Let’s just get this out of the way up front: if Jasper Fforde started publishing his grocery lists or his to-do lists, I would buy them and read them and enjoy them. He’s just that engaging and funny and creative as a writer, and after reading The Eyre Affair and all the rest of the Thursday Next books, and the Nursery Crime series, I am willing to trust him as a writer and go along on any ride he wants to take me on.
That said, Shades of Grey is one heck of a weird book.
It may be one of the weirdest books I’ve read. It’s weird even for Jasper Fforde, and that is saying a lot. At the beginning I found it more difficult to read than his other books, and I gather from the Acknowledgements at the end that he found it more challenging than usual to write as well.
It was difficult, not because the writing is not as clever and fun and engrossing as Fforde’s writing always is, but because he’s created an alternate world to set the story in (as he always does) and this particular world is more complex and convoluted than the alternate-future of the Thursday Next books or the nursery rhyme character world of the Nursery Crime novels.
The world of Shades of Grey is a dystopian world of the future, which right away is a stumbling block for me. Nineteen Eight-Four, The Handmaid’s Tale, Brave New World — my reading career is littered with dystopian novels that I either have struggled though and regretted it, or failed to ever pick up. I even find Wall-E too depressing to watch. But since it’s in the hands of Fforde, one of the funniest writers alive in the world today, this particular dystopia is not depressing. It’s just crazy.
It’s the world as it exists hundreds of years after some unspecified apocalyptic disaster (referred to by the book’s characters, who have no sense of history, as the Something That Happened). Many of the features of standard dystopian futures are here in this books: a rigid, totalitarian society with few personal freedoms, in which everyone is assigned a rigidly defined role from which it is not safe to deviate. However, there are some distinctly Ffordian touches: periodic technological “Leapbacks” make technology progressively more and more crude and difficult to use; an obscure ancient rule bans the manufacture of spoons, which become a highly prized resource; residents live in deathly fear of swan attacks. Oh, and there’s the vitally important detail: people’s ability to perceive colours has changed somehow, so that the world appears in shades of grey except for the one colour people can perceive naturally.
This fact makes colour the organizing principle of politics, economy, religion and especially social class. Those who can perceive only red are Reds; those who can perceive only blue are Blues; those who see no colour at all are Greys. These differences result in rigid social divisions and arcane rules about marriage and interbreeding. This was the aspect of the book that almost drove me insane in the first quarter of the novel as I tried to figure out exactly who could see what and what the various social stratifications were. But it turned out to be kind of like one of those card games or board games that sound impenetrable when someone explains the rules, yet easy to understand once you actually start playing. When I decided to stop trying to figure out how exactly the rules of the Chromatic hierarchy worked (much less the science behind who could see what and why) and just decided to sit back and enjoy the story, the pieces began falling into place.
The story itself is a pretty classic hero’s journey enlivened by the aforementioned Ffordian humour and whimsy. The hero is a young man named Eddie Russett, who up till this point in his life has accepted the rules and stratifications of his society, and his role in it, pretty much without question — though he does have an inconvenient habit of thinking innovatively and showing initiative, qualities which are strongly discouraged in his world. When Eddie and his father have to travel far from home to another community, Eddie is forced to rethink everything he has taken for granted. When he stumbles upon an underground conspiracy to undermine the evil Chromatocracy — and it just happens to involve a cute, though very aggressive, Grey girl with a turned-up nose — it’s inevitable that Eddie, too, will find himself being drawn to the rebel side.
That’s a thumbnail sketch of a very complex, very crazy, very engaging books. Along the way there are lots of laughs but also, as in any good dystopia, a few moments for serious reflection. Fforde gets in some good digs at religious literalists — the entire world of the story is ruled by the ancient and byzantine writings of a man named Munsell who is revered as a godlike figure and whose Rules are followed to the letter. One of the Rules states that all children should be given a glass of milk and a smack at 11:00 a.m., and this rule is followed slavishly for two hundred years — a nice glass of milk followed by a good swat — until someone dares suggest that maybe, just maybe, there’s a typo in the Rules and children are supposed to be getting a glass of milk and a snack.
There are plenty of great throwaway jokes like that studded throughout Shades of Grey, and what initially (to me, but I may not be very bright) seemed like an almost incomprehensible world eventually becomes a richly detailed and intriguing one. As for Eddie’s story, it had me so engrossed that I was very relieved, when the book ended, to note that volumes 2 and 3 are forthcoming. I can’t wait.