In the realm of oddball comedic writing that staunchly resists easy categorization Jasper Fforde is king. The bulk of his work consists of re-imagining such literary lives as those of Humpty Dumpty, Jane Eyre, Miss Havisham and others. Fforde creates for his characters richly described worlds with labyrinthine systems of rules and social strata. In short, he makes hay of literary tropes, characters and historical “what-ifs”, all the while paying homage to the giants of the English language on whose shoulders he stands.
Shades of Grey is in some ways a bird of *ahem* a different color. However, fans of Fforde’s work will feel at home with his zany approach to reality that keeps the reader just off balance enough to make a straightforward story feel like a bit of a wild ride.
The curtain opens on young Eddie Russet who is a “Red” by dint of his being able to see color primarily in the (you guessed it) red frequencies of the color spectrum. Eddie’s world is color-0bsessed and we find that class hierarchies follow from left to right the familiar acronym ROYGBIV where Reds are the lower middle class, Yellows the administrative class, Greens the privileged middle class and Blue-Indigo-Violets forming what there is of an Aristocracy. Oh, and the Greys are the proletariat.
We also see quickly that there is room for mobility – a Red may well marry a Blue and sire offspring who see the world through genteel purple colored lenses. And this results in something of a social bartering system wherein “strong reds” may marry into a declining blue family to solidify the line. In exchange for an appropriate amount of credits, of course.
As in his other works, Fforde builds a world with strict rules that must not be broken and strange circumstances that dictate the activity of his characters lives. Why, we ask, are spoons in such short supply? How do the residents of this world mine scraps from a disappeared civilization1 and then pipe it into towns to color gardens, street signs and buildings? Why is it that a particular swatch of color has the power to heal, harm, enthrall or even euthanize its viewer?
As in all dystopian visions the world Eddie Russet inhabits is broken. As in all bildungsromans Eddie progresses from naivete to knowlege. The name of progress is attached to regressive policies that benefit the powerful and oppress the lower class. The denouement of the book is a social awakening that a Washington Post reviewer points out is evident from hundreds of pages away. But rather than grouse that this is a disappointment, I propose that we celebrate an old tale originally told.
The plot of Shades of Grey is well worn but the execution gives it some shine. Fans of Fforde will feel at home in this novel and new readers will, perhaps, be drawn in2. Is this a Staggering Work of Genius? No, but it’s a heck of a good tale not only about social dysfunction but also about coming of age, of love and of loss. Best of all it will keep you reading through these cold winter nights and snowy winter days that seem to be playing in an endless loop around these parts this winter. Happy reading!
1 Our own modern world, dear reader.
2 Surely herr Fforde hopes so, as this is the first volume of a planned trilogy.