'Shades of Grey' by Jasper Fforde

In case you haven't had the pleasure, Jasper Fforde is a British writer whose bestselling Thursday Next series featured a go-get-'em girl detective who, among other feats, restores Jane Eyre to the pages of the Charlotte Brontë novel from which she's been stolen.

"Shades of Grey," his eighth novel, is equally phantasmagoric: a full-bore futuristic sci-fi fantasy, if that's what you call a book that prizes character above techno-wizardry and dips its happy little toes into any genre that comes in handy.

Fforde has clearly read his Orwell -- what British child hasn't, whether by choice or curriculum? But while "Shades of Grey" offers the obligatory crushing autocracy, along with the usual plea for civil disobedience, the dystopia Fforde creates in a quietly horrid England several centuries from now comes with no jack-booted enforcers, no stiff-limbed surveillance robots, no predatory super-computers.

Though bits of former civilizations keep popping up, mostly the ordinary Joes in this brutal yet affectionate and frequently laugh-out-loud funny book are kept in line by nagging prefects enforcing a dictatorship based on color.

That doesn't mean what you think it does, though surely racial inequality is a prime undercurrent in Fforde's satirical critique. The well-behaved citizens of Chromatacia are literally stratified by fine gradations of color, funneled and continually adjusted by underground pipes that also maintain the greener than green parks and brightly hued storefronts of a society whose leader, the axiom-prone Munsell, may or may not exist.

On the face of things, Chromatacia is a Boy Scout hierarchy that rewards good manners with a point system and merit badges, punishes small infractions with instruction in humility and keeps its populace busy with pointless tasks.

At the top of the pecking order are the arrogant livid Yellows and at the bottom the drone-like Greys, who do all the heavy lifting -- though mysteriously, there's an acute labor shortage you might want to keep your eye on.

In between lies an assortment of color-coded middles with surnames out of a house-paint catalog (Fandango, Lapis Lazuli, deMauve), anxiously jockeying for minor upward mobility to enhance their hue.

Mediocrity rules, and you are what you see. Perception is limited by an individual's access to gradations of his own or other colors, and social order depends upon the incuriosity of its citizens from birth until they die, appropriately, of the dread disease Mildew.

History is relegated to a centuries-ago "Previous," which came to an abrupt end by Something That Happened.

Mercifully, like any totalitarian regime, Chromatacia is leaky. The traces that remain of the bygone world are available to a ghostly underclass that roams free because the populace is under orders to pretend they're invisible, or to those with enhanced perception.

Which is where we find our protagonist, Eddie Russett, a young man of middling color who's gifted -- or cursed -- with a powerfully symbolic ability to see more Red than he should. Neither hero nor antihero, Eddie is an endearingly foolish, less endearingly conformist youth whose greatest ambition is to advance his cultural capital by winning the hand of a skittish tease named Constance Oxblood.

Then Eddie is banished with his father, a swatchman (either the nearest thing to a doctor or a potent instrument of social control, or both) from his comfortable home in Jade-Under-Lime to the hick town of East Carmine in the Outer Fringes. There, he falls for Jane, a fetching Grey with the dinkiest upturned nose.

Jane begins their acquaintance by offering to break his jaw and aims lower from there. Refreshingly, she is not "feisty" or "spunky" or "spirited"; she's a mad bitch who, we're told from the outset, will ultimately push Eddie into the path of a lethally carnivorous tree.

Still, I wouldn't jump to hasty conclusions about her, their relationship or anything else in this endlessly surprising yarn. Jane has a mission to fulfill, and she means to exploit Eddie's saving grace -- his irrepressible curiosity.

Terrible things happen to good people and bad in "Shades of Grey," but the novel's tone, while hardly sentimental, is neither lugubrious nor particularly hopeless. I don't know what Fforde is like to live with, but from a literary standpoint he's a happy man whose style and outlook owe little to the grim fatalism of Orwell or Philip K. Dick.

His visual world, ornamented with murderous foliage and self-cleaning roads that swallow up anything they see as debris, is straight out of Terry Gilliam, his antic prose clear and crisp. Just for the fun of it, he creates a cast of sub-Dickensian supporting characters -- an endearingly mercenary black marketeer who would sell his own granny for points; a sexually gifted minx named Violet deMauve with designs on Eddie's redness; a librarian trying to make a go of a library with no books; a naked and filthy former historian with a big appetite for other people's dinner and some crucial knowledge to impart.

At moments, "Shades of Grey" suffers from the classic error of futurist fantasy, in which the creator grows so fond of his fanciful system that he spends too long setting it up and polishing its upholstery. But even then, it's great fun to waste time in Fforde's company. Though we've heard his plea for curiosity and creative rebellion before, his visceral antipathy for coercive mediocrity and the refusal to think for oneself bears repeating.

Orwell might not giggle, but he would surely kvell.

Taylor is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
64°