The Well of Lost Plots. To understand the Well you have to have an idea of the layout of the Great Library. The library is where all published fiction is stored so it can be read by the readers in the Outland; there are twenty-six floors, one for each letter of the alphabet. The library is constructed in the layout of a cross with the four corridors radiating from the center point. On all the walls, end after end, shelf after shelf, are books. Hundreds, thousands, millions of books. Hardbacks, paperbacks, leatherbound, everything. But the similarity of all these books to the copies we read back home is no more than the similarity a photograph has to its subject; these books are alive.
Beneath the Great Library are twenty-six floors of dingy yet industrious subbasements known as The Well of Lost Plots. This is where books are constructed, honed and polished in readiness for a place in the library above—if they make it that far. The failure rate is high. Unpublished books outnumber published by an estimated eight to one.
The Jurisfiction Chronicles
MAKING ONE'S HOME in an unpublished novel wasn't without its compensations. All the boring day-to-day mundanities that we conduct in the real world get in the way of narrative flow and are thus generally avoided. The car didn't need refueling, there were never any wrong numbers, there was always enough hot water and vacuum cleaner bags came in only two sizes— upright and pull along. There were other more subtle differences, too. For instance, no one ever needed to repeat themselves in case you didn't hear, no one shared the same name, talked at the same time or had a word annoyingly "on the tip of their tongue." Best of all, the bad guy was always someone you knew of, and— Chaucer aside—there wasn't much farting. But there were some downsides. The relative absence of breakfast was the first and most notable difference to my daily timetable. Inside books, dinners are often written about and therefore feature frequently, as do lunches and afternoon tea; probably because they offer more opportunities to further the story.
Breakfast wasn't all that was missing. There was a peculiar lack of cinemas, wallpaper, toilets, colors, books, animals, underwear, smells, haircuts, and strangely enough, minor illnesses. If some one was ill in a book, it was either terminal and dramatically un pleasant or a mild head cold—there wasn't much in between.
I was able to take up residence inside fiction by virtue of a scheme entitled the Character Exchange Program. Due to a spate of bored and disgruntled bookpeople escaping from their novels and becoming what we called PageRunners, the authorities set up the scheme to allow characters a change of scenery. In any year there are close to ten thousand exchanges, few of which result in any major plot or dialogue infringements—the reader rarely suspects anything at all. Since I was from the real world and not actually a character at all, the Bellman and Miss Havisham had agreed to let me live inside the BookWorld in ex change for helping out at Junsfiction—at least as long as my pregnancy would allow. The choice of book for my self-enforced exile had not been a bitrary; when Miss Havisham asked me in which novel I would care to reside, I had thought long and hard. Robinson Crusoe would have been ideal considering the climate, but there was no one female to exchange with. I could have gone to Pride and Prejudice, but I wasn't wild about high collars, bonnets, corsets— and delicate manners. No, to avoid any complications and reduce the possibility of having to move, I had decided to make my home in a book of such dubious and uneven quality that publication and my subsequent enforced ejection was unlikely in the extreme. I found just such a book deep within The Well of Lost Plots amongst failed attempts at prose and half-finished epics of such dazzling ineptness that they would never see the light of day. The book was a dreary crime thriller set in Reading entitled Caversham Heights. I had planned to stay there for only a year, but it didn't work out that way. Plans with me are like De Floss novels—try as you might, you never know quite how they are going to turn out.
I read my way into Cavers ham Heights. The air felt warm after the wintry conditions back home, and I found myself standing on a wooden jetty at the edge of a lake. In front of me there was a large and seemingly derelict flying boat of the sort that still plied the coastal routes back home. I had flown on one myself not six months before on the trail of someone claiming to have found some unpublished Burns poetry. But that was another lifetime ago, when I was SpecOps in Swindon, the world I had temporarily left behind.
The ancient flying boat rocked gently in the breeze, tautening the mooring ropes and creaking gently, the water gently slapping against the hull. As I watched the old aircraft, wondering just how long something this decrepit could stay afloat, a well-dressed young woman stepped out of an oval-shaped door in the high- sided hull. She was carrying a suitcase. I had read the novel of Caversham Heights so I knew Mary well although she didn't know me.
