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|Lost in a Good Book|
|Review in The New York Times|
|By Bruno Maddox, June, 2003|
IT is possible to buy a paperback edition of the first Harry Potter novel whose cover illustration is an ancient black-and-white photograph (it might actually be a daguerreotype) of a vintage steam engine belching smoke in a West Virginia railyard. No witches are depicted, nor any young people agape with excitement atop flying broomsticks, just a filthy old train beneath a muddy orange title bar. But the cover really works: from about five feet away (roughly the width of the aisle of a subway car), you appear to be reading something particularly dense and improving when in fact you're sitting there wondering if Harry and his young friends are going to tiptoe successfully down a spooky hallway without stepping on a creaky floorboard and waking some sort of multiheaded monstrosity.
What we need, though, is an analogue of Harry Potter just for adults: a franchise brainy enough to feel like proper reading -- playful and ironic enough to risk no confusion with the nubile elves and unbreakable swords of the appalling post-Tolkien ''adult fantasy'' genre -- yet as effortlessly readable and unashamedly escapist as the best children's fiction.
Enter Jasper Fforde, whose first novel, ''The Eyre Affair,'' introduced us to the winningly named Thursday Next and with boundless confidence -- justified, as it turned out; the novel went on to become a surprise best seller -- declared itself merely the first installment of her adventures. Thursday was presented as a ''literary detective,'' doing business in a haphazardly distorted version of the year 1985 and using a machine called a ''prose portal'' to enter the text of Charlotte Brontë's ''Jane Eyre'' -- literally, in a profound, metaphysical sense -- to rescue its heroine from the clutches of a charismatic supervillain named Acheron Hades.
''Lost in a Good Book,'' the second installment of Thursday's saga, finds her having to penetrate the text of Poe's poem ''The Raven'' to liberate a relatively minor villain whom she herself trapped there at the end of the first novel. If Thursday fails, her husband -- for an extremely complicated set of reasons -- will never have existed. And all the while her father, a man who himself has never existed, for a different set of reasons, is racing to save the world from turning into a pink, gooey substance, which, as a renegade time traveler, he knows is about to happen.
The world in question is a strange one. The year is still 1985, yet computers don't exist. Neither do airplanes. Cloning and time travel, however, are commonplace. People keep dodos as pets. Woolly mammoths trample Thursday's mother's flower beds. The Crimean War has been raging since the previous century. One of the most popular shows on television is something called ''Name That Fruit!'' And lurking among these playful variations on our own reality, trying its best to look as whimsical and innocuous as the others, is the idea that everybody cares a great deal about literature.
The population of Fforde's bizarro world is, for example, divided over the question of who actually wrote Shakespeare's plays, and people debate this matter with approximately the same fervor and bitterness that contemporary Americans adopt when arguing about abortion. Fort Knox has been converted to store the Library of Congress's most valuable works. And there is a whole branch of the criminal underground dedicated to such erudite malfeasance as counterfeiting undiscovered Shakespeare plays and bogus endings to Byron's ''Don Juan,'' thus creating a need for literary detectives like the shapely Ms. Next.
From this dizzying premise, things only get more complicated. Fforde's plots don't unfold so much as proliferate, with the author grafting on entire new dimensions at every turn, relentlessly driving the story deeper into postmodern complexity and mind-bending silliness. One of the book's major plot points involves Thursday Next and one of the best-known characters from ''Great Expectations,'' Miss Havisham, who turns out to be an agent for yet another shadowy branch of literary law enforcement -- and who also drives a Bugatti, when not stewing over her matrimonial near miss in the pages of Dickens's masterpiece. (She escapes captivity by metaphysically entering the text of the washing-instruction label on Thursday's trousers.)
There is a certain self-delighted quality to all this cleverness that would probably become annoying if Fforde weren't so resolutely unclever about his own writing. By and large, the story bounds along in one-sentence paragraphs that J. K. Rowling would be proud of: ''He paused for a moment and jabbed a finger in the direction of Stiggins''; ''Hopkins bit his lip and turned a dark shade of crimson''; ''He thought for a moment and made a few notes on the back of an envelope with a pencil stub.''
In other words, this isn't literary fiction -- which, for a book that uses the great works of English literature literally as its primary location, is a funny sort of diagnosis to have to make. In ''Lost in a Good Book,'' as in ''The Eyre Affair,'' there is a constant mounting tension between the literary values of the books Fforde is writing about and those of his own -- a tension, one gets the feeling, that he rather enjoys.
Far from being the slightly fey celebration of bookishness they might at first glance appear to be, the Thursday Next novels seem instead to be of two minds -- at least two minds -- about the enduring value of the great books in a modern world. What does it mean that these books are once again a mass medium in Fforde's alternate universe? Is this a fogyish yearning for the long-gone heyday of the written word? Or, given the other strangenesses of that universe (the most popular sport is croquet), is it a snide affirmation of just how long gone that heyday really is? That books must literally be brought to life in order to save the world is either a metaphorical declaration that books have great value or a hypothetical demonstration of just how absurd, and few, are the circumstances under which that would be the case.
Ultimately, the boisterous enthusiasm with which the general public celebrates the written word in the universe of the Thursday Next novels comes across as creepy and indiscriminate, rather like those glassy-eyed individuals who proclaim a general love for ''the arts.'' Surely a blanket affection for the whole category of books, for books per se, precludes to some extent the total immersion in any single book -- to the extent that one forgets one is even reading a book -- that many might agree is the medium's raison d'ętre.
But this might be Fforde's point. The title of the novel is ''Lost in a Good Book,'' yet almost every page is booby-trapped with text-based gimmickry that prevents the reader from ever forgetting that these are just words on paper. Certain characters speak to Thursday in footnotes that other characters can't hear. At one point she gets stuck in a time loop, and the sentence ''I yelled, 'NO!' and pulled out my gun and aimed it at the man who held Billden'' is repeated 13 times, filling up most of a page.
In other words, ''Lost in a Good Book'' is a book in which one isn't allowed to get lost. Fforde doesn't ask that we suspend our disbelief. He encourages disbelief at every turn, while his plot comes back again and again, like a Freudian neurosis, in wild and increasingly inventive ways, to the image of Thursday Next finding yet another fantastical means of entering a work of classic literature and getting lost in it. Which for the reader, somehow, is an immensely enjoyable, almost compulsive experience.
It may be that Fforde has succeeded in doing for the anxieties of 21st-century book lovers -- nagged by the feeling that perhaps they aren't getting as swept away by books as they used to -- what Helen Fielding did for the anxieties of the 30-something single urban female. In attempting to come up with an adult Harry Potter, he may also have stumbled across that other Holy Grail of modern fiction, the male-friendly (or at least the gender-neutral) Bridget Jones -- which, for everyone but Fforde's accountant, is a fairly terrifying prospect.
Bruno Maddox is the author of a novel, ''My Little Blue Dress.''