Monday, January 18, 2010

Shades of Grey, by Jasper Fforde

Another oddly charming read by the wizard of the Socialist Republic of Wales. Jasper Fforde won my reader's heart with his first book, The Eyre Affair, in which his heroine Thursday Next reads herself into fiction. I was totally won over when he introduced the door-to-door Baconian proselytizer--a Jehovah's Witness-like pamphleteer who tried to convert those who believed Shakespeare actually wrote Shakespeare. From then on, I was in his capable hands as he re-wrote the ending of Jane Eyre, held a Rocky Horror re-enactment of Richard III, and seized forged Samuel Johnsons with a street value of millions of pounds.

Fforde has produced four Thursday Next novels, mixing literature with his own fictional version of 1980s England. Less successful for me are the Nursery Crimes novels, featuring Detective Jack Spratt and his assistant Mary Mary. But there are still moments of inspired lunacy that make him worth reading even at less than top of his game. Did Humpty Dumpty fall, or was he pushed?

Shades of Grey creates a different universe for Fforde to play with, and is apparently the first of a trilogy set in a post-apocalyptic England some 700 years after "Something Which Happened." The world we know is buried under centuries of leaf mold and ivy, although pieces of our time (and even our future) obtrude occasionally. What does exist is a society organized entirely by what colors people can see: almost no one can see full spectrum any more. The hierarchy is the reverse of ROY G BIV, with the "Purples" at the apex, Reds at the bottom except for the dreary Greys, who are the servant class and do all the unpleasant work.

The book starts with the transfer of Eddie Russett and his father from their cosmopolitan home to the Outer Fringe village of East Carmine. During a stop-over in the town of Vermillion, a Purple appears to be dying on the floor of a National Color store, and since Eddie's father is a swatchman, the equivalent of a doctor, he is called to aid. Things are not what they seem, however, as the recommended treatments have nearly killed the patient. Eddie notices that the Purple seems to be mis-identified: his hands are work roughened. It's a Grey, passing himself off as a Purple!

Things get more complicated as the Russetts reach East Carmine. Eddie finds himself on the bad side of the village prefects, a nasty Yellow family called the Gamboges, while he is simultaneously falling in love with a sarcastic and aggressive Grey with a retrousse nose. Eddie seems unable to keep his head down, and his inconvenient curiosity opens his eyes to secrets that challenge his ability to live according to his society's rules.

A great deal of the charm of this book is the way Fforde has mapped out the class system with colors. According to an interview on his website, Fforde set the Purples as dukes, and the rest of the spectrum fell into place. In many ways, Shades of Grey is a social satire like Jane Austen's novels--so much depends upon securing a good marriage, and the consequences of marriage negotiations illuminate the nature of social relationships.

Much of Eddie's time is spent trying to secure his engagement to one Constance Oxblood, whose family has a higher percentage of red perception than the Russetts do, and there is hope that their children might rise to sit on city Councils, or serve as Red Prefects if they have enough color perception. Eddie himself seems to be a strong Red, but he has not yet been officially tested at the annual Ishihara and so his status is mere potential. There is a rival for Constance's affections, as well as some advantageous (if unattractive) marriagable women in East Carmine. There is also the un-advantageous and dangerously attractive Jane Grey.

There is also the continuing mystery of the dead man from Vermilion, who seems to have had some connections with East Carmine's previous swatchman--a Robin Ochre, who was selling swatches illegally, and whose own death is questionable. What happened to the missing swatches and the money that came from their sale? Who else was in on the beigemarket scam? Why is it illegal to manufacture spoons and why does no one ever come back from High Saffron?

I'm not certain I can explain why I enjoyed this book so much; it's something about Fforde's ability to take something ridiculous, treat it as serious, while at the same time writing with such deft lightness that the entire book becomes a sort of confection. He's also put so much thought into how his color-based society would work that there are none of the floating loose ends and nagging inconsistencies of--just to pick an example at random--James Cameron's Avatar. Plus Fforde did it for less than half a billion dollars.

Shades of Grey isn't the literary romp that the Thursday Next novels are, because he's planted himself in a non-literary world. However he has created a world as internally consistent and as intriguing as Thursday's world, and it's worth a read.

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