Title: Shades of Grey: The Road to High Saffron
Author: Jasper Fforde
Genre: Fiction – Utopia/Dystopia
Publication Date: 2009
Purchase Price: $25.95 (hardback)
Misc. Info.: First in a series. From the exquisite author of the Thursday Next and Nursery Crime series’.
Selecting this week’s book is funny (at least to me). I had been considering getting a “classic”: you know, Don Juan, Great Expectations, Madame Bovary, etc. It was while I was searching for this last book amongst the “F” section that I came across this week’s actual reviewed book.
I hadn’t ever read Shades of Grey, but considering that my obsession with all things Jasper Fforde is reaching pandemic proportions, I thought that this book would likely be far more interesting than anything Flaubert could have written (forgive me, junior-year-AP English teacher…I know you tried).
500 years after Something Happened, the world has been restructured into Chromatacia, a place where each person can only see one or two natural colors. Society has been arranged around who can see which color, with the primary colors (red, yellow, blue) on top, those who can see no natural colors (known as Greys) at the bottom, and the mixed colors (purple, green, orange) at various levels in between. Synthetic colors can be seen by all, but with the shortage of materials from The Previous (pre-Something Happening), synthetic colors are often rare outside the larger cities.
At the novel’s open our hero, Eddie Russett, is being eaten by a carnivorous plant. In the few minutes before death occurs, his mind flashes back over the previous four days.
Eddie is traveling with his father to East Carmine, where Eddie’s father will be replacing the recently deceased swatchman (read: doctor). At nineteen, normally Eddie would be on his own, but after an ill-timed prank on a prefect’s son, he’s been sent to conduct a chair census as a way to learn some humility. It is there that he meets Jane, a Grey with a “retroussé” nose and a legendarily vile temper. And it is there in East Carmine that Eddie Russett makes a discovery that will lead him down the path of no return, to a place where there is no black and white…only shades of grey.
Normally I’m not the biggest fan of dystopian novels. George Orwell’s 1984 scared the tar out of me when I read it in early high school, and the barest thought of reading Ayn Rand’s titanic novel The Fountainhead makes me break out in hives.
However, Fforde has managed to make me enjoy Shades of Grey. I was rather jarred at first, because it is just so different from his other book series’. But once I got past that, it became easier to see more of the Fforde-isms (clever names and brilliant allusions). The only real downside to this book is that it’s rather difficult to understand, especially at first.
There is a concept known to most artists (playwrights, directors, novelists, actors, etc.) as “suspended disbelief.” This basically means that when a person sees a movie, reads a book, or watches a play, any not-normal-in-the-real-world stuff needs to make sense within said movie/book/play. If things do not make sense within the context of the story, the audience will spend all their time focusing on what doesn’t fit, rather than getting involved in the story itself.*
In the case of Shades of Grey, the reader is simply thrown into the story with no real chance of learning anything about the world in which it is set. There is merely a quote from Alfred North Whitehead:
“There is no light or colour as a fact in external nature. There is merely motion of material. …When the light enters your eyes and falls on the retina, there is motion of material. Then your nerves are affected and your brain is affected, and again this is merely motion of material. …The mind in apprehending experiences sensations which, properly speaking, are qualities of the mind alone.”
While this helps set the general tone for the novel, as a reader I would really have appreciated an introduction or a foreword–just a paragraph or two to ease me into the world. This way I could have spent the first several chapters learning about the story, rather than being distracted by wondering what the heck was going on.
Despite not really knowing fully what’s going on in this novel’s world, I found myself able to occasionally piece together bits of relevant information.
For example, it is rumored that Granny Crimson, a citizen of East Carmine, has “an original Parker Brothers map of the world.” This is a rare item indeed, for it is one of the few artifacts that gives a view of what the world was like before the Something Happened; Granny Crimson believes that the map represents global Chromatic boundaries in The Previous. And what does she think the acronym stands for, Eddie asks. “Regional International Spectral Kolor,” of course–although people of the previous used rather archaic spellings.
This is not what I would call a complete clue, but it’s certainly a tantalizing one. And of course it fits in totally with Fforde’s incredible writing talent.
The first major indicator–to both the reader and Eddie Russett–that all is not well in Chromatacia occurs during a conversation between Eddie and an Apocryphal man. There’s not a whole lot of detail given as to what exactly “Apocryphal people” are, but the reader quickly comes to understand that Apocryphals are ignored completely by the other characters. It’s as if they don’t exist, and characters can receive demerits for acknowledging an Apocryphal’s presence.
But a bit of good luck puts Eddie in the right place (his bedroom) at the right time (no one else is around) with the right materials (loganberry jam), and he is able to speak to an Apocryphal man:
“Why are you Apocryphal?”
