Jasper Fforde, Shades of Grey

Don't give up on this book. Please.

You're probably going to want to, especially if you've read some of Jasper Fforde's other novels - The Eyre Affair and The Big Over Easy, for example, start fast and carry you along. If you don't get the references in these BookWorld novels, I'd admit that you're likely to find yourself more or less baffled by most of the goings-on, but that's only because your level of referentiality isn't simpatico with the novel's. (We blame you for this, just so you know.)

In Shades of Grey, the first novel in Fforde's third (!) ongoing series, something else happens. It's still not quite clear to me why it took so long for me to get hooked, or why I came so near to giving up before getting hooked, but it's not just because I was busy and distracted. No, that's just a normal day around Book Addiction HQ. Rather, I suspect it's because this world is so very, very different from our own: Orwellian, in that conveniently imprecise way people avoid adjectivizing the title 1984, but immensely stranger than that, in ways that are basically beyond a casual reader's penetration, and Fforde deliberately sets us up as casual readers.

Briefly: It's Britain in the future, an impossible-to-determine number of years from now. No one can see at night, everyone's terrified of the dark, and a person can see only parts of the visual spectrum. As a result, your last name is a marker of your colour-sightedness (Ochre, deMauve, Cinnabar, and so on), with gradations within each of the primary and complementary colours; your sightedness is determined during the Ishihara test, taken during your 20th year. The lowest class are the Greys, who do almost all the work in this new society, and whose deaths are unremarked by anyone of another colour. American painter and inventor Albert Henry Munsell makes an appearance here, in a role like that of Aldous Huxley's Ford in Brave New World. Compliance with Munsell's Rules is absolute, and money has been largely supplanted by the use of merits and demerits: lose enough points, and you're subject to Reboot.

And just as in every other fictional totalitarian state, something's wrong. Desperately so, but it's so unclear as to be outside the comprehension of the protagonist, one Eddie Russett. Will Eddie learn enough to make some sense of it all before it's too late?

In the acknowledgements section, Fforde remarks that Shades of Grey turned out to be "rather more difficult to get on to paper than [he] had anticipated" (p.435). I'm assuming that this is one reason that it's a hard book to get into, because Eddie's position is so benightedly ignorant - just like the position of (almost) anyone else in his society - that Fforde's not able to straightforwardly give us the tools to assess Eddie's position. Instead, we're kept in the dark the same way Eddie is, to such an extent that it begins to seem obstructively unhelpful, almost like cheating on Fforde's part.

Once you get the necessary information, much of which doesn't start falling into place until you're 300 or so pages into the novel's 430 pages, then the earlier confusion seems reasonable, and you recognize just how much Fforde has had to keep from us in order to let us appreciate Eddie's character and predicament. Once I was okay with Fforde's secrecy, then retrospectively I was greatly impressed by his narrative reserve and his judicious decision to suppress the essential backstory to this culture. It's a startlingly rich and rewarding novel, but you won't believe me until you're a few hundred pages into it.

So in sum, don't give up.

Shades of Grey is NOT an easy novel to get through, by far the most difficult Jasper Fforde I've read so far. But I wouldn't be surprised if it turned out to be the Fforde novel which stays in the mind longest and most intensely: there's a lot here, and the ending sets up the next volume beautifully. The second in the series, whenever it appears, should have a very different narrative structure that's a whole lot more accessible to anyone who's read this first one - and please, God, don't let Jasper Fforde write Shades of Grey 2 as if its readers haven't read this one! Trust us to follow you around, and we'll follow you wherever you go.


Fraser said…
How did you know? I have started this book four times. Finished it: zero. I'll try again... I guess.
richard said…
Um, I didn't know this was how you'd felt about the book, so I didn't actually mean you particularly.... And maybe it'll never work for you, either, but my experience of the second half of this book was profoundly different from my experience of the first half. If you've other things to read, read them until the memory fades of the four failures!
Fraser said…
Well, no, it's good to have advice from someone whose opinions have value. I will give it another go. How do you find the time to persevere?
richard said…
Time to persevere? Well, I assume that Jasper Fforde's likely to be doing something right and that there's going to be a payoff, so I'm not going to give up prematurely after the other enjoyment he's given me. But I do quit reading books, though, and some of them are supposed to be awfully good.

I suppose I shouldn't be proud to have failed to finish a well-reviewed novel by a Nobel-winning writer, but there you go. My opinions may have no value after all.
MrTumshie said…
I also found the book much harder to get into than his other books, but in many ways all the more rewarding for it. Eventually.
Anonymous said…
I had a hard time getting through the beginnings of this book but persevered and finished it. It's now back on my shelf waiting for a second read (like all my Jasper Fforde books). I have so many books waiting to be read I often will give up on a book before page 200 or so. I could NOT finish "Freedom" by Franzen, I was bored out of my mind but in future I may try it again, or not.
Fraser said…
Well, I persevered, and I'm not all that glad that I did. It does get a little bit more interesting... but then again, the beginning was so dull, the improvement wasn't much of an accomplishment.

Setting up an unbelievable fascist dystopia and then gradually insinuating that it's less and less successful: not all that impressive a task, is it?

Huxley and Orwell and Bradbury and Atwood all extrapolated their dystopias from flaws in our present society, so can be given credit for social commentary.

What's Fforde commenting on, social class? Sorry, folks, but I'm not glad to have read it.
Anonymous said…
God this book was fantastic, the beginning is slow yes but the whole idea of the plot is brilliant. It's also very funny and the charater development is so satisfying. The plot will stay with you for a very long time. Bravo Mister Fforde!

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