"Hullo!" she shouted, trotting up and offering me a hand. "I'm Mary. You must be Thursday. My goodness! What's that?"
"A dodo. Her name's Pickwick."
Pickwick plocked and stared at Mary suspiciously.
"Really?" she replied, looking at the bird curiously. "I'm no expert of course but—I thought dodos were extinct."
"Where I come from, they're a bit of a pest."
"Oh?" mused Mary. "I'm not sure I've heard of a book with live dodos in it."
"I'm not a bookperson," I told her, "I'm real."
"Oh!" exclaimed Mary, opening her eyes wide. "An Outlander."
She touched me inquisitively with a slender index finger as though I might be made of glass.
"I've never seen someone from the other side before," she announced, clearly relieved to find that I wasn't going to shatter into a thousand pieces, "Tell me, is it true you have to cut your hair on a regular basis? I mean, your hair actually grows?"
"Yes"—I smiled—"and my fingernails, too."
"Really?" mused Mary "I've heard rumors about that but I thought it was just one of those Outlandish legends. I suppose you have to eat, too? To stay alive, I mean, not just when the story calls for it?"
"One of the great pleasures of life," I assured her.
I didn't think I'd tell her about real-world downsides such as tooth decay, incontinence, or old age. Mary lived in a three-year window and neither aged, died, married, had children, got sick or changed in any way. Although appearing resolute and strong- minded, she was only like this because she was written that way For all her qualities, Mary was simply a foil to Jack Spratt, the detective in Caversham Heights, the loyal sergeant figure to whom Jack explained things so the readers knew what was going on. She was what writers called an expositional, but I'd never be as impolite to say so to her face.
"Is this where I'm going to live?" I was pointing at the shabby flying boat.
"I know what you're thinking." Mary smiled proudly. "Isn't she just the most beautiful thing ever? She's a Sunderland; built in 1943 but last flew in '68. I'm midway converting her to a houseboat, but don't feel shy if you want to help out. Just keep the bilges pumped out, and if you can run the number three engine once a month, I'd be very grateful—the start-up checklist is on the flight deck.
"Well-—okay," I muttered.
"Good. I've left a précis of the story taped to the fridge and a rough idea of what you have to say, but don't worry about being word perfect; since we're not published, you can say almost any thing you want—within reason, of course." "Of course." I thought for a moment. "I'm new to the Character Exchange Program. When will I be called to do something?"
"Wyatt is the inbook exchange liaison officer; he'll let you know. Jack might seem gruff to begin with," continued Mary, "but he has a heart of gold. If he asks you to drive his Austin Allegro, make sure you depress the clutch fully before changing gear. He takes his coffee black and the love interest between my self and DC Baker is strictly unrequited, is that clear?"
"Very clear," I returned, thankful I would not have to do anylove scenes.
"Good. Did they supply you with all the necessary paper work, IDs, that sort of thing?"
I patted my pocket and she handed me a scrap of paper and a bunch of keys.
"Good. This is my footnoterphone number in case of emergencies, these are the keys to the flying boat and my BMW. If a loser named Arnold calls, tell him I hope he rots in hell. Any questions?"
"I don't think so."
She smiled as a yellow cab with TransGenre Taxis painted on the side materialized in front of us. The cabbie looked bored and Mary opened the passenger door.
"Then we're done. You'll like it here. I'll see you in about a year. So long!"
She turned to the cabbie, muttered, "Get me out of this book," and she and the car faded out, leaving me alone on the dusty track.
I sat upon a rickety wooden seat next to a tub of long-dead flowers and let Pickwick out of her bag. She ruffled her feathers indignantly and blinked in the sunlight. I looked across the lake at the sailing dinghies that were little more than brightly colored triangles that tacked backwards and forwards in the distance. Nearer to shore a pair of swans beat their wings furiously and pedaled the water in an attempt to take off, landing almost as soon as they were airborne, throwing up a long streak of spray on the calm waters. It seemed a lot of effort to go a few hundred yards.