“I’m actually a historian. Head Office always felt it would be easier to study society if those doing the studying were invisible, so that’s why I’m ignored by statute.” …
“But since no one studies history anymore,” I pointed out, “what’s the point of recording it?”
“You’ve got it all wrong,” he said slowly. “I don’t exist to record your history; you exist to give me something to record.” …
“I thought Munsell said that color was here to give our lives meaning?”
“Its function is to give life apparent meaning. It is an abstraction, a misdirection–nothing more than a sideshow at Jollity Fair. As long as your minds are full of Chromatic betterment, there can be no room for other, more destructive thoughts. Do you understand?”
It’s a marvelous moment, horrifying in the way that only a dystopian novel can be.
As in many other dystopian novels, rules have been taken to the extreme. Complementary colors are forbidden to marry, “wrongspotting” (pretending to be a color you’re not) is punishable by law, and everyone is expected to make sacrifices for the good of the Collective. As Eddie begins to discover the true nature of his world, he too will have to make sacrifices: let some die, so that many more may live.
Painting by Numbers and The Gordini Protocols (books two and three in the series) do not yet have publication dates, so readers’ questions will just have to wait. As for myself…I don’t know really know if I enjoyed this book–I suppose my hesitation to state that I loved every second of it is a possible indicator.
But the final verdict should be up to you. So next time you’re at the library, or online (like right now, for example) do a little bit of reading up on Shades of Grey.
*For example, in James Cameron’s recent epic, “Avatar.” Rather than paying complete attention to the plot and the characters, I spent way too much of the 2.5 hours trying to figure out why they spent so much money on filming and then apparently couldn’t come up with a name for the ore other than “Unobtanium.” Turns out there’s a reason for that, but to the average moviegoer it was an unnecessary and unbelievable distraction.
[This week’s soundtrack is not music that fits with the story necessarily, but rather is an example of all the “color” music that I have.]
“Ain’t No Sunshine” (Bill Withers)
“The Blue Idol (Jigs)” (Altan)
“Mi Morena” (Josh Groban)
“The Scarlet Tide” (Alison Krauss)
“Black Balloon” (Goo Goo Dolls)
“This Plum is Too Ripe” (“The Fantasticks”)
“Sunrise, Sunset” (“Fiddler on the Roof”)
“Ruby Rap” (“The Fifth Element”)
“Heaven’s Light/Hellfire” (“The Hunchback of Notre Dame”)
“Flaming Agnes” (“I Do! I Do!”)
“White” (United Sacred Harp Musical Association)
“The Golden Harp” (United Sacred Harp Musical Association)
“Primose” (United Sacred Harp Musical Association)
“Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)” (Josh Groban)
“Lemonade” (Chris Rice)
“Snowplay” (“Little Women”)
“Scarlet Fever” (“Little Women”)
“Ashes” (“Little Women”)
“Valley of the Shadow” (“Little Women”)
“Long Black Train” (Josh Turner)
“Blood on the Coal” (“Mighty Wind”)
“Kiss at the End of the Rainbow” (“Mighty Wind”)
“Love and Marigolds” (“Monsoon Wedding”)
“Boy with the Blues” (“NCIS” soundtrack)
“Rainbow Connection” (Peter Cincotti)
“The Holly and the Ivy” (Traditional)
“Black Magic Woman” (Santana)
“Colorblind” (Counting Crows)
“Coat of Many Colors” (Dolly Parton)
“Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal” (Custer LaRue)
“Red Red Wine” (UB40)
“The Silver Dagger” (Solas)
“O My Love is a Red, Red Rose (Scottish)” (The King’s Singers)
“Pansy Attack” (“Were the World Mine”)
“Waltz of the White Lilies” (Deanta)
“Man in Black” (Johnny Cash)
“The Briar and the Rose” (Traditional)
“Light Shining Out of Darkness” (Stephen Paulus, performed by Texas Lutheran University Choir)
” ‘I don’t need you to agree with me,’ she said quietly. ‘I’ll go away happy with a little bit of doubt. Doubt is good. It’s an emotion we can build on. Perhaps if we feed it with curiosity it will blossom into something useful, like suspicion–and action.’ ” (p. 112)
“126.96.36.199.025: 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.” (p. 46)
“2.1.01.05.002: All children are to attend school until the age of sixteen or until they have learned everything, whichever be the sooner.” (p. 194)
“2.5.03.02.005: Generally speaking, if you fiddle with something, it will break. Don’t.” (p. 336)
If you could only see one color in its natural state, which would you choose? (All other colors would have to be synthesized, and the process isn’t always chromatically accurate.)