Sometimes, it seems that certain authors have all the writing power they need, but not enough ideas: either they stop after one or two tries (I’m looking at you, Harper Lee) or they circle around and around the same idea without ever getting much further. Sometimes, it seems that certain authors have the ideas and the power to put them on paper. Great ideas are coming out of their ears, falling out of their pockets, pounds of ideas, they’re giving them away on the corners, and they can write them: short stories, novels, pamphlets, kids’ books, TV scripts. Think of Michael Chabon, Neil Gaiman, Hugo, Dickens. And then there are the authors who have plenty of ideas — ideas a-popping, ideas for free! — but somehow they just can’t get there and live up to the promise of those glorious thoughts. For me, Jasper Fforde is one of those authors.
A few years ago, I read The Eyre Affair and found it disappointing. I loved the concept — a world where books and their characters were like the celebrities and rock stars of our world, where huge groups of fans really loved and knew and cared about literature, and passion about the written word could spawn not only adoration but its darker side — crime. But the brilliantly daffy world-building didn’t save the book from its damp characterization. Thursday Next was half detective, half Bridget Jones, and it didn’t work well for me. Jane Eyre herself, unforgivably, was passive and dull. The dialogue was listless, and the jokes were frenetic and repetitive, as if Fforde didn’t quite trust us to get it.
Still, I was willing to give Fforde another try, since The Eyre Affair was his first book. I didn’t want to dip into a whole series, and besides, the Nursery Crime division seemed a bit too shaggy-dog for my tastes. So I decided to try Shades of Grey.
Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up. Amiable Eddie Russett lives in a far-distant future in which rigid social castes, hierarchies, and rules for etiquette and marriage are prescribed according to acuteness of personal color perception. If you can see purple, for instance, you are lucky enough to belong to the high-ranking Purples, though the saturation you can see of the color matters, too, and will determine the job you can get and the spouse you can afford. Eddie, of course, is a Red. He’s visiting the Outer Fringes with his father who is a healer (one is healed by looking at certain colors in this world), and he’s looking forward to nothing more exciting than marrying up a notch on the color palette and settling down. But when he meets the belligerent prole Jane Grey, things turn topsy-turvy.
If in The Eyre Affair I found that the wonderful world-building didn’t make up for what it lacked in characterization, this book goes even farther: Fforde builds so much world that it slows and stops the plot altogether and prevents characters from being more than caricatures. There’s Jane Grey, who has a cute nose and threatens maiming and murder to anyone who dares to mention it. There’s Eddie, Our Hero, who doesn’t get a clue until the last few pages of the book. (Irritatingly, there’s no way for the reader to get a clue, either.) There’s Tommo Cinnabar, the cheerfully selfish profiteer. There’s Violet deMauve, the unrelentingly nasty girl destined for Eddie’s marriage partner. It goes on and on. Not a single character is allowed to have complicated feelings; never are we permitted to see beyond the bewilderingly Technicolor facade of Fforde’s future-fantasy, full of carnivorous swan attacks, missing spoons, and of course, chromotechnics galore. The dialogue is stilted and dull, but how could you expect more from such cardboard cutouts in the land of Oz?
Honestly, I found this book deadly boring. There just wasn’t any fruit on the bottom, you know? Again, it was a wonderful idea, and it just wasn’t executed well. Ah well. I think Fforde just may not be on my list of authors to try again.