I turned my attention to the flying boat. The layers of paint that covered and protected the riveted hull had partly peeled off to reveal the colorful livery of long-forgotten airlines beneath. The Perspex windows had clouded with age, and high in the massive wing untidy cables hung lazily from the oil-stained cowlings of the three empty engine bays, their safe inaccessibility now a haven for nesting birds. Goliath, Aornis, and SpecOps seemed a million miles away—but then, so did Landen. Landen. Memories of my husband were never far away. I thought of all the times we had spent together that hadn't actually happened. All the places we hadn't visited, all the things we hadn't done. He might have been eradicated at the age of two, but I still had our memories— just no one to share them with.
I was interrupted from my thoughts by the sound of a motor cycle approaching. The rider didn't have much control of the vehicle; I was glad that he stopped short of the jetty—his erratic riding might well have led him straight into the lake.
"Hullo!" he said cheerfully, removing his helmet to reveal a youngish man with a dark Mediterranean complexion and deep sunken eyes. "My name's Arnold. I haven't seen you around here before, have I?" I got up and shook his hand.
"The name's Next. Thursday Next. Character Exchange Program."
"Oh, blast!" he muttered. "Blast and double blast! I suppose that means I've missed her?"
I nodded and he shook his head sadly.
"Did she leave a message for me?"
"Y-es," I said uncertainly "She said she would, um, see you when she gets back."
"She did?" replied Arnold, brightening up. "That's a good sign. Normally she calls me a loser and tells me to go rot in hell."
"She probably won't be back for a while," I added, trying to make up for not passing on Mary's message properly, "maybe a year—maybe more."
"I see," he murmured, sighing deeply and staring off across the lake. He caught sight of Pickwick, who was attempting to outstare a strange aquatic bird with a rounded bill.
"What's that?" he asked suddenly.
"I think it's a duck, although I can't be sure—we don't have any where I come from."
"No, the other thing." "A dodo." l
"What's the matter?" asked Arnold.
I was getting a footnoterphone signal; in the Book World people generally communicated like this.
"A footnoterphone call," I replied, "but it's not a message—it's like the wireless back home." 2
Arnold stared at me. "You're not from around here, are you?"
"I'm from the other side of the page. What you call the Outland." 3
He opened his eyes wide. "You mean—you're real?"
"I'm afraid so," I replied, slightly bemused.
"Goodness! Is it true that Outlanders can't say 'red-Buick- blue-Buick' many times quickly?"
"It's true. We call it a tongue twister."
"Fascinating! There's nothing like that here, you know I can say 'The sixth sheikh's sixth sheep's sick' over and over as many times as I want!"
And he did, three times.
"Now you try."
I took a deep breath. "The sixth spleeps sics sleeks. . . sick."
Arnold laughed like a drain. I don't think he'd come across anything quite so funny in his life. I smiled.
"Do it again!"
"No thanks. How do I stop this footnoterphone blabbering inside my skull?"
"Just think Off very strongly."
I did, and the footnoterphone stopped.
"You'll get the hang of it."
He thought for a minute, looked up and down the lake in a overtly innocent manner, then said, "Do you want to buy some verbs? Not any of your rubbish, either. Good, strong, healthy regulars—straight from the Text Sea—I have a friend on a scrawltrawler."
I smiled. "I don't think so, Arnold—and I don't think you should ask me—I'm Jurisfiction."
"Oh," said Arnold, looking pale all of a sudden. He bit his lip and gave such an imploring look that I almost laughed.
"Don't sweat," I told him, "I won't report it."
He sighed a deep sigh of relief, muttered his thanks, re mounted his motorbike and drove off in a jerky fashion, narrowly missing the mailboxes at the top of the track.
The interior of the flying boat was lighter and more airy than I had imagined, but it smelt a bit musty. Mary was mistaken; she had not been halfway through the craft's conversion—it was more like one-tenth. The walls were half-paneled with pine tongue- and-groove, and rock-wool insulation stuck out untidily along with unused electrical cables. There was room for two floors within the boat's cavernous hull, the downstairs a large, open-plan living room with a couple of old sofas pointing towards a television set. I tried to switch it on but it was dead—there was no TV in the BookWorld unless called for in the narrative. Much of what I could see around me were merely props, necessary for the chapter in which Jack Spratt visits the Sunderland to discuss the case. On the mantelpiece above a small wood-burning stove were pictures of Mary from her days at the police training college, and another from when she was promoted to detective sergeant.
