Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Apart We Are Together

I've just recently finished up Jasper Fforde's Shades of Grey. Fforde is one of my favorite writers, but he's a difficult author to describe to those unfamiliar with him. His books can fall into so many categories and so many genres, it's hard to say who would enjoy him. I've told people his work is "absurdist literary humor". A fellow Fforde enthusiast, The Book Stop, recently reviewed the latest book from the Thursday Next series and begins her post trying to describe Fforde's writing. Because she said it better than I did, I want to quote her directly:
No one writes like Jasper Fforde. He's been compared to Douglas Adams but even that's kind of a stretch. His books are kind of the adult version of The Phantom Tollbooth, with adventure and time travel thrown in. Bottom line: if your tastes range from fantasy to science fiction to classic literature humor, these are the books for you.
 She was directly referring to the Thursday Next series, but this fits for his other books as well.

Like the Thursday Next and Nursery Crime series, Shades of Grey takes place in its own world but is the first of his works that is a dystopian novel. The new world is called Chromatacia and social hierarchy is completely determined by how much and what color you can see. The world is dominated by "the Rules", which dictate every part of life, from the micro (" Slouching is not permitted under any circumstances" [location 5249]) to the macro (" In order to maintain the quality of breeding stock and to maintain public decency, complementary colors are absolutely forbidden to marry." [location 522]) and a series of "Leapbacks" means inventions as simple as the light bulb are not available, even though people can't see anything after twilight. It's not entirely clear when this is taking place. It's sometime far in the future of our own world, but information about "the Previous" is withheld, so it's never clear exactly when this is or what happened to destroy our current civilization and create this new selectively hued humanity.

This took me longer to get into than the other Fforde books simply because becoming familiar with this completely new world is difficult when you have to search for clues as to what's going on. Believe me, I prefer this to a narration dump, but it does mean it's a little harder to find your narrative footing. Once I have an idea of the world and our main character Eddie Russett makes it to East Carmine, the story really takes off. It has what you expect from a dystopian novel: oppressive government, an unbending society that does not deviate from the rules, and people trying to subvert the stasis to make the world a good, fair place. As much as the word of Munsell wants to simplify the world into a series of black and white rules, the world is full of shades of grey (see what Fforde did there? pretty clever) for people who want to acknowledge them.

Despite the dystopian setting, this is by Fforde and is in no way as dark as a 1984, Brave New World or The Handmaid's Tale. It is a smart, funny, absurd story that deals with heavy topics in a light way. Here are a couple quotes to demonstrate Fforde's sense of humor that is imbibed throughout the book
"Constance had refused me a tango on the grounds that it was a 'gateway dance' to something bolder, such as a lambada" (location 2376)
"She laughed. The sound was lovely - yet quite out of character. It would be like hearing a fish sneeze." (location 3957)
"First, time spent on reconnaissance is never wasted. Second, almost anything can be improved with the addition of bacon. And finally, there is no problem on earth that can't be ameliorated by a hot bath and a cup of tea." (location 4261)
I'm excited to see that this is the first in another Fforde series. I can't say I enjoyed it as much as Thursday Next, but still, I can't wait to read the next books in the series when they come out. It deals with heavier themes and thus doesn't have the same lightness and easiness that comes with TN or NC. It's sadder and darker and wonderful.

Title quote is repeated throughout the book as the motto for the Colourtocracy.

Fforde, Jasper. Shades of Grey 1: The Road to High Saffron. Viking Adult, 2009. Kindle edition