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Shades of Grey: Jasper Fforde
By Derek Walker
Picture credit: Mari Fforde

Just as some are tall, some are short and some are bearded, some people just have plain strange imaginations. Jasper Fforde is one of them. Lucky for him that he is an author and that a lot of people enjoy his eccentric style. 

Apparently, I am far from alone in coming across his books by accident and spreading the news by word-of-mouth. Fforde reckons that his book sales have to extend that way because there is no literary shorthand that describes how his novels work; they fit no genre easily and have no direct comparisons. The result is that people say to others, “I can’t explain it – just read it!” and that person enjoys the book so much that they do the same to others and so his reputation grows exponentially.

Perhaps it is not so much his imagination that appeals as much as what he mixes up and how. As far as genres go, he puts fantasy, crime thriller, and witty fiction into a blender, but only for a short while, so they come out with chunks intact.

He started with his Nursery Crimes series, which features characters like Humpty Dumpty, the Three Bears, Little Bo Peep - and flings in the odd Greek god just to throw the reader – all living among ordinary people as if there’s nothing odd about them being there.

When he had run out of nursery rhymes, he started to plunder the classics. His most famous series is the Thursday Next quartet, named after his female detective, who works for the literary crimes agency Jurisfiction. The first book, The Eyre Affair is based on the premise that Jane Eyre is kidnapped out of Jane Eyre for a ransom and, because it is told in the first person, every page after 200 will be blank unless the bad guys can be stopped. This can happen because of the Bookworld, where characters exist independently of their books and only pop into them when a reader is approaching the relevant page.

As well as its rich seam of wordplay, readers love his work because Fforde manipulates the characters so twistedly. His Heathcliffe is taking anger management classes and his Hamlet doesn’t know what he is doing or why, but he loves the idea that Mel Gibson plays him in the movie (after all, Mad Max , Hamlet, and Lethal Weapon all start with a loved one committing suicide and end with virtually everyone dead). 

This year’s book, Shades of Grey is a new approach for him as he creates all his own characters, but retains his imaginative streak. He told Tollbooth about the plot, which is set several world orders into the future, likening the setting to the English college Eton run by the Khmer Rouge.

“The hierarchy is based on the colours that you can see, and visual colour is an obsession of the population to the point where you want everything in your life to be brightly coloured. It’s a colour-based economy, and it’s severely localised.

“If you can see purple, then you’ll be at the top of the stack; if you can see red, you’re at the bottom of the stack (and everything in between). That is how the hierarchy of the whole system works. If you can’t see any colour at all, you’re an achromatic, a faceless drone of the collective.  

“Colour is piped to the park to make the grass green; you can buy colourised bananas for an extra five cents; so would you like an ordinary banana, which you can’t see, or a yellow coloured banana, which you can, so you can impress all your friends at your dinner party with properly coloured food? So it’s a very strange world.

“My story covers four or five days in the life of Eddie Russet, who is a medium level red perceptor, who is moving to a little village in the outer fringes of the collective in Red Sector West because he’s done some bad things, and he has to show some humility and reassignment.”

Fforde may have said that he borrows no characters for this story, but there are strong hints of previous works.

“Essentially, the whole story is actually about someone getting married, trying to get the right wife. In that respect, it’s like Jane Austen. But also, the two lead characters are Jane and Edward, and there is a mad woman in the attic. So in that respect, it’s a bit like Jane Eyre - in a slightly Orwellian post-apocalyptic sort of future.”

When I ask Fforde about formulating the idea, he takes off, enthusing about how colour doesn’t exist, but is merely a perception (hence colour-blindness, where some people confuse greens and reds). 

“When you start thinking of that, you start saying, ‘OK, what if you could put a value on colour, and build an economy around colour so that the people in my book spend their waking hours collecting scrap colour, which has been left by the Previous, to be able to be ground down, enriched and made into synthetic colour for everyone to enjoy?  A sort of uni-visual red, you could paint it on a wall, and everyone would stand around and go, “Aaah!

“You start off with those kinds of concepts and then you think, ‘Where’s it all going to go?’ Then it all starts tumbling out and the logic starts frame-working and joining, and you think, ‘No, I can’t do that. Yes, I can do that; that’s going to work.’  If you’re a purple and you’re at the top of the pile, and you’re a head prefect, you want your daughter to be purple as well. If your daughter is at the very blue end of purple, you’re going to have to have a very red son to get the purple back on line, otherwise, if she were to marry another blue, then she’d end up with blue kids and that’s the end of your life as a head prefect and your dynasty is dead. So then there’s an awful lot of marriage politics involved. 

“Books have a life of their own. You start off with one idea and all of a sudden, I’m writing about narrow marriage markets within small, fixed communities.”

This is where issues can enter the writing. Fforde’s approach is too light to get bogged down in moralising, but he does sneak in the odd tongue-in-cheek teaser. Because he is setting the story in a far distant time, he can play with the idea that things that are assumed or politically correct now might be derided later.

“It’s just playing with ideas, basically. I’m saying ‘What if it all went terribly wrong?’ Everyone was saying that Capitalism was a fantastic ideas 70 or 80 years ago, ‘Great! Capitalism, absolutely! Let the private individual sort it all out and the government will just be there to sort out a few laws and it will be brilliant. Don’t worry!’ Now we’re all realising that maybe it’s not really so good. So everyone’s talking about localisation, but what if that turns out to be not quite right?”

“So yes, there is a bit of social commentary, but I don’t want people to look upon it as a serious social commentary; it’s a satire, really, a satirical stab at us as humans and our relationships.”

Fforde spent his early years in the film industry, but doesn’t like to think that this influences his writing. However, he does concede that there may be a subtle effect.

“I tend to imagine a situation and then write down what I’m observing. So in that respect, it’s quite cinematic. But I think what the film industry really gave me was the opportunity to meet a lot of very, very strange people. It’s packed full of real oddballs and egos and petulant hissy-fits and all that kind of stuff – but also an opportunity to travel, which has been brilliant, and twenty years of going on location to all places in Britain, the world, everywhere – which is hugely beneficial to an author.”

The thing that makes his main series so appealing is that they are fun and they must have been just as much fun to write. I wondered if he has enjoyed writing this as much as the others?

“I’ve had different fun, because this one’s more of a pure novel,” he explained. “As an author, it’s of vital importance to stretch yourself now and again. If you do the same thing year after year after year, then you may become tired and stale and more importantly you miss out of techniques, shortcuts, and ways of doing things that you can learn by doing pure novels.”

Derek Walker


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