I opened a door that led into a small kitchenette. Attached to the fridge was the précis of Caversham Heights. I flicked through it. The sequence of events was pretty much as I remembered from my first reading in the Well, although it seemed that Mary had overstated her role in some of the puzzle-solving areas. I put the précis down, found a bowl and filled it with water for Pickwick, took her egg from my bag and laid it on the sofa, where she quickly set about turning it over and tapping it gently with her beak. I went forward and discovered a bedroom where the nose turret would have been and climbed a narrow aluminum ladder to the flight deck directly above. This was the best view in the house, the large greenhouse-like Perspex windows affording a good view of the lake. The massive control wheels were set in front of two comfortable chairs, and facing them and ahead of a tangled mass of engine control levers was a complex panel of broken and faded instruments. To my right I could see the one remaining engine, looking forlorn, the propeller blades streaked with bird droppings.
Behind the pilots' seats, where the flight engineer would have sat, there was a desk with reading lamp, footnoterphone and typewriter. On the bookshelf were mainly magazines of a police nature and lots of forensic textbooks. I walked through a narrow doorway and found a pleasant bedroom. The headroom was not overgenerous, but it was cozy and dry and was paneled in pine with a porthole above the double bed. Behind the bedroom was a storeroom, a hot-water boiler, stacks of wood and a spiral staircase. I was just about to go downstairs when I heard someone speak from the living room below.
"What do you think that is?"
The voice had an empty ring to it and was neuter in its inflection—I couldn't tell if it was male or female.
I stopped and instinctively pulled my automatic from my shoulder holster. Mary lived alone—or so it had said in the book. As I moved slowly downstairs, I heard another voice answer the first:
"I think it's a bird of some sort."
The second voice was no more distinctive than the first, and indeed, if the second voice had not been answering the first, I might have thought they belonged to the same person.
As I rounded the staircase, I saw two figures standing in the middle of the room staring at Pickwick, who stared back, courageously protecting her egg from behind the sofa.
"Hey!" I said, pointing my gun in their direction. "Hold it right there!"
The two figures looked up and stared at me without expression from features that were as insipid and muted as their voices. Because of their equal blandness it was impossible to tell them apart. Their arms hung limply by their sides, exhibiting no body language. They might have been angry or curious or worried or elated—but I couldn't tell.
"Who are you?" I asked.
"We are nobody," replied the one on the left.
"Everyone is someone," I replied.
"Not altogether correct," said the one on the right. "We have a code number but nothing more. I am TSI-1404912-A and this is TSI-1404912-C."
"What happened to -B?"
"Taken by a grammasite last Tuesday."
I lowered my gun. Miss Havisham had told me about Generics. They were created here in the Well to populate the books that were to be written. At the point of creation they were simply a human canvas without paint—blank like a coin, ready to be stamped with individualism. They had no history, no conflicts, no foibles—nothing that might make them either readable or interesting in any way. It was up to various institutions to teach them to be useful members of fiction. They were graded, too. A to D, one through ten. Any that were D-graded were like worker bees in crowds and busy streets. Small speaking parts were C-grades; B-grades usually made up the bulk of featured but not leading characters. These parts usually—but not always—went to the A-grades, handpicked for their skills at character projection and multidimensionality. Huckleberry Finn, Tess and Anna Karenina were all A-grades, but then so were Mr. Hyde, Hannibal Lecter and Professor Moriarty. I looked at the un-graded Generics again. Murderers or heroes? It was impossible to tell how they would turn out. Still, at this stage of their development they would be harmless. I re-holstered my automatic.
"You're Generics, right?"
"Indeed," they said in unison.
"What are you doing here?"
"You remember the craze for minimalism?" asked the one on the right.
"Yes?" I replied, moving closer to stare at their blank faces curiously. There was a lot about the Well that I was going to have to get used to. They were harmless enough—but decidedly creepy. Pickwick was still hiding behind the sofa.
