of artists and art critics and the institution of jurisfiction. Certain of the political and social criticism, however, carry a darker import.

But for the most part, this is light, quick, enjoyable reading, directed primarily at literature and fiction in all its myriad aspects. A blurring of genres -- mystery, the detective novel, horror, romance, fantasy and science fiction (the Western not yet included) -- Fforde plays as well with sub-genres -- slipstream and alternate history -- parodying and treating them to the same deference and lack of respect to which he treats to which he treats mainstream fiction and literature (see Granny Next's search for the ten dullest classics of literature: Spencer's Faerie Queene, Milton's Paradise Lost, Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu, and Richardson's Pamela all are nominated). Not every reference and pun is heavy-handed, and one at times has to extrapolate a bit to fully read the underlying parasitic nature of the grammasite, or appreciate what is implied by the Character Exchange Program (which may in part explain the urban legend surrounding the Ghost of Gandalf or rumors that Magwitch has been seen stalking various narrative streets in disguise: they simply got weary of hanging around within their own texts and surreptitiously migrated to others, becoming tourists so to speak. In the case of G, I'd be looking for different travel agent).

It waits to be seen whether Fforde's formulaic approach has the staying power of Pratchett's Discworld. Considering the wealth of fictional realms to be plumbed, as well as the variety of human foibles available for parody -- especially of late -- one might be tempted to say yes. Certainly Vernham Deane, resident cad of Daphne Farquitt's fictional potboiler The Squire of High Potternews (1,256 pages softcover, 3.99) would suggest so. For the moment the author's imaginative verve and sense of humor show no evidence of flagging, and for the more literate-minded among you, both The Eyre Affair and Lost in a Good Book should prove a light-hearted and delightful farce.

Copyright © 2002 William Thompson

William Thompson is a writer of speculative fiction. In addition to his writing, he is pursuing masters degrees in information science as well as history at Indiana University.

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