Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde

It began with my father not wanting to see the Last Rabbit and ended up with my being eaten by a carnivorous plant. It wasn’t really what I’d planned for myself – I’d hoped to marry into the Oxbloods and join their dynastic string empire.  But that was four days ago, before I met Jane, retrieved the Caravaggio and explored High Safron.  So instead of enjoying aspirations of Chromatic advancement,  I was wholly immersed within the digestive soup of a yateveo tree.  It was all frightfully inconvenient.

This is the first paragraph from Jasper Fforde’s new novel, the first volume of his new series.  It is slightly different than his previous two series.   This one has real people.  Granted, they are real people who live far in the future, but they are real people.  Not characters out of books or nursery rhymes or a made up society that loves books and has issues with time.   And, although they are of course fictional, they are completely made up by Fforde unlike, say, Jane Eyre and other characters from his other series.

It is unclear exactly where and when this story takes place.  At some point in the far distant past the Previous people were changed (or eliminated) because of Something That Happened.    A review I read a couple of months ago said we should imagine a world 500 years after Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.  People are no longer obsessed with the thing That Happened but are simply living their changed lives.  Maybe that’s right – if Cormac McCarthy’s The Road  took place a couple of hundred years into the future.

Technology from the Previous still litters the landscape even though it (mostly) doesn’t work.  But there are still towns, and a steam railroad and tea shops and libraries and schools.   There are not very many spoons.  And there are no people who can see the entire color spectrum.  People must rely on synthetic colors produced by the government and shipped by pipeline all over the country to be able to “see” green grass and red apples and yellow bananas.  

Fforde has created an authoritarian highly stratified society to populate this world although, as usual with Fforde, it also laugh-out-loud funny or groan-out-loud punny.  The authoritarian system seems to be based on the British public school system with an unseen headmaster in a Head Office and prefects who run the various townships.  Everyone must followThe Rules even if The Rules don’t make sense and even if one suspects that there might be typos and simple omissions in The Rules. 

The people of this world are grouped by what color they can see.  It is a colortocracy in which Purples are at the top of the pecking order and Greys are at the bottom.  Anything or anyone that does not conform to what The Rules claim exists simply must not exist and must be apocryphal.  Those who disobey The Rules too many times are sent to Reboot. 

Eddie Russet and his dad are Reds.  Eddie’s mom died much earlier, a victim of a dreaded disease called the Mildew.  Mr. Russet is a “swatchman” – a sort of doctor who treats people by exposing them to color.  Eddie is trying to marry “up” by wooing Constance Oxblood, a young woman of much wealth who might be interested in the strong Red genes that Eddie might bring to her line. 

As with most Jasper Fforde novels there is lots and lots of humor.  Mr. Russet and Eddie have traveled to East Carmine in the Outer Fringes which is almost but not quite a wild west kind of place.  Or, since this is a British novel, maybe a place like Yorkshire?  The town’s swatchman has died under mysterious circumstances and Mr. Russet is filling in temporarily.  Eddie is there because he was caught in a prank and as a humility assignment he was sentenced to a Pointless Exercise – conducting a chair census.  

From the beginning, things are interesting.  Mr. Russet is called on to try to save a man of the Purple class in a Color Store but the man turns out to be a lowly Grey in disguise.  His name was Zane.  A strange girl, a Grey by the name of Jane (get it? Jane?  Zane?),  accosts Eddie outside the store.  Then the strange girl shows up in East Carmine as the maid assigned to the Russets although how she could have traveled such a distance in a day without getting on the train with the Russets  is a mystery.   An Apocryphal Man lives on the Russets’ third floor and no one must admit that they see him.  All Eddie wants to do is get back home where he can woo Constance, but he is unaccountably attracted to Jane the Grey.  And it appears that the last Swatchman in the town may have been murdered. 

This is a much more overtly “deep” novel than Fforde’s other satires.  And it is Very Funny.   It is a novel that takes a while to get into because Fforde lovingly creates this world with great detail.  Some people may find that a problem.   I thought Fforde’s first Thursday Next novel suffered from the same problem and I found it a bit hard going for the first half but with great reward at the end.  The sequels were much better.  I expect the sequels in this series will also be better.  But I am not really criticizing this novel, just issuing a warning.  I’ve learned to be patient with Mr. Fforde and to simply enjoy as I read and, I’ve found, eventually all will be made clear.  As it was.