Every artistic medium has its pop cultural mad geniuses whose creative flights of fancy push the boundaries of what most consumer would imagine possible. Salvador Dali defined his own artistic movement with his surrealist dreamscapes. Eugene Ionesco's absurdists plays opened up the doors of irrational possibilities for the theater. John Linnel and John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants unleashed their nerdy streams of consciousness on the world of pop music and raised an army of geek rock followers. Charlie Kaufmann, with the aid of visionary directors like Spike Jonze and Michelle Gondry, made the ridiculous seem mundane and the everyday feel fantastical in his screenplays. And those are just a few of the more well-known examples I could name.
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All of those artists - auteurs, really - tend to be rather polarizing figures. People either love their work or hate it, with few falling in between. And of course, they've all had their share of missteps that just don't seem to connect even with the die-hard fans. Such is the case with British novelist Jasper Fforde's latest book, Shades of Grey.
In the past decade, Fforde has created two wildly inventive literary worlds that have captivated readers' imaginations. His Thursday Next books take the espionage thriller genre into a world of highbrow literary obsession where denizens of the "real world" are able to interact with all manner of characters from the literary cannon, while his Nursery Crimes book wrap the trappings of hardboiled pulp noir detective storytelling around a world where normal humans live side-by-side with nursery rhyme characters. While both of those literary conventions have been explored by other authors before, no one had done so withas much passion and detail as Fforde. The obsessive charm he brings to those worlds he has created easily ranks him among the top eccentric artistic visionaries of the day.
Shades of Grey (whose full title is apparently Shades of Grey: the Road to High Saffron, although the second half of that title appears nowhere on the book's cover) is the first installment of a trilogy that marks Fforde's first foray into the realm of distopian future storytelling.
Fforde's newest world is our own, set in a far distant future, several centuries after an unspecified world-changing disaster known only as "Something That Happened." Whatever that disaster was, it didn't destroy mankind, but the society that rebuilt the world afterwards is certainly alien to our modern-day sensibilities. Known as "the collective," this society is divided into a variety of castes, each based on what portion of the visible spectrum an individual is able to see. "Purples" enjoy their status atop the social strata (topped only by the handful of "ultraviolet" individuals), with "blues," "greens," "yellows," and "oranges" filling in the levels above the humble "reds." Down below them all are the "greys," a working class of menial laborers subservient to the whims of anyone who can see.
Every facet of daily life is proscribed by the seemingly innumerable and unquestioned rules of the long-dead Munsell, who left behind these regulations and restrictions in hundreds of volumes, now the only books officially allowed in libraries. These rules range from the tragically ludicrous (for example, the manufacture of new spoons is outlawed, making pre-existing spoons among the most valuable objects a person can own, and chicken is officially designated a vegetable on the first Tuesday ofnevery month, for the benefit of vegetarians), to the ludicrously tragic (schools are so buried under the burden of required standardized testing that theynare just now getting around to correcting the tests that students took eight decades ago so that the teachers some eighty-odd years in the past will finally know how good of a job they did). Taken all together, these rules are designed to ensure that everyone's lives are used to the fullest for the betterment of the collective, often in the most absurd way. And of course, more than a few of the members of the collective have raised the finding and exploiting of loopholes to an art form, pumping up the absurdity exponentially.
The heart of the story is Eddie Russett, a red youth who's been sent to the backwater village of East Carmine to conduct a chair census as a punishment to help teach him humility. It's a job that should be terribly simple and terribly boring, but he quickly finds himself involved with a group local youths of various colors who've learned to bend Munsell's infallible rules to their own advantage with every intention of making Eddie a pawn in their own selfish machinations. Further complicating things is Jane, a belligerent grey who knows far more than she let's on about their society and seemes determined to take her frustrations on those who can see colors out on Eddie. Before long, Eddie starts to discovers cracks in the supposedly smooth, harmonious veneer of the collective and finds himself questioning everything he' ever believed about the infallible rules of society and the supposedly benevolent leaders who've been guiding everything for centuries.
All together it's a relatively simple story, much mores than any of Fforde's previous novels, so it's such a shame that Fforde's drags the meat of the plot out over so many pages. There's a very tight novella of a hundred a fifty or so pages here, but it's buried under the bloated bulk of a four hundred page tome. The rest of the novel is packed with Fforde oh-so-cleverly showing off his creative genius. He takes every opportunity to show off the absurdities of a world governed by unquestioned, unreasonable, and unchecked rules in an attempt to create a distopian view of societal power run amok, much like Brave New World or 1984, but when the extent of the criticism abstractly cast over our own world is "maybe people will be better of if they take the time to at least question why those in charge tell them what to do and what not to do," it hardly feels like groundbreaking social critique. There are also plenty of clever little nod to ancient relics leftover from our world, such as the "Parker Brothers map of the world" that shows the continents divided up into forty-two color coded territories, classic works of art whose titles nave been lost and replaced with the likes of Frowny Girl Removing Beardy's Head by Caravaggio, and half-remembered novels long since expunged from the libraries with titles like Murdoch on the Oriented Ex-Beast, The Pig's Leap, or The Force Bear (a self-referential allusion to Fforde's own The Fourth Bear from his own Nursery Crimes series). These are the kinds of eccentric details that have helped to build such creatively visionary worlds for Fforde's other series of novels, but in those cases the abundance of offbeat details felt like extra bonus detail sprinkled on top of a well-fleshed out story to make for an even better read. Here, most of the story feels like it only exists to provide a framework for Fforde to show off his clever imagination.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment with Shades of Grey as a stand-alone novel is that by the time the main plot finally builds up any lasting momentum, there are only about eighty pages left in the book. In a way, that awkward pacing makes the book feel like merely an extended teaser for the forthcoming novels that are due to finish out this trilogy.
I still contend that Jasper Fforde is an eccentric genius with a visionary penchant for creating some of the most inventive literary worlds of the new millennium. This just isn't one of them. Who knows. Perhaps the forthcoming books to finish out the trilogy will vindicate the disappointment I felt with Shades of Grey. In the mean time, I feel awfully hesitant about recommending the book. It is clever and inventive enough to balance out my frustrations, but it is clearly not the place to start reading Jasper Fforde. Start with The Eyre Affair. Start with The Big Over Easy. Move on to the rest of the Thursday Next and Nursery Crimes books. If you're still hungry for more, then pick up Shades of Grey. Just don't expect quite the same level of artistic magic that you had gotten used to.
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