"It was caused by the 1982 character shortage," said the one on the left. "Vikram Seth is planning a large book in the next few years and I don't think the Well wants to be caught out again— we're being manufactured and then sent to stay in unpublished novels until we are called into service." "Sort of stockpiled, you mean?"
"I'd prefer the word billeted," replied the one on the left, the slight indignation indicating that it wouldn't be without a personality forever.
"How long have you been here?"
I paused for a moment. "0—kay. Since we all have to live together, I had better give you names. You," I said, pointing a finger at the one on the right, "are henceforth called ibb. You"—I pointed to the other—"are called obb."
I pointed at them again in case they had missed it as neither made any sign of comprehending what I'd said—or even hearing it.
"You are ibb, and you are obb."
I paused. Something didn't sound right about their names but I couldn't place it.
"ibb," I said to myself, then: "obb. ibb. ibb-obb. Does that sound strange to you?"
"No capitals," said obb, "we don't get capitalized until we start school—we didn't expect a name so soon, either. Can we keep it?"
"It's a gift from me," I told them.
"I am ibb," said ibb, as if to make the point.
"And I am obb," said obb.
"And I'm Thursday," I told them, offering my hand. They shook it in turn slowly and without emotion. I could see that this pair weren't going to be a huge bundle of fun.
"And that's Pickwick."
They looked at Pickwick, who plocked quietly, came out from behind the sofa, settled herself on her egg and pretended to go to sleep.
"Well," I announced, clapping my hands together, "does anyone know how to cook? I'm not very good at it and if you don't want to eat beans on toast for the next year, you had better start to learn. I'm standing in for Mary, and if you don't get in my way, I won't get in yours. I go to bed late and wake up early. I have a husband who doesn't exist and I'm going to have a baby later this year so might get a little cranky—and overweight. Any questions?"
"Yes," said the one on the left. "Which one of us is obb, did you say?"
I unpacked my few things in the small room behind the flight deck. I had sketched a picture of Landen from memory and I placed it on the bedside table, staring at it for a moment. I missed him dreadfully and wondered, for the umpteenth time, whether perhaps 1 shouldn't be here hiding, but out there, in my own world, trying to get him back. Trouble was, I'd tried that and made a complete pig's ear of it—if it hadn't have been for Miss Havisham's timely rescue, I would still be locked up in a Goliath vault somewhere. With our child growing within me I had decided that flight was not a coward's option but a sensible one—I would stay here until the baby was born. I could then plan my return, and following that, Landen's.
I went downstairs and explained to obb the rudiments of cooking, which were as alien to it as having a name. Fortunately I found an old copy of Mrs. Beeton's Complete Housekeeper, which I told obb to study, half-jokingly, as research. Three hours later it had roasted a perfect leg of Iamb with all the trimmings. I had discovered one thing about Generics already: dull and uninteresting they may be—but they learn fast.
1."…This is WOLP-12 on The Well of Lost Plots' own footnoterphone station, transmitting live on the hour every hour to keep you up-to-date with news in the Fiction Factory…"
2. "…After the headlines you can hear our weekly documentary show WeliSpeak, where today we will discuss hiding exposition; following that there will be a WellNews special on the launch of the new Book Operating system, UltraWordTM, featuring a live studio debate with WordMaster Xavier Libris of Text Grand Central..
3. "…here are the main points of the news. Prices of semicolons, plot devices, prologues and inciting incidents continued to fall yesterday, lop ping twenty-eight points off the TomJones Index. The Council of Genres has announced the nominations for the 923rd annual BookWorld awards; Heathcliff is once again to head the Most Troubled Romantic Lead category for the seventy-seventh year running…" 4. "...A new epic poem is to be constructed for the first time in eighty seven years. Title and subject to be announced, but pundits reckon that it's a pointless exercise: skills have all but died out. Next week will also see the launch of a new shopping chain offering off-the-peg narrative requisites. It will be called Pret-a-Ecire…"
Excerpted from The Well of Lost Plots © Copyright 2004 by Jasper Fforde. Reprinted with permission by Penguin. All rights reserved.
The Well of Lost Plots
- Genres: Fiction
- paperback: 375 pages
- Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics)
- ISBN-10: 0143034359
- ISBN-13: 9780143034353