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the pathetic caverns - books by author - Jasper Fforde

eclectic reviews and opinions

Jasper Fforde

Lost in a Good Book

According to the cover blurb, The New York Times Book Review called Lost in a Good Book "Harry Potter just for adults." Unlike the great majority of facile comparisons, this one encapsulates so much of what's both good and bad about the book that I think it's worthy of further consideration.

Like the Harry Potter books, Jasper Fforde's novels about the outlandishly-named Thursday Next, a literary detective (or "litratec") are set in an alternate Britain more notable for the novelty and exuberance of its invention than for its internal consistency. The Eyre Affair's melange included genetically reconstituted dodos, time travel, and vampires. Among other things, Lost in a Good Book adds a Neanderthal underclass and tunnels drilled through the earth's center to the mix.

Both series lean a little hard on punny names for their humor, with Bric Schitt-Hawse (half brother to The Eyre Affair's Jack Schitt) serving as one of the major villains. Both feature a complex hierarchy of imaginary societies, and Next's tutelage in learning to enter works of fiction and fix certain problems (like infections of adjective-eating "grammasites" or "bloopholes" that cause plots to collapse in on themselves) mirrors Potter's education in the mystic arts.

The language of both writers also tends to be a little flat and unmusical, verging on the repertorial: "One of the other women had called SpecOps-21 and a third had given the neanderthal a handkerchief to dab his bleeding mouth. I uncuffed Kaylieu and apologized, then sat down and put my head in my hands, wondering what had gone wrong."

But perhaps most importantly, both have an underlying agenda closely tied with the love of reading and literature. J.K. Rowling's books have drawn a great deal of praise for inspiring kids to read, and that's not solely a triumph of marketing: Harry Potter is a scholar hero.

Fforde's books might well lead adults to revisit works that seemed too daunting in high school English class. You certainly don't need to have read Kafka's The Trial to enjoy Lost in a Good Book, but it will be funnier if you have. Likewise, you'll be at an advantage if you already know that there is some evidence that Shakespeare may have written a play called Cardenio but that no copy of it survived. (For those who can't be bothered, the chapter heading quotes attributed to "Millon de Floss" tend to contain more fact than fiction.)

It's perhaps also worth mentioning that a novel like this can never exist without allowing works to enter the public domain, which the current trend of copyright law in the U.S. may not continue to permit. Lost in a Good Book features a magic library (like that described by Borges and Millhauser among others) that includes all books, either written or unwritten. But Thursday Next will only ever be able to enter the works not secured by copyright. It's certainly an open (and unanswerable) question whether writers like Dickens would approve the use to which Fforde puts their characters, and I wouldn't dream of suggesting that Lost in a Good Book is the equal of the classics it references. But it's a diverting slice of post-modern fun anyway, and if it leads its readers back to Brontë or Kafka I tend to think on balance it's a good thing.

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