Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Jasper Fforde: Shades of Grey

On the verge of taking over the world with Thursday Next and the Nursery Crime series, Jasper Fforde has wandered off and come up with something entirely different: Shades of Grey, a futuristic, dystopian comedy that’s roughly a  cross between Brave New World and Jennings. With giant swans.

It deserves praise for sheer perversity, but it’s pretty decent, too. Not, sadly, as brilliantly clever as some of the Thursday Nexts or as absurdly amusing as the Nursery Crimes, but solid, unique and interesting in its own right.

In a mysteriously battered Britain populated by peculiar beasties (giant swans, ground sloths and the wonderful bouncing goats) and scattered with remnants of war, vision is no longer quite so multicoloured as we’re used to. Everyone is born with a limited capacity to see colour, and their chromatic ability determines their place in society, from the snooty yellows to the grey underclass. Eddie Russett is a red who’s sent to East Carmine, a small town on the fringes of the wilderness, for humility realignment, but he’s soon involved in mysteries and rebellion as he starts to uncover the sinister undertones of the colourtocracy.

The focus on colour is deviously done, not just in the layers of puns and comedy names, but in the workings of the CMY system and the functioning of a world and society in which people see light differently. The detail lavished here is excellent, and the book does well to make such an unusual concept feel logical and realistic. It's also possibly the least filmable novel since modernism shut up shop, so gets instant points on the 'books are special' scale.

Colour aside, the setting is very Brave New World, presenting a frivolous dystopia rather than an overtly monstrous one in the 1984 mould. Life is run on similar lines to a public school, with prefects running the show, merits as currency, and plenty of snobbery and lapel badges.

This faintly silly society, with its petty feuding, mild subversion and comical bureaucracy, is of course a monstrous, rigid class structure, full of oppressed workers, unquestionable rules and traditions, and corruption among the inherited, authoritarian leaders of society (in other words, still just like a public school). It’s a comic exaggeration of embedded, bourgeois, Daily Mail Britain, a nightmare church fete. The problem is that the satire, while often mildly amusing, lacks bite, perhaps because it picks on such an easy target, and perhaps because it's sometimes a bit twee. It’s funnier in principle than practice, with many a sly smile, but rarely outright laughter. This, describing the library system, is the sort of thing you get:
‘The rules had decreed that books be part of the Successive Great Leap Backwards, but owing to a poorly drafted Leapback directive, staffing levels had remained unchanged and would remain so for ever.’
On top of that, the characters are all a bit obvious: the angry rebel who knows the secrets at the heart of society, the cheeky lad always on the lookout for a deal, the hideous pillars of society, the hero with a good heart who gradually turns against the culture he once believed in. Harrumph. Okay, yes, Shades of Grey is playing games with the naughty-schoolboy genre, with plenty of chucklesome references, like the splendidly obnoxious Violet de Mauve being a dead match for Violet Elizabeth Bott from Just William, so a bit of character typing is inevitable, but overall this side of the story left me slightly disappointed.

However, and this is quite a serious however, the flatness of the characters might be purposeful. Some of it is clearly a result of their society and world: the emotionless responses to violence and the willingness to treat vision as a sign of status are clearly connected to the mysteries of what has happened to humanity, so some of what looks like weak characterisation could be just another trick of the setting.

For, you see, the mysteries are much more interesting than the poking of fun at provincial Britain. Outside the towns there is enticing oddness enhanced by Eddie’s own ignorance:
‘The landscape here was different as the road had been disrupted by several large pockmarks, some of which had filled with water and might have been natural dew ponds but for their uniform roundness. Here and there we could see rusty scrap and twisted aluminium poking from the turf like a metallic harvest that n one had troubled to remove.’
Intriguing signs of the 'Something That Happened' to us, 'the Previous', are woven into the occasional journeys across the ravaged landscape, and it’s all rather enticing.

Fforde showed in the Nursery Crime books that he has a genius for combining ridiculous jokes and elaborate plots, and that is also on show here, although in the style of a sci-fi thriller rather than a detective story. There’s impressive use of cutlery and postcodes as plot twists, and the exploration of the wrecked world, the importance of colour and the mysteries of Britain’s inhabitants are suitably intriguing. There’s a fantastic quantity of background detail, some overt, some impressively obscure, and enough unanswered and partially answered questions that despite my misgivings I’m firmly looking forward to the remaining two books in this series.

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