The Well of Lost Plots, Jasper Fforde

NEL, 2003, 360 pages, C$24.95 tpb, ISBN 0-340-82592-8

There’s never a dull moment in the life of Thursday Next, and that serves both as a plot description for The Well of Lost Plots as well as a plotting technique for Jasper Fforde. In this third volume of his enormously amusing humour/mystery/fantasy hybrid, Fforde continues to throw everything he can imagine at us grateful readers, and if he stretches things perhaps a tad too far in this entry, it easily remains a must-read for everyone who loved Next’s first two adventures.

If you haven’t read The Eyre Affair and Lost in a Good Book, you may want to start there and come back after. Events in The Well of Lost Plots begin right after those of the previous book, and little time is spent catching up: If you remember the conclusion of the second novel, Thursday Next has decided to retreat from the alternate reality in which her husband has been erased from history and wait out the birth of her child in a novel still under construction. (Hey, don’t ask if you haven’t read the first two books.) The story picks up weeks later: Thursday is living the quiet life of a secondary character, but trouble is brewing in Text Grand Central, what with the disappearance of several Jurisfiction agents and the imminent introduction of UltraText[TM] technology.

Seemingly proceeding on the principle that you can’t have enough of a good thing, Fforde sets the vast majority of The Well of Lost Plots inside the fictional universe of books first glimpsed in the first volume and defined in the second one. At the exception of two chapters set in the real world, all of this third tome is spent shuttling back and forth between novels and the Grand Library linking all of them together. As you would now expect from a Fforde novel, subplots multiply in an attempt to show us as many cool things as possible. We go deep in the “Well of Lost Plots” to find out how stories are constructed, how characters are defined and how unsuccessful fictions are slated for destruction. Amusingly enough, Fforde’s mythology reduces authors to mere transcribers, an ironic reversal when you compare it with the hundred of stories portraying authors as the end-all of literary creation, from Misery to Wonder Boys.

But there’s a story of sorts behind it all, a twisty maze of double-crossings involving renegade Jurisfiction agents and an attempted takeover of Text Grand Central. Beloved characters die, Next investigates, everyone is a suspect and it all finds a somewhat satisfying deus-ex-libris ending at the 923rd Annual Fiction Awards. Meanwhile, Next herself has to deal with the aftermath of her husband’s eradication… or simply forget about it.

As with Fforde’s first two books, The Well of Lost Plots is aimed at enthusiastic readers, and works on quantity as much as quality; there’s simply so much stuff to enjoy that it’s almost impossible to pause and reflect. In fact, this third volume starts to show the limits of Fforde’s premise: While all is well and fun, there’s a clear sense that this is almost too much; by setting almost all of his story inside the fuzzy boundaries of explicit fiction, Fforde also fudges with rules and limits. Anything can happen and pretty much everything does. Readers may start to yearn for the relative simplicity of Next’s native Swindon.

There are also a number of troubling inconsistencies. Whereas Lost in a Good Book played around with the idea that Next was as fictional as the rest of the characters, The Well of Lost Plots makes her an Outlander whose reality is undisputed. The death of one character seems to contradict the epigram at the beginning of the second volume’s Chapter 29. But Fforde may have something else down his sleeve for Book Four, so let’s not be too quick to judge…

Still, there are small problems compared to what you’ll get from the novel. Gems abound, such as the Wuthering Heights rage counselling session; the vision of all the other Grand Libraries; the way Generics are transformed in authentic Characters; the fantastic vyrus-fighting action sequence; the cameo appearance by Gully Foyle (Jurisfiction agent for the SF genre, as it turns out); the hilarious way Jurisfiction decide to deal with a shortage of “u”s. Wonderful.

Of course, this book practically sells itself to Fforde’s fans, who probably pre-ordered the book as soon as it was announced. Onward to the fourth volume of the series, Something Rotten.

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