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Strange as Fiction
By Margaret Black

Lost in a Good Book: A Thursday Next Novel
By Jasper Fforde •
Viking Press, 399 pages, $24.95

Thursday Next, the intrepid SpecOps Literary Detective whom Jasper Fforde introduced in The Eyre Affair, once again zips through time, novels, and an alternative England in Lost in a Good Book. Thursday’s England of 1985 has just concluded peace with the Russians, ending 150 years of war in the Crimea. The country is so mad for literature that Shakespeare’s Richard III plays constantly in performances reminiscent of Rocky Horror Picture Show viewings, and thugs take time out from petty vandalism to trade bubblegum cards of Squire Allworthy and Tom Jones.

In the new novel, Thursday must not only survive her unwanted fame for changing the end of Jane Eyre—prior to Thursday’s intervention Jane went off with St. John as a missionary and never saw Rochester again—but she’s also got to rescue her husband, who’s just been killed off at age 2 by the evil megacorporation Goliath. In the first book, Thursday had trapped a rogue Goliath executive inside Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven. Now her husband’s extinction is being used to blackmail Thursday into retrieving the exec, ostensibly to face charges of “embezzlement, Goliath contractual irregularities, misuse of the corporation’s leisure facilities, missing stationery—and crimes against humanity.” As if that weren’t enough, Thursday’s father, a renegade time- traveling ChronoGuard, needs her to help him save the Earth, which will very shortly drown in pink dessert topping. Finally, someone is trying to murder Thursday by coincidence.

As should be obvious, Thursday Next adventures—yes, a third one is planned for 2004—blend aspects of Lewis Carroll, Douglas Adams, Kurt Vonnegut and Monty Python into a rich verbal and conceptual confection that mostly delights the reader, but sometimes induces a kind of irritable nausea as well. Fforde is so dizzyingly inventive that he hops Thursday from situation to situation and plot to plot without much bother about making sense or tying up loose ends.

The cleverest plotline is that involving the attempted murder by coincidence. In one scene on a bus, the answers a passenger gets to a crossword puzzle warn Thursday of impending danger, and in another, Japanese T-shirts with typically bizarre English messages like “Follow me, Next Girl!” provide clues. To beat the death odds, Thursday’s inventor uncle, Mycroft, arms her with an entropy barometer, which is a jar of lentils and rice that form disturbingly regular patterns when coincidences are increasing to dangerous levels.

Fforde’s incessant, scattershot satire hits out at random targets in every sentence, distracting from the cleverness about books and language that distinguished his much more focused Eyre Affair. You can’t help liking Thursday’s pet dodo, Pickwick, which she constructed from a home-cloning kit, and I did like everyone taking picnics to watch the migration of mammoth. The ethical questions raised by Goliath’s having cloned Neanderthals as a cheap labor force get heavy-handed, but before you can complain, Thursday has become a book-jumping apprentice with Miss Havisham, the forsaken bride from Great Expectations and a demonic driver of modern vehicles. Fforde’s clumsy burlesque of a TV talk show is a dreadful opening for this book, but I laughed at his art show, particularly the explanation by Duchamp2924 of his work The Id Within. Equally funny, but completely gratuitous, is the chapter where Thursday accompanies Officer Spike Stoker of the Vampire and Werewolf Disposal Operation on an evening’s action.

Having real-world characters wander in and out of fiction is Fforde’s most intriguing gambit, and ultimately he has Thursday hide out in a relatively unknown work, permitting the character she replaces to take an acting course in the real world. Readers who like this Purple Rose of Cairo conceit will rejoice in Fforde’s riffs. They should also try A Great Good Thing by Roderick Townley, a children’s book that tells what fictional characters do when no one’s reading their book.

Fforde’s verbal gymnastics can be breathtaking, but his clever names quickly get tiresome. In The Eyre Affair they were new and some were clever. The second book gives us such obviously expendable agents as Kannon and Phodder and their equally transient successors, Walken and Dedmen. That the rogue Goliath exec in The Eyre Affair was called Jack Schitt broke me up; that his half-brother in Lost in a Good Book is named Schitt-Hawse simply embarrasses me.

Like the Lemony Snickett series for kids, the marketing of Fforde’s Thursday Next is a highly polished affair, complete with a Web site that includes links to the Goliath Corporation and photos of mammoth on the move. Such well-packaged efforts usually sacrifice originality for sales. But Fforde’s playfulness about literature is great fun. Ancient Granny Next can’t die until she’s read the Ten Most Boring Classics, and few readers can resist making lists of promising possibilities. When Thursday and her partner are out doing authentications of alleged Shakespeare manuscripts, she has to disabuse a ditsy enthusiast: “You see,” Thursday tells her, “Shakespeare never wrote on lined paper with a ballpoint, and even if he did, I doubt he would have had Cardenio seeking Lucinda in the Sierra Morena mountains driving an open-top Range Rover whilst playing ‘It’s the Same Old Song’ by the Four Tops.”

To enjoy Fforde, readers best know their English lit. And I strongly recommend they begin with The Eyre Affair, by far the better Thursday Next book. But Lost in a Good Book has many delicious moments, and Fforde may regain his stride in the third adventure, The Well of Lost Plots.


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