Apr/May 2004 Book Reviews

The Well of Lost Plots: A Thursday Next Novel

Jasper Fforde
Viking (2004) 376 pages

reviewed by Kevin McGowin

This volume is the third installment in Welsh novelist Jasper Fforde's series about (I guess) a female British detective of sorts named Thursday Next, who works for something called SpecOps-27, "policing areas considered too specialized to be tackled by the regular force"—namely, literature. She does stuff like return protagonists to their novels and rescue fellow operatives from poems by stoned pedophiles who hear big black birds talking to them in 1840s Baltimore.

Like that.

So before I launch into a diatribe about how this book is a garbled and centerless pastiche of self-indulgent namedropping rehashed marmot shit, let me hasten to point out that I haven't read the other two books in the series (another volume of which is forthcoming in March, 2005), and since I'm not going to, I'll never quite know what the hell Viking was thinking putting this out and hyping it like they are (maybe the California dot-com litzine crowd digs its fractured pseudo-literary netiquitte), or why these books are "New York Times bestselling adventures through the western literary canon," making this er, uh, text "eagerly anticipated... a genre-blending blend of crime fiction fantasy, and top-drawer literary entertainment."

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this book (if that's indeed the word for it) has no cohesive center; its plotting involves vacuous litanies of spurious surface allusions, and that means, basically, that it has no soul and no substance.

Do I say this because I just don't get it? Oh, I get it. Fforde wants a pop-culture bestselling printed e-text Ulysses. He wants to put Post-Structuralism to work. He wants 007. He wants Tolkien. He's read Borges, Cortazar, and lots and lots of Thomas Pynchon, and he probably holds Dave Eggers in high esteem because the guy's book sold well despite an unconventional structure. Fforde has a passing familiarity with all those books the Modern Library puts out, and he wants you to know it. But he also wants you to know he's Lowbrow, too—all things to all people! Like his very favorite movie, The Matrix. Or its sequel. Or its prequel. Or whatever. He's Computer Literate, too.

Okay, true. The Washington Post has read The Well of Lost Plots as "satire... game, puzzle, joke, post-modern prank and tilt-a-whirl." Whatever that last thing is. But look—in trying to achieve everything, the author achieves nothing! Is he intelligent? Sure! Can he write a sentence, spin some irony? You bet! But who the hell cares?

Could be you like his stuff. Great. It's been done, and done far better, since at least 1916. Over and over and over. It attempts to out modern neo post-modernism, and it ends up coming across as the random printouts of a second-rate imagination, and any real merit here is essentially what Barthes called the "happy accident." Satire? Does it hold up a mirror to our culture or something? It does not. It's just pretentious crap about the fallibility of language and narrative, or as Don DeLillo wrote in an only slightly different context in White Noise, "a victory for randomness, uncertainty and chaos."

So here, at the end of my review, is usually where I might soften the blow of the above invective a bit by saying something smugly decent about this pompous mound of weasel bloat. Not so, this time. Not so because, even to my far-out way of thinking, this text and the corporate spin that comes with it is a direct insult to all the good books out there I don't have the chance to read or review because they're not published! See? See? Well, that's the way I see it, tonight.

And now that I'm done with the work of a man who writes like an arrogant kid playing Mous on Ambien, let me just finish by saying it's a shame the author hasn't read his true literary antecedent, Magister Ludi! The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse. It's impossible and tedious, too, but at least when Hesse had written page-turners for pseudo-intellectual adolescent minds, he did so well, and he made no pretense of anything deeper.


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