Jasper Fforde takes readers on a witty, wild ride Humpty Dumpty and his nursery rhyme mob are threatening a boycott. The rabbits from Watership Down have reproduced in such numbers that only Lennie from Of Mice and Men cares to visit anymore. Everyone in Wuthering Heights has been ordered to attend rage management class. And all misspellings must be reported at once to the Cat Formerly Known as Cheshire.
Welcome to the deliriously topsy-turvy world of Jasper Fforde's The Well of Lost Plots, the most incessantly inventive literary satire since Alice what's-her-name fell down the you-know-what.
A frustrated writer who was making a living in the film industry, Fforde first made a splash in the publishing world with The Eyre Affair, a genre-stretching fantasy featuring ace "Prose Op" literary detective Thursday Next. Thursday operates in an alternate universe where authorized Prose Ops can pursue villains into BookWorld, a place where fiction comes delightfully to life, in order to prevent dastardly plot tampering with classic novels.
Thursday continued her literary enforcement in a sequel, Lost in a Good Book, but even ace detectives occasionally need a rest. In his latest novel, Fforde chose to virtually suspend the series' storyline involving Next, her time-traveling Uncle Mycroft and missing husband Landen Parke-Laine in order to get downright daffy with the inner workings of the Well of Lost Plots.
In the 26 dingy sub-basements of the Well, characters, premises and prose are polished and peddled to nascent novels. Part Moroccan thieves' market, part B-movie back lot, the Well also is where A-list heroes and villains take a break from their classic novels to vacation in unpublished works via the Character Exchange Program.
So plentiful were the satiric possibilities of this font-of-all-fiction that The Well of Lost Plots is "is a 340-page digression almost, but the idea was so strong that I really just needed to play with it," Fforde says by phone from his home in Wales. "And rather than play with it in a separate book, since I've already established that Thursday can travel into the BookWorld, let's just have a go at the whole thing."
Indeed, the presence of the Cat Formerly tips us to the unusual adventure ahead. Along the way, we encounter bat-like, text-deleting grammasites, mispeling (sic) viruses, the chatline-like footnoterphone (with running gossip about Anna Karinina), black-market plot contrivances (Still waiting for Godot? That's him in the head-in-a-bag plot device) and one particularly uncivil Minotaur on the loose.
Casting a long shadow over the future of BookWorld itself is UltraWord, a revolutionary book operating system featuring Enhanced Character Identification (you'll breeze right through War and Peace), WordClot (Bigger words? Smaller? You choose!) and PlotPotPlus (to keep you from getting lost in a good book). UltraWord: Good for business, bad for books.
"It's having a little go about modern marketing. It's about trying to get the formula right so we can sell it instead of trying to get the story right so people will buy it," says Fforde. "Bookshops didn't used to be about retailing and marketing, they just used to be about books. Now they seem to be very much about hard sell this is what is selling, this is what you should read. That's what I was sort of railing against."
The London-born Fforde spent his youth at a Harry Potter-esque boarding school in Devon, where his interests ran to Victorian classics, airplanes and movies. Rather than continue on to university, he left school at 18 and became a "focus puller," or second assistant camera operator. He spent the next 19 years traveling the world, working behind the camera on such films as Goldeneye, Entrapment and Quills.
On the road, he stayed busy conjuring a fantastic alternative England circa 1985 in which some technologies, such as cloning and time travel, are hum-drum routine while others, such as computers and jet engines, do not exist at all. Great literature, not soccer, is the national passion in his alternate U.K. Shakespeare, Dickens and Austen are virtual superstars. Thursday Next, the detective assigned to protect these national treasures, is a thoroughly modern career woman, veteran of the still-in-progress Crimean War and proud owner of a regenerated pet dodo named Pickwick.
Fforde's fondness for puns is reminiscent of the late, great Douglas Adams of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy fame. He has a particular soft spot for character names Paige Turner, Millon de Floss (after George Eliot's Mill on the Floss), Landen Parke-Laine (what you want to do in the British version of Monopoly) and so on. And the setting unremarkable Swindon echoes the buttoned-down world of Arthur Dent in Hitchhiker's Guide.
In each outing, Fforde selects major works from the Western literary canon around which to weave his merriment: Bronte's Jane Eyre in his debut; works by Poe (The Raven), Austen (Sense and Sensibility) and Carroll (Alice in Wonderland) in Lost in a Good Book, and Wuthering Heights in his latest. It's both an artistic and a pragmatic decision.
"People ask, why don't you use contemporary novels? For one reason, they're not in public domain. But for another reason, why? When there is so much good stuff to use in the classics," he explains. "I regard Dickens, the Bront‘s, Austen and Trollope as going back to primary sources."
The Well of Lost Plots might have been a drastically different book, in fact, but for the modern-day legal hurdles. Disney denied Fforde's request to enlist Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh, and the estate of H.G. Wells wouldn't release the Morlocks from The Time Machine, either.
How in the world, then, did he manage the neat trick of bringing in Godot from Samuel Beckett's classic existential play, Waiting for Godot, much less as a head-in-a-bag plot device? Fforde laughs: "The good thing about Godot is, he doesn't actually appear in the play; they're waiting for him but he never appears! He's not actually a copyrighted character because he doesn't exist, he's not there. And now you know why: his head is in a bag in the Well of Lost Plots."
Jay MacDonald is a writer based in Mississippi.