Jasper Fforde sets about endearing himself to readers even before he begins the second in his series of Thursday Next novels, “Lost in a Good Book.” His dedication reads, “This book is dedicated to assistants everywhere. You make it happen for them. They couldn’t do it without you. Your contribution is everything.” A bit over the top toward the end, but sweet, and it gives a sense of the rumpled everyman quality underlying Fforde’s larky wit.
Thursday Next lives in 1980s Britain, but hers is an alternate version of our own world, lacking in some of our technology (jet planes) and advanced in others we’ve barely tapped, such as genetic engineering. (Thursday has a pet dodo and the Neanderthal has been brought back, to mixed success.) In Thursday’s world, people can travel through time, but the practice is tightly controlled by a division of the Special Operations police force called the ChronoGuard. Thursday works for SpecOps, too, but in another division. She’s a literary detective.
In what must be the most outlandish of Fforde’s tweaks to our reality, literature is hugely popular in Thursday’s Britain. You know the way teenage girls feel about the boy band or warbling nymphet of the month? Well, that’s the way millions of solid citizens feel about Byron and Milton where Thursday comes from. And then there are the Shakespeare fans — enough of them, in fact, to form a decisive voting bloc.
But where literature enjoys mass appeal, it also suffers greater vulnerabilities. LiteraTec, Thursday’s department, tracks down forgeries, unauthorized editions and stolen works. Literary security is high-level work, “the Bodleian these days was like Fort Knox — and Fort Knox itself had been converted to take the Library of Congress’ more valuable works.” What’s more, since Thursday’s own uncle, Mycroft, invented a device that allows people to actually enter into literary works, muck about with the story lines and even kidnap the books’ characters, LiteraTec jobs have gotten even riskier. Fortunately, Thursday, who can “field-strip an M-16 blindfold,” packs a mean right hook and knows her Brontës backward and forward, is equal to the task. In Fforde’s first book, “The Eyre Affair,” she rescued the eponymous Jane from the clutches of the arch-villain Acheron Hades.
In doing so, Thursday managed to strand a representative of the omnipresent Goliath Corporation in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” — a ghastly fate, as you might imagine — and the multinational monolith wants him back. Meanwhile, the higher-ups in SpecOps want her to rat on her father, a time-hopping rogue ChronoGuard who is desperately trying to figure out why all organic matter on the planet will turn into pink goo on Dec. 12 so that he can head off whatever will cause it. Goliath and SpecOps team up to put pressure on Thursday by “eradicating” her new husband, Landen; they go back in time to prevent him from being saved from drowning as a child.
“Lost in a Good Book” takes a bit longer to lift off than “The Eyre Affair” did, and the first few chapters feel cluttered with too much of the time-travel brain teasers and light satire that are the book’s least original charms. There’s a fun plot point in which Thursday realizes that she’s become the target of someone with the power to counteract the second law of thermodynamics by decreasing the amount of disorder in certain parts of the universe — in other words, with the power to control coincidences, often to deadly effect.
To figure out when she’s nearing a “coincidental epicenter,” Thursday carries around a jar of mixed lentils and rice; when the jar’s contents start forming orderly patterns, she knows she’s in trouble. But despite such homely-cosmic touches, it’s the introduction of the literary into Douglas Adams territory that makes Fforde’s books so delightful, and fortunately about midway through “Lost in a Good Book,” that element kicks into high gear.
Thursday, already enjoying a certain celebrity for her role in the Jane Eyre case, gets enlisted by yet another law enforcement outfit: Jurisfiction. Jurisfiction, whose agents are both real and “entirely fictional,” is a police force that operates inside literary works: foiling the censorial efforts of the Bowdlerizers (who have nevertheless managed to delete several of the naughtier Canterbury Tales), preventing “people from blundering around in ‘Little Women’ trying to stop Beth from dying,” and keeping bored characters from wandering off into other books. (A failure on this last count explains what Falstaff is doing in “The Merry Wives of Windsor.”) Jurisfiction missions can be dangerous, for if an operative gets caught up in a particularly weird or unstable work, he could wind up Boojummed, or vanished — the fate of the 19th century writer Ambrose Bierce.
Jurisfiction apprentices Thursday to Miss Havisham (“You’ll be fine. Just don’t mention the wedding”), who reveals a taste for sports cars and speedboats that goes unmentioned in Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations.” The nerve center of Jurisfiction is a vast library worthy of Jorge Luis Borges that contains master copies of every book that will ever be written. The librarian is a large tabby cat whose identity Thursday takes an unconscionably long time to recognize. When she asks him about it, here’s the response: “‘I was the Cheshire Cat,’ he replied with a slightly aggrieved air. ‘But they moved the county boundaries, so technically speaking I’m now the Unitary Authority of Warrington Cat, but it doesn’t have the same ring to it.’”
Here’s where Fforde’s writing scales the giddiest and most Carrollian heights of absurd British humor, including a delightful scene in which Thursday goes before the judge who presided over Josef K’s trial (somehow the prosecutor winds up in jail) and the Unitary Authority of Warrington Cat’s explanation that “In fiction, the most-read book ever is ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ Not just because it is a cracking good read for us, but because of all the Vertebrate uberclassics it was the only one that really translated well into Arthropod. And if you can crack the Lobster Market — if you’ll pardon the pun — a billion years from now, you’re really going to flog some copies. The Arthropod title is ‘Tlkiltikixlkikixlkili,’ or, literally translated, ‘The Past Nonexistent State of the Angelfish.’ Atticus Finch is a lobster called Tkliki, and he defends a horseshoe crab named Klikiflik.”
Admittedly, this is pretty silly stuff, but somehow just what the doctor ordered now, in a world under the shadow of war, at the tail end of a long, cold winter. (There’s publishing genius in bringing out Fforde’s books in late February.) The Cat tells Thursday that if she’s lucky, someday her “bookjumping” skills may enable her to “glimpse the core of the book, the central nub of energy that binds a novel together … once you’ve laid your eyes on the raw concept of a book, everything you’ve ever seen or felt will seem about as interesting as a stair carpet.” I’m not sure whether I’ve glimpsed it or not, but something tells me the core of “Lost in a Good Book” resembles whipped cream — as sweet and light as the promise of spring.