By Ron Charles
Wednesday, December 30, 2009; C04
SHADES OF GREY
The Road to High Saffron
By Jasper Fforde
390 pp. $25.95
Remember that kid in middle school who sat off by himself during lunch reciting Monty Python skits? You must track him down (parents' house: basement) and send him a copy of Jasper Fforde's "Shades of Grey." This insanely clever novel from the author of the best-selling "Thursday Next" series sounds like a cult classic for people who crave a rich brew of dystopic fantasy and deadpan goofiness. Shifting away from his postmodern literary parodies, which began with "The Eyre Affair" in 2001, Fforde has now created his most original story, an elaborate social satire about a weird but oddly familiar world almost 500 years in the future.
Every page of this high-concept novel (the first of a projected trilogy) glistens with ingenious details. The era you and I live in, the Previous, has long since vanished into the mists of time, but a single map remains of our pre-Epiphanic society: the Parker Brothers' board game Risk, which provides a somewhat misleading impression of antiquity. This brave new world, the love child of Aldous Huxley and Franz Kafka, is dominated by a rigid apartheid society, what its citizens call a Colortocracy: Each person's status is determined not by skin color but by the ability to perceive color. "Color, and the enjoyment thereof, was everything," Fforde writes, as he paints a culture that speaks and thinks entirely in terms of hues, shades and pigments.
Citizens take their place in the Chromatic scale, an inviolate caste system -- the Reds, the Yellows, the Blues -- that strictly forbids intermarriage between complementary colors. People who can't see any color at all -- the Greys, which make up about a third of the population -- toil away as a kind of slave race. Branded with a bar code and sporting the appropriate colored badge, "You know who you were," Fforde writes, "what you would do, where you would go and what was expected of you." Enlightenment is worse than death.
But that's just the beginning of this Lewis Carroll madness tinted with steampunk. The palette of Fforde's comedy is immense. Except for linoleum production, industry exists only to harvest scraps of ancient relics and extract their pigments, which are then pumped around to various towns through a massive network of pipes for the maintenance of artificial gardens. All other technology is incrementally abandoned in a series of Progressive Leapbacks: telephones, automobiles, indoor lighting -- all given up, along with more and more of the books in the library through a process called "deFacting." (The library staff presides proudly over their emptying shelves: "There was Catch-22," one diligent librarian says, "which was a hugely popular fishing book and one of a series, I believe.")
Fforde is like the stand-up comic in a gulag; his silly but cerebral humor prances through this dreary place without missing a beat. The harried souls of his color-obsessed world are controlled by what sounds like a prep-school rulebook, endlessly elaborated and corrupted over the centuries, though a vast system of "loopholery" has developed in response. Quotations from their infallible leader open each chapter with dollops of straight-faced absurdity. Spoon production is strictly forbidden; swearing, acronyms, clothing and sex are all regulated; and musicals are the only form of entertainment ("Red Side Story," "Repaint Your Wagon," "Ochrlahoma!").
And then, and then, and then . . . . Oh, it's hard not to get lost in the marvelous details of this novel, which is pretty much what happens to the plot. Very lightly strung through all this bubbling exposition is the slow story of a young naif named Eddie Russett, whose father is a Chromaticologist who heals people with swatches of carefully blended hues. Sent to the outer-fringe town of East Carmine to learn humility, Eddie finds himself stumbling upon a series of suspicious deaths. He has no intention of causing trouble -- he's a good Red set to begin a life of well-regulated ease -- but he falls irresistibly in love with a spunky Grey named Jane who threatens to break his arm. And then his nose. Who could resist such foreplay? Slowly, Jane takes the rose-colored glasses from Eddie's eyes and forces him to see what's really going on in the Colortocracy.
As a satire of planned economies and repressive governments, "Shades of Grey" reaches toward "1984," but thematically it isn't as profound as its clever props suggest. That becomes distressingly clear at climactic moments when All Is Explained in the most colorless and obvious ways. "I had a sense that everything about the Collective was utterly and completely wrong," Eddie says, long after that thought has occurred even to the greyest reader. "We should be dedicating our lives to gaining knowledge, not to losing it." You think? The level of suspense is so tepid that from hundreds of pages away, you can hear Charlton Heston yelling, "Soylent Green is people! We've got to stop them somehow!"
To be fair, part of the problem is timing. We've already read "1984" and "Harrison Bergeron" and "Fahrenheit 451" and a dozen other trenchant satirical assaults on the evils of societies that perpetuate themselves by infantilizing populations with inane regulations. But where besides North Korea and a few other pariah states would "Shades of Grey" make anyone see red nowadays? Both the thrills and the romantic comedy pick up during the final quarter, but as much as it hurts to say it, color me disappointed.
Charles is the fiction editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/roncharles.