March 30, 2010


by Jasper Fforde
400 pages, Viking Adult

Review by SF Winser

Jasper Fforde writes smart, funny, literary fantasy. His best book so far is the irreverent and weird 'The Eyre Affair', about Jane Eyre being kidnapped from her own book, with its string of less great, but still good sequels starring literary-detective Thursday Next. He's also written the 'Nursery Crime' books about a detective in fairytale land.

He's one of the few funny writers who I include in my list of 'good humorists'. Those standouts who don't try for 'just' funny' but still realise that humour books should not be afraid of actual, factual jokes.

In 'Shades of Grey', Fforde has outdone himself. For a writer whose books have felt progressively less sure of themselves, more rushed and a little more grasping for meaning and humour, Fforde has shown that he has some real talent when he's allowed to stretch himself.

'Shades of Grey' is less outright funny than the rest of his oeuvre while, on the face of it, being just as silly. This book is about a caste society whose rules and manners all revolve around colour-perception. Yellows are high-ups. Purples, who can see both red and blue, are REALLY well-respected. Greys...who can't see much colour at all...are very badly treated. Everyone's obsessed with getting artificial colours piped into their village garden, that, through some magic of the experts at National Colour, can be seen by everyone. And it's a potentially dangerous kind of thing to write of a society based around so weird an idea. But fun. This descent into Lear-like nonsense is a fun trip.

There's the mystery of the missing spoons. Knowledge bought with Loganberry Jam. And it's compulsory to have a hobby, which can include joining re-enactment societies who reenact last Tuesday.

But... And this is a big but... BUUUT, somehow, Fforde makes this almost believable. More than that, he makes exploring this society interesting, meaningful and, eventually, god-damn scary. 'Shades of Grey' is what you'd get if you asked G.K. Chesterton and P.G. Wodehouse to co-author a story with Franz Kafka. It's a bit of post-apocalyptic surrealism painted over with gags and polite manners. The world Fforde describes has an English obsession with social niceties and eccentricity. It takes rule-following to the extreme. And all this is used as an – eventually – believable basis for society. It's almost like it's been designed to be this way.

And, boom, 'silly novel by English humorist' just became deeper than you thought, sucker.

'Shades of Grey' starts out as a fantasy comedy, veers through comic thriller and ends up as sci-fi dystopia. With a truly odd romance thrown in for good measure. And, somehow, Fforde does it seamlessly. It's a deceptively deep book, well constructed. It maintains a nice level of humour, throughout, and there's never a sense of changing paradigms...just a slow dance through weirdness, until you look back and realise you've been led astray by a master.

Until... oh...3 hours ago, I had a personal theory that sci-fi political-analogy/satire books like '1984' and 'A Clockwork Orange' and 'Brave New World' were all short because that was the longest one could believably pull off this kind of very idea-directed world-building. Fforde has, thus far, proven that wrong. And with the weirdest premise, no less.

Fforde has a lot to say – it's a long novel, with two sequels to follow - but rarely does any of it get lost. 'Shades of Grey' has a recurring theme around what we don't see. From misunderstanding other's perception of colour, to the tramp on the street everyone ignores, all the way up to the way society makes us simply unaware of the things we do for no good reason than that's the way they're done. So we do them that way. Unthinkingly. And never realise that these unmotivated actions, nevertheless, still have consequences. The way we misunderstand motivations, political control and love. And even ourselves. There's a brilliant bit (actually, a couple) where the main character and his guide to the seamier side of this world, finally make a breakthrough in understanding exactly how this society is controlling them, and then immediately, unwittingly, fall back into separate examples of old ways of thinking. Even when you think you're enlightened... there's still the chance you're missing something. This theme of' 'not seeing' is explored, in many variations of varying depth, with great and shocking care by someone writing a silly novel about people who are terrified of giant, carnivorous swans and who hunt ball-lightning in Model T Fords.

Fforde's greatest feat is in making the silliness vital to the plot. The silliness is there as a deliberate and almost predictable offshoot of blind rule-following. Silliness is lack of rationality and these people are nothing if not irrational slaves to society. They'll break rules to keep rules. It's like a massive jester's trick. You think he's making jokes, when he's actually showing you truth.

My only fear now is that Fforde can keep this up over two sequels. There's still a lot to find out about this world, how it came to be this way and how the main characters might or might not fix it. (This may be one of the few comedy novels that would be allowed to get away with an unhappy ending) And Fforde, I'm sure, can keep the jokes coming. I'm just worried about the depth and themes. But then, I wasn't sure he could manage the genius of what he has in 'Shades of Grey', so, for now, I'll trust him and thank his publishers for letting him, finally, take the time he needed to polish a novel to this level.

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