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Shades of Grey March 19, 2010

Posted by Brian L. Belen in Books, Reviews.

Shades of Grey: A NovelOne of Jasper Fforde’s endearing qualities as a writer is his knack for taking full advantage of his chosen medium. Take his Thursday Next series as an example — the premise of which already pays tribute to what the written word has to offer — and more specifically his concept of the footnoterphone. Allowing his characters to engage in conversation outside of the main body of the text, it’s obviously a gimmick, albeit an amusing and imaginative one. Yet it is equally a device (pun intended) that only makes sense in the pages of a book.

In today’s multimedia age, would screen adaptations of Fford’s novels ever be in the cards? Perhaps, but only with great difficulty (and that’s a good thing). Nowhere is this more evident than in his latest series, Shades of Grey, which is difficult to imagine in any medium other than print.

Once again, it’s an alternate-reality England readers are introduced to, where a mysterious Something that Happened has eliminated nearly all trace of the world as we know it today. This new world is a colortocracy where people’s perception of color across the visible spectrum dictates social norms and class structure. The protagonist is one Eddie Russet, a young man with an above average perception of red, who eventually falls in love with a “Grey” named Jane. In between, the realization dawns upon Eddie that all is not as it seems in their neat and orderly world, setting the stage for a story with subtle political undertones (both literally and figuratively).

Try adapting that to a medium other than print!

It’s an engaging read because of Fforde’s wit, creativity and affinity for details, yet therein lie both the strength and weakness of Shades of Grey. The concept of the colortocracy and the minutiae Fforde has thought of to explain how such a system might work is simply astounding. After all, to imagine what it might be like to view the world seeing only one color and positing what social implications this may have is no mean feat. In addition, the resulting symbolism gives added dimension to the social commentary. Unfortunately, as he has been guilty of in the past (read: Thursday Next) Fforde tends to err on the side of excess: once the novelty wears off, the surfeit of detail otherwise slows down the plot development, resulting in a drawn out middle and far-too-quickly-unfolding end.

Thankfully, it would appear that Fforde intends Shades of Grey to be the first of a trilogy. If so, readers can hope that this first book gets the “opening remarks” out of the way so he can move on to much more plot-driven, evenly paced storytelling.

Immersing oneself in Jasper Fforde’s world, whether via Thursday Next, Nursery Crime, or now, Shades of Grey, is to experience stories almost wholly integrated with the printed medium, and thereby best enjoyed precisely as they are. It was Marshall McLuhan who coined the phrase “the medium is the message.” Somehow, this rings particularly true of Jasper Fforde’s work, and never more so than with Shades of Grey.


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