What if you could visit the world of fiction, interacting with characters like Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights and Miss Havisham from Great Expectations, all at the same time? And what if Miss Havisham was running anger-management classes for Heathcliff and his fellow Heights characters? Readers get to find out in The Well of Lost Plots, Jasper Fforde's third novel in his Thursday Next series, following intrepid literary detective Next as she gets involved with literary conspiracies that will affect how you and I read books, as well as teaching two blank slate "generics" how to become true fictional personalities. Fforde, as ever, is irreverent and full of great concepts. However, this time his lack of true characters hinders the reader's enjoyment just a little bit.
Thursday Next has had a bad time of it. Her husband has been eradicated from history so that only Thursday remembers him, yet she is carrying his child. The enigmatic Goliath Corporation, which runs everything in her world, is out to get her, so she takes refuge in Caversham Heights, an unpublished (and truly awful) detective novel. She takes over the role of a minor character, and when she's not playing her part, she can rest, recuperate, and prepare to deliver her baby. However, she's also part of the Jurisfiction organization, a group of literary characters who watch over the fictional world and making things run smoothly. This involves everything from said anger-management courses to eradicating misspelling viruses (which, when they run unchecked, can change fictional reality as words are misspelled and objects become something else with the new spelling). Miss Havisham is Thursday's mentor in her new job, and she is a stern teacher.
The new ULTRAWORD book reading system will revolutionize novel reading, and it's set to go online soon. Previously, there was the oral tradition, then clay tablets, but it was when the BOOK system started, with pages and everything, that literature truly came into its own. Unfortunately, things have become stagnant. Nonfiction is creeping past fiction as the most read. The new ULTRAWORD system will swing that balance back into fiction's favor, with new bells and whistles that will really add to the pleasure of reading. But are there dark secrets behind this new system? Is it truly being introduced to enhance the reading experience, or is it a cash-grab? What problems are hiding beneath it? And are they worth killing for?
Thursday finds herself wrapped up in the mystery as literary characters die around her. She just wants to rest and recuperate, but she may not get the chance. With somebody inside fiction trying to kill her, she also has Outworld things to take care of. She's having trouble remembering things she should -- like her husband's name, or even that he existed. Caught in the middle of all of these events, Next must use all of her literary skills to make sure she stays alive -- as well as staying whole.
Jasper Fforde is the master of imagery and a creative man. In his previous books, The Eyre Affair and Lost in a Good Book, Fforde has created a world where fiction is real and can be traveled through, but he also created an alternate reality where history isn't quite the same, where the Crimean War between Russia and Britain has been going on for 150 years. This time, while the Crimean War setting is vital to one plot point, Fforde immerses us entirely in the fictional world, with characters from bad detective novels interacting with characters from Wuthering Heights. As always, Fforde's trademark wit and humor make the book a joy to read.
In previous books, I've said that Fforde stays away from characters in favour of providing a strong setting and vivid images. In The Well of Lost Plots, Fforde does the same, but he goes a bit overboard. The one well-realized character has always been Thursday Next, but this time even she isn't that well done. Sure, she's still a strong character, but Fforde seems to be drifting on her past characterization, depending on the fact that we've probably read the previous two books to provide her character. With the exception of her having to relive the last day of her brother's life over and over again, she receives no development whatsoever. The other characters are the same way, relative ciphers who interact with the plot but that's about it. Fforde is hampered in this by the fact that all of the other characters in this novel (save one) are already established literary characters, or they are literary cliches on purpose. Inevitably, these characters are established by having a couple of traits different from their "on-screen" personalities in their books (i.e. Miss Havisham is still a prickly old lady like she is in Great Expectations, but she actually does have a true heart beneath her harsh exterior). The detective novel characters fit their stereotypes, but they are just slightly different to show off the same effect. Thus there are no truly memorable characters. Instead, there are memorable character differences ("Oh, Prometheus is really like that!").
Without characterization, what are we left with? Plot and imagery. For a long while there doesn't seem to be much of a plot, though Fforde does an admirable job of making the wandering about in the first part of the book actually mean something. The settings and concepts that Fforde has created are still top-notch. I really enjoyed learning about all the different aspects of fiction, and how the characters are able to interact. When a character is not front stage in a book, they can do pretty much what they want. It sort of begs the question of how this is possible, considering the fact that, especially in the classics or bestsellers, each page in the book is inevitably being read by somebody somewhere. But it's a conceit the reader plays along with to revel in the world Fforde has created. Who but Fforde could imagine Miss Havisham trying to break the land-speed record in a souped-up car? Or an assassination squad trying to take out Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights because he's such an arrogant scoundrel? Fforde really brings his world alive, and the reader is carried along by the flow.
One problem that Fforde has, however, is how to tell the reader about this fabulous world. Exposition is very heavy as Fforde has the fictional characters explain what is happening to Thursday, a Jurisfiction novice. While this is much better than having two characters talk to each other about things they should already be aware of, even having them explain it to Thursday becomes old after awhile. There are just so many new things (something we probably shouldn't complain about) that I don't know how else it could have been done, but it gets annoying.
Still, The Well of Lost Plots is a satisfying read, just not as much so as its predecessors. I plan on coming back for the next one. Don't worry if you're not the most literary reader -- most of the literary references are either obvious or will zoom by without you even knowing about it. Give this series a chance.