Friday, September 03, 2004

Losing the plot

I have been reading The Well of Lost Plots, by Jasper Fforde.

You may remember that, towards the end of last week, I averred that I remained ever optimistic that before long a book would come along about which I could be genuinely and warmly enthusiastic.

Yes. Well. Unfortunately, The Well of Lost Plots isn’t it.

First, for those of you who haven’t been paying attention, a few words about Mr Fforde. He first appeared on the scene in 2001, with a novel entitled The Eyre Affair. This featured a heroine called Thursday Next, and it was set in a cross between a parallel universe and an alternative history of England. The lovely Ms Next functions in a world in which characters from books, such as Jane Eyre from Jane Eyre, can be kidnapped or can perform other useful plot functions of one sort or another; and it was a world in which, for instance, the Crimean War had never ended.

Mr Fforde’s basic idea, that of mixing characters from books with ‘real-life’ action, so to speak, was undoubtedly brilliant. I will leave it to others to debate whether it was wholly original. I suspect not, and in any case it doesn’t really matter. The fact is that this framework is one which is capable of endless development in any number of directions, and it could easily support a series of 20 books all on its own, just as Mr Pratchett’s Discworld does. No wonder Mr Pratchett was quoted as saying, ‘I’ll watch Jasper Fforde nervously!’

Well, as it is, Terry Pratchett has nothing to worry about. Not, at any rate, as yet.

Fforde’s first book attracted a lot of critical attention, as you would expect, because the book was at least clever, and was full of postmodernist literary references which only the highbrow critics could understand. And they, of course, took a great delight in explaining the jokes to us peasants. But I for one was not too impressed with The Eyre Affair.

Neither, it seems, was I alone. One of the Amazon reviews points out that it isn’t really all that wonderful. ‘If this book is so hilarious,’ asks the reader, ‘why didn't I laugh? …Is it part of the joke that the book is written badly by normal criteria?’

Next came Lost in a Good Book, in which Thursday Next battles the sinister Goliath Corporation and tries to save the world from extinction. I skipped that one. And now we have The Well of Lost Plots. And I’m afraid that the title is all too appropriate, because I for one couldn’t figure out what the hell the plot was. I learnt more from the fly-leaf of the novel than I did from the first 40 pages, after which I’m afraid I gave up.

Which is a dreadful shame, because the basic premise has so much promise. And Mr Fforde works so hard. This is his third book in three years, and there is another one just out, Something Rotten. In this latest, Thursday Next teams up with Hamlet, and George Formby turns out to be President-for Life. So you see what I mean about wonderful ideas going to waste. In each book Fforde trundles on for a 100,000 words or so, but in the two that I have read so far the basic narrative skills are neglected and it all becomes stodgy and difficult. If he wrote at half the length and got the material more crisply organised we would all be a lot better off.

My copy of The Well of Lost Plots was borrowed from the Wiltshire library system, and you can see from the date stamps in the front of it how often it has been read. The book was published in July 2003, and the first reader took it out in August. Three more people read it before Christmas. And four more have read it in 2004.

What does that suggest to you? What it suggests to me is that, out here in darkest Wiltshire, we are not sufficiently hip, cool, and with-it to appreciate Mr Fforde. And what is true here may be true elsewhere in the backward provinces as well.

In his official Amazon review Barry Forshaw writes: ‘Word-of-mouth among readers often does more to make an author's name than any publicity campaign. That's certainly the case with Jasper Fforde, and The Well of Lost Plots will be eagerly devoured by his ever-growing coterie of admirers.’ Yeah, well, maybe. But, judging by the library stamps, there ain’t no word of mouth out here in Wiltshire, Barry. Mr Fforde's book has had 8 readers in a year. Compare that with The Da Vinci Code, for which, my librarian tells me, there is a two-year waiting-list.

Well, I suppose we should not give up hope. It is early days yet. A novelist who has written four books is, when all is said and done, still a beginner. Forty years ago a writer at this stage of his career would have been regarded as an apprentice who was showing some signs of making a name for himself one day. It’s only in modern publishing that you’re expected to demonstrate genius on your first time out. (And of course you are supposed to accept cheerfully the fact that you’ll get dumped if you don’t sell a vast number.)

So, Mr Fforde may yet surprise us all. I wish him well.

His web site, incidentally, is unusually clever and inventive, and a lot of fun. I just wish the bloody books were a bit more readable, I really do....


Debra Hamel said...

I'm afraid I have to agree with you on Fforde's series. So much promise, but the end result is a glut of cleverness one could choke on. Here's my review of the author's Lost in a Good Book.

Debra Hamel
book-blog reviewsTrying Neaira

jennie said...

I'm joining your chorus on this one. Lost in a Good Book lost me within 20 pages—I just couldn't take the writing, which I found self-referential, sloppy, and obnoxiously "aren't I just the cleverest thing?" smarmy, without ever being truly witty or amusing. I found myself wanting to hurl the book out of the window of a moving bus into the grimy Toronto traffic. (I refrained, because it's not a book for which anyone should have to stop.)

As you say, it's a pity, because the premise held so very much promise. But it read like a parody of its not -very-worthy self.