Shades of Grey: A Review

Shades of Grey, by Jasper Fforde, Viking Adult, published Dec. 29, 2009 by Viking Adult. 400 pages.

There’s something compelling about a Jasper Fforde novel, something that sucks you into the story, tossing you along until the end when it finally grinds you up and spits you out before you even know what’s happened. Fforde is a true satirist, not just pulling apart the way we tell stories, but pulling apart accepted critical conventions and putting them back together again, reinterpreting criticism and analysis from the inside out.

A clever satire set in a dystopic/post-apocalpyptic future, Shades of Grey conjures a disturbing new world with a society defined by color perception, and ruled by a fearsomely rule-abiding Colortocracy. Prefects are appointed according to their perception values; Greys, unable to see any color at all, are a largely ignored working class. When Eddie Russett plays a prank on a Prefect’s son, he’s exiled to East Carmine, a town on the Outer Fringes, to learn humility–and conduct a chair census. (The accepted number of chairs per person? 1.8.) An untested Red with a Chromaticologist, or color-doctor father, Eddie is an average, hard-working member of society on a half-promise to Constance Oxblood, the very eligible daughter of a high-ranking Red family. But the more time Eddie spends in the Outer Fringes, the more he realizes the world is not as neat and tidy as he thought–particularly when it comes to Jane, a Grey with a tendency to clobber people who compliment her charmingly retrousse nose.

Ridiculousness in the extreme is something of a catchphrase for Fforde. In 2006‘s The Fourth Bear, he uses, amongst other things, Somme World, a realistic theme park (complete with simulated shattered corpses) based on the Battle of the Somme to make a statement about war. But Shades of Grey moves beyond the simplicity of a war-inspired theme park. This world, fully realized, is a stark, near-colorless landscape filled with carnivorous trees, megafauna, and giant swans. Spoons, a casualty of progressive Leap Backs, are no longer manufactured, and have become a hot commodity on the black market. Funny, disturbing remnants of our time–the last rabbit, risk maps, statues of characters from the Wizard of Oz–are wildly misinterpreted, yet in a very plausible way, a way that made me cringe with something between horror and delight. The very fine amounts of detail, however, hide a few glaring holes, like the scarcity of information about the Previous and the Something That Happened. While Fforde’s glossing over the particulars is skillful–his allegorical exploration of colors/political theory, much like the earlier Madeleine L’Engle book, A Wrinkle in Time (remember the grayness of the world Meg visits when rescuing her father?)–the lack of Big Picture information hinders the story.

Perhaps more interesting is Fforde’s supporting cast–Tommo, Lucy, and Jane are well-sketched, with clear motivations and believable, relatable personal baggage. Eddie himself is less interesting, more of a not-quite invisible tour guide leading the reader through a mixed bag of swans, megafauna, spoon hunts, and enforced–often extreme and ridiculous–societal mores. When Eddie does have the odd moment of growth, it’s an epiphanic second with little prior development, less of an aha! moment and more of a groan. The writing is better than his previous novels, with no forced punnery, and dialogue and scenes flow naturally, making it easy to get lost in the story, though there is no clear sense of time. In many ways, Fforde’s latest novel is a work of genius. It turns accepted tropes on their heads, deftly shows the absurdity of racism and the color divide etc. etc. And yet, like one of Shakespeare’s best beloved heroes, it has a fatal flaw: there is no real plot.

Reader: No real plot? How can you say that?
Me: Um, easily. I mean, I just did, right?
Reader: But–but it’s a book! A Jasper Fforde book! There must be chases and criminals and a triumph of good over evil! That’s how all Fforde books go!
Me: Not this one. Sorry. I mean, there is a plot, but it’s not much of a plot, really just a foil, a thinly veiled draw card, something to get you inside the book and force your head into its pages for a while until the insanity takes hold and you can’t do anything but finish the story. It’s a bit Seussian that way.

Shades of Grey, while mocking literary device (like all Fforde novels), treats plot–a prince, if not the king/queen/emperor of storytelling–as a mere device, an excuse to meander around a dystopic world in an Umberto Eco-esque manner. Just like Seuss in Green Eggs and Ham, Fforde hangs all on, as Mr. Creosote would have it, a wafer-thin plot, then plays with words, making the reader work for every nugget of information and hoping it is enough.

Although all the details necessary to understand the final revelations are introduced throughout the story, they’re handled in a subtle, almost sly way, presented as trivial detail and tricking the reader into a certain unwarranted sense of security. Feeling more like a set up for another story, the ending falls flat on its arse, particularly since everything is neatly tied up, but only just neatly, like a child’s first attempt at shoelaces. Unsurprising, since Shades of Grey is the first in a projected trilogy. That said, the ending, though intensely unsatisfying, is chew-worthy, and could keep the deeper reader in food for thought for quite a long time.

Despite its faults, Shades of Grey is a worthwhile read, perhaps more so than Fforde’s other novels. Though Eddie’s realizations border on the banal, the world and its supporting cast provide a funny, thought-provoking break from reality while at the same time making life, even with its many frustrations, all the more appealing.

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