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Book Review: Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde

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Jasper Fforde, creator of some of the quirkiest fiction being written today, is at it again. First there was Thursday Next, literary detective, romping through an assortment of literary masterpieces from Jane Eyre to Hamlet as she attempts to maintain the integrity of the fictional world against forces that would destroy it. Then there was Jack Spratt, investigator in the Division of Nursery Crimes, and his partner, Mary Mary, in The Big Overeasy, and then on the trail of the vicious Gingerbread Man. Here were two series that not only spoofed detective genre fiction, both hard and soft boiled, with imaginative aplomb, but created mind-bending worlds combining multiple levels of reality with consummate wit. The books are a treasure trove of literary puns and allusions sure to keep delighted readers chuckling page after page, or at least smirking at the author's chutzpah.

Now comes Shades of Grey, the first in a new series set in a futuristic society called Chromatica. It is a world whose inhabitants are divided into a rigid caste system based on their ability to distinguish a specific color. Eddie Russett, the novel's hero, for example, is a red. At age 21 all citizens are tested. The stronger his ability to see red, the higher is his status in that particular class. Those that have the highest levels of color perception for each individual color become the rulers in each village or city. There is a hierarchy of colors as well: purple at the top, grey at the bottom.

Despite its emphasis on color, it is a society that functions on a simplistic black and white level. Rules are rigidly enforced even when they make no sense. Spoons, for example, are no longer allowed to be manufactured, so those that are still around have become quite valuable. Complementary colors are not allowed to marry. Everyone is required to attend a communal lunch. Failure to comply with rules results in demerits; excessive demerits get one sent to Reboot. Questions are frowned upon. Why, for example, spoons can no longer be manufactured is not subject to debate. It must simply be accepted.

It is a society that privileges stasis and deplores novelty. Russett finds himself in trouble because he has suggested a more efficient queuing pattern. He is given the task of conducting a chair census in one of the outer settlements as a lesson in developing humility. Indeed, not only does the society discourage novelty, it continually abandons older innovations through what they call "Great Leapbacks" (Fforde is always ready with the ironic allusion).

It is a society that follows the precepts of a prophet named Munsell set down in a vast number of volumes that have become over the years holy books. Written after a cataclysmic event known only as "Something That Happened," the books detail rules to live by as well as moral principles. Examples are used as epigraphs to each chapter. " The cucumber and the tomato are both fruit; the avocado is a nut. To assist with the dietary requirements of vegetarians, on the first Tuesday of the month a chicken is officially a vegetable." Or this from The Munsell Book of Wisdom: "Imaginative thought is to be discouraged. No good ever comes of it — don't."

In the main Shades of Grey is in the tradition of the great dystopian fiction, novels which create a kind of nightmare vision of what a society might become, usually as a warning against some perceived threat to the social order. One thinks of books like Samuel Butler's Erewhon, George Orwell's 1984, and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. While Fforde's Cassandra may be a bit more open to the one liner and the pun than these others, there is no question but that the book makes a serious point about the dangers to society of unquestioning conformity. It raises significant questions about how far a society should go to maintain the status quo. As the poet says: "the old order changeth, yielding place to new."

And it is the costuming of this serious message in jokes and charming wordplay that is the true delight of Fforde's novel. There are the invented words: "Loopholery:" institutional rule evasions; "Beigemarket:" color challenged blackmarket; "Chromogentsia:" color snobs. There are the puns; musical plays like "Ochrelahoma" and "Repaint Your Wagon." There are the euphuistic circumlocutions for sexual activity: "you know" and "dance the lambada." Character names are always associated with their color: Violet de Mauve, Bunty McMustard. Never mind that two of the Greys are named Jane and Zane. There is the pithy title given to a Caravaggio painting: Frowny Girl Removing Beardy's Head. This is the kind of foolery that characterized all of Fforde's other novels. It is the kind of thing we loved there, and it’s the kind of thing that we will love here as well.

Shades of Grey is vintage Fforde. If indeed, this is the first of a new series. For those of us who love Fforde's work, all I can say is keep them coming.

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