“Lost in a Good Book”

Unattributed collage about the Thursday Next series of comic sci-fi novels. (frivolouswasteoftime.wordpress.com)

Unattributed collage about the Thursday Next series of comic sci-fi novels. (frivolouswasteoftime.wordpress.com)

To illustrate the generally ecumenical theme of this blog, I will quote a few passages from Lost in a Good Book, a sci-fi comic thriller by Jasper Fforde, in which heroine Thursday Next, a literary detective who can jump in and out of famous novels to solve the crimes therein, visits an exhibit of modern art at the church of the Global Standard Deity.

Jasper Fforde (thevarsity.ca)

Jasper Fforde (thevarsity.ca)

Unlike modern architecture, which we cannot choose to avoid, modern art is not, as recently said of modern architecture, “almost always and everywhere an enemy of the public good.” Like modern architecture, there is often talent on display by its authors, perhaps almost as often as there is an effort to disguise a lack of talent. Also like modern architecture, even when “good” it often sears the eye. Then again, one must almost always enter a building (often an ugly one) at one’s own volition to inflict that pain on oneself, and it does not directly injure the wider public that is able to ignore it. (Modern art does indirectly injure the wider public by diverting whatever talent it may express toward lesser rather than greater endeavors, artistic or otherwise.)

With that, the passages on an art exhibition from Lost in a Good Book:

We approached a small scrum where one of the featured artists was presenting his latest work to an attentive audience composed mostly of art critics who all wore collarless black suits and were scribbling notes in their catalogues.

“So,” said one of the critics, gazing at the piece through her half-moon spectacles, “tell us all about it, Mr. Duchamp.”

“I call it The Id Within,” said the young artist in a quiet voice, avoiding everyone’s gaze and pressing his fingertips together. He was dressed in a long black cloak and had sideburns cut so sharp that if he turned abruptly he would have had someone’s eye out. He continued: “Like life, my piece reflects the many different layers that cocoon and restrict us in society today. The outer layer – reflecting yet counterpoising the harsh exoskeleton we all display – is hard, thin, yet somehow brittle – but beneath this a softer layer awaits, yet of the same shape and almost the same size. As one delves deeper one finds many different shells, each smaller yet no softer than the one before. The journey is a tearful one, and when one reaches the center there is almost nothing there at all, and the similarity to the outer crust is, in a sense, illusory.”

“It’s an onion,” I said in a loud voice.

There was a stunned silence. Several of the art critics looked at me, then at Duchamp, then at the onion.

I was sort of hoping the critics would say something like “I’d like to thank you for bringing this to our attention. We nearly made complete dopes of ourselves,” but they didn’t. They just said: “Is this true?”

To which Duchamp replied that this was true in fact, but untrue representationally, and as if to reinforece the fact he drew a bunch of shallots from within his jacket and added: “I have here another piece I’d like you to see. It’s called The Id Within II (Grouped) and is a collection of concentric three-dimensional shapes locked around a central core.”

Cordelia pulled me away as the critics craned forward with renewed interest. “You seem very troublesome tonight, Thursday. Come on, I want you to meet someone.”

Sci-fi is not everyone’s literature of choice, of course, and normally not mine, but Fforde’s novels are so curious, and written with such pitch-perfect style, elegance and wit, that I highly recommend his books. … Thursday continues to consider the exhibit:

I left Cordelia and Mr. Flex plotting their next move in low voices and went on to find Bowden, who was staring at a dustbin full of paper cups.

“How can they present this as art?” he asked. “It looks just like a rubbish bin!”

“It is a rubbish bin,” I replied. “That’s why it’s next to the refreshments table.”

“Oh,” he said. …”

And a bit later:

I found Cordelia and Mr. Flex discussing the merits of a minimalist painting by Welsh artist Tegwyn Wedimedr that was so minimalist it wasn’t there at all. They were staring at a blank wall with a picture hook on it.

“What does it say to you, Harry?”

“It says … nothing, Cords – but in a very different way. How much is it?”

“It’s called Beyond Satire and it’s twelve hundred pounds, quite a snip. Hello, Thursday!”

Later still:

“I know that only too well,” I replied, steering them towards a quiet spot next to a model of a matchstick made entirely out of bits of the houses of Parliament.”

These finely wrought send-ups of modern art and popular reaction to them must have been fun for Jasper Fforde to write. I enjoyed not only reading them but transcribing them onto this post for your enjoyment. By the way, anyone who wants to try him out might do well to start with The Eyre Affair, my first and still my favorite, about how she solves a crime in the novel Jane Eyre. Here is how Amazon describes the series:

Fans of Douglas Adams and P. G. Wodehouse will love visiting Jasper Fforde’s Great Britain, circa 1985, when time travel is routine, cloning is a reality (dodos are the resurrected pet of choice), and literature is taken very, very seriously: it’s a bibliophile’s dream. England is a virtual police state where an aunt can get lost (literally) in a Wordsworth poem and forging Byronic verse is a punishable [crime].

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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One Response to “Lost in a Good Book”

  1. Pingback: Morgan on Cram’s All Saints | Architecture Here and There

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