So, you may be wondering what I've been reading lately. I know I have. Well, I just finished Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde. As someone who love, love, loves his Nursery Crimes books and liked the Thursday Next books (although I have to admit I was a little sick of everyone except Pickwick by The Well of Lost Plots - Plock!). I am sad to report that Fforde appears to have sacrificed characterization and story for cleverness. In short, Shades of Grey is the post-apocalyptic story of Eddie Russet, a man born into a world ruled by a Colortocracy who is trying to follow the myriad of rules established by Munsell after the "Something That Happened" and gain status through the strength of his ability to see the color red since most people have the ability to see only one color in varying degrees. Unfortunately, Eddie's curiosity and need to ask questions cause him to be banished to the Outer Fringes and impede his traditional rise in society.
One thing is sure; Shades of Grey is definitely clever. As usual, Fforde's world building is absolutely complete. You get a remarkable glance at where the society has been as the list of things which have been "put beyond use" through leapbacks become longer and longer. I'm simply not sure what I would do with only The Word of Munsell and Racy novels to read??!? The use of color (or lack thereof) as a basis for social structure is well thought out and VERY thorough. Complimentary colors don't interact and can't marry. A purple heading toward the blue end will have to marry the redest mate he or she can find to purple up their progeny. Additionally, there are witty inclusions of current pop culture. I, personally, liked the Oz references such as the almost genetic fear of flying monkeys. Someone I know was enthralled by the inclusion of a line from Point Break and keeps trying to decide whether he'll keep a Badly Drawn Map from Parker Brothers somewhere safe just in case. These connections are a happy little shocks but simply don't make up for the lack of likeable characters or the somewhat boring, revolution based plot.
I know that some will simply accuse me of not being clever enough to understand all the allusions and social commentary. Of course, I'm not sure how that is possible as you are beat about the head and ears with them. Color influenced singles ads? Somewhat silly tourist attractions like the rabbit? Oh ha ha. . . how astutely satiric. Additionally, the pacing of this book is incredibly slow. 400 pages is - wait for it - four days. Oh yes, it's another aspect of the satirization but it makes reading the darn thing nearly painful. I will admit that the pace picks up at the end of the book making me like Shades of Grey far better on page 325 than I had at page 300. Finally, the biggest sin for me was the fact that the characters were nasty, naïve, stupid or so stereotypical in their behavior that I found no value in them, their activities, or their opinions. I couldn't care less what happened to them. In fact, I would say reboot EVERY CHARACTER in the book. It also makes me sad because this would have been a phenomenal book if I could have found any reason to root for Jane or Eddie as they try to bring down the Colortocracy.
Again, I'm sure someone out there just thought to themselves that I have no experience with absurdist works or suspension of belief and clearly would have appreciated this book with a bit more education. I'd just like to remind you that I have a masters in English Lit. I have been down the absurdist path (Camus, Kafka, Ionesco, Albee, Beckett) and even enjoyed some of it in a mostly intellectual way. However, these days I'm reading for pure enjoyment not for the betterment of my intellect or the haughty I'm-smart-enough-to-read-this-and-get-it enjoyment. I mean, I'm not sure there's anyone out there that would read The Metamorphosis for fun (although I might be willing to read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and am willing to read Lamb for fun)?? I wish Shades of Grey fit into a more low key (low brow???) group of satires. . . ones that include interesting characters and a humor that is funny-possibly laugh aloud funny--instead of just cutting and bleak. I would posit some of Terry Pratchett's and Christopher Moore's works in that group. . . a group I actually want to read.
So, will I read the next book? Maybe but probably only in paperback. Would I recommend this book? Well maybe. I would recommend Shades of Grey if (1) you're not a character driven reader or (2) you want to brag to your friends about the deeply intellectual satire you read. Mostly, though, I really wish Fforde had taken the time he used on this book and written a third Nursery Crimes tale instead.