Saturday, 20 March 2010

Jasper Fforde-- Shades Of Grey

Jasper Fforde is a clever, clever man. And just to get this out of the way at the start: I loved this book.

I always think of Fforde as funny, but I'm not sure how accurate that is. I didn't laugh at this much while reading it-- maybe because I was too busy being gripped. And though the writing is smart and irreverant, it's not exactly witty.
There are huge amounts of silliness in the book, undeniably, but it's not in the writing. It's deeper than that. It's built in the very foundations of the world.

So in Shades Of Grey, there are colour-castes, barcodes everywhere, giant killer swans, Apocryphal People, man-eating trees, real-life-feedback and friend requests. But they're not funny, because they are an actual and functional part of the world of Britain under The Collective, and so they're real (and therefore not ridiculous) to the reader.

It's a clever trick, to slip the funny where it's simultaneously hidden but everywhere. The idea intrigues me, because I am slightly funny. I am slightly funny, and I like to write, so there's a big bit in the middle of that Venn Diagram... I would quite like to write a funny book. One day. Not yet, because I think it's difficult. But one day.
The problem is, Funny can get Flippant, and I have no wish to write a Flippant novel. The moment you have Flippancy in your prose, the whole thing can fall apart. Nobody is going to take a Character seriously or get involved in a Plot Event if the Author is likely to ditch the whole thing for a Punchline. (Too Many Capitals, I Think.)
So smuggling all the flippancy into the novel's world without dirtying the validity of the prose, letting it follow the book's internal logic, is a pretty good way to keep a foot in both camps.

And Fforde has a foot well-set in the serious camp. This book is cleverly plotted-- screw that, it's ingeniously plotted, about five times over. Seriously, most writers would stretch the sheer amount of story, events, people, twists and happenings to a series in itself. But Fforde is impatient, as he has another two books in this series planned already.
I've been struck by the same thing to a lesser extent when reading Tom Holt. When there's this many different things going on simultaneously, overlapping and distracting and escalating, I don't have a clue what's going on. I keep reading in the desperate (but enjoyable) hope that all will become clear; which shows a lot of faith in the author, when there's this much stuff to explain, pull together and make unmessy. Maybe having that faith paid off is part of the fun. It's a great feeling to be sitting on a wave of such complexity, knowing that it will all be OK and make sense in some ridiculously clever way at the end.

It's tempting to attempt this level of plottery myself. Keep chucking in new stuff, make it interconnected with as many other bits of stuff as possible, then just write it. I know, deep down, that I would get confused while writing it, and lose control long before it got readable.
But intrigue is good. When reading Fforde, I never know which bits of what the author is showing to me are important, and it's pleasing. I've spent a lot of today planning my next book, but I think it could benefit from a bit of clouding. And like Fforde, I will cloud it with things so interesting that they will a) justify themselves completely and b) leave it unclear which bits are clouding and which bits are clouded.


  1. Good review! I heart Fforde and really need to read more. Also love how he is able to keep a hold on his threads.

  2. Maybe I should give Jasper Fforde another go. I read The Eyre Affair and didn't like it, but maybe I shouldn't write him off on the basis of one novel.

  3. I just started reading The Eyre Affair, and so far I like it. I definitely intend on reading Shades of Grey even if I am disappointed in The Eyre Affair, because I love the plot.

  4. Hmm...I'm a bit late for this discussion, but I won't let that stop me! I loved the Thursday Next books - the Nursery Crimes not so much. It's all the world building he does - like the talk shows, the adverts for Toast, the communist Welsh, all of that. Shades of Grey felt entirely different. Yes, there was the silliness, but this is on the whole a very sinister book. The ending...I was not expecting that sort of emotional punch from such a silly book. I'm looking forward to the sequel.