Grey by Jon Armstrong
I am a sucker for free things. Usually, I’m a pretty conscientious consumer, but if something’s free, an infantile hoarding urge takes over me–what if, someday, I’m going to need it? When Anastasia reviewed Grey over at Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog, I hesitated. It sounded interesting, but women often get the short end of the stick in dystopian fiction. A few moments later, I opened up the free .pdf to find a glowing blurb from Michael Chabon on the cover and realized that I was going to give a shot.
Grey is set in a vague, dystopian future, where the families associated with corporations occupy a social elite, media has finally consumed reality, and differing fashion can tear people apart. Michael Rivers is a son of privilege who, despite his flashy father, pursues the elegant and neutral style of the fashion magazine Pure H and adores his equally ‘grey’ fiancée, Nora; both look forward to the day their marriage, arranged to anchor the merger between their fathers’ companies, comes to pass. But when Michael is shot by an anonymous freeboot (someone off the grid), the marriage is called off and Michael is forbidden from seeing Nora. Certain that no one will ever understand him as Nora does, Michael does everything in his power to get back to her–and, in the process, learns some very hard truths.
Armstrong’s greatest accomplishment in Grey is the setting, a hyper-fashionable and hyperbolic dystopia that reminds me of nothing so much as Alex Cox’s film adaptation of The Revengers Tragedy. This is a world where everyone has given way to sex and violence, especially Michael’s disgustingly vulgar father, whose Ültra subculture (a mix of the most offensive death metal you can think of and clothes so atrocious and colorful they’ll blind you at a thousand paces) often leaves behind a trail of dead. The climax of the novel is set at an aptly named “rage”, and Michael watches as a man is beaten to death on-screen to accompany the music. While he was, prior to a heart attack, like his father, Michael’s style of choice is now elegant, subdued, and monochromatic–Michael and Nora have even gone through a highly illegal operation to remove the cones in one of their eyes, allowing them to choose when to see the world in color or not. Even the commodification of women has undergone a hyperbolic transformation; the idea of consuming women is made literal in “slut cakes”, a popular woman-shaped pastry. It’s a vivid satire of our own world, clearly recognizable as our own. To be quite honest, it’s like a masculine version of what Lady Gaga must see after the Nyquil kicks in and before she falls asleep. And that’s fascinating.
What I particularly liked about Michael was that he wasn’t self-aware enough to be a representative of Armstrong in the novel, pointing out the absurdities of this strange new world. Despite all his elegance, he’s childlike and innocent in a way that only the spoiled but still fundamentally good-hearted can be; his main motivation is to reunite with Nora, despite the increasing obstacles their families (particularly Michael’s father) put in the way, but he still frets about the very idea of Nora seeing him on television wearing anything resembling Ültra and subscribes to overly romantic notions about love–he’s been on a total of four dates with Nora. I pictured him as a flightier version of Sebastian from Brideshead Revisited (if that’s possible), I have to admit, and that comparison has endeared many a fictional character to me. As Nora is more of an elegantly chic mirror of Michael and a prize than anything else, the only powerful woman we really encounter is Joelene, Michael’s beloved tutor, the woman who turned him onto Pure H. I I enjoyed Joelene’s hyper-competence in the face of the two media-saturated fools she works with, and I especially enjoyed that she was the only character who tried to meaningfully subvert this hyperbolic system of sex, violence, fashion, and business.
I think that’s why I didn’t completely enjoy Grey; above all else, it’s an idea novel. While Michael is enjoyable, Armstrong never quite takes the step to make him grow significantly as a character; he’s still fundamentally the same person at the end, merely more experienced and a bit chastened. This is because Michael never questions the system or his own privilege; he works within it, never dreaming of bending the rules for anything other than seeing Nora. Even his bohemian mother dreams of getting into this system instead of forging a meaningful life outside of it. It’s only Joelene who thinks larger, and this lack of ambition on Michael’s part make the novel feel ephemeral and unmoored; not much is happening, and only interest in the setting will spur most readers on. Dystopias, to me, are interesting when they’re toppled or questioned, the latter of which is wonderfully done in Blade Runner; the fact that Grey doesn’t even touch those issues almost bothers me.
Bottom line: Jon Armstrong’s Grey is fascinating due to its setting, a hyper-fashionable dystopia where media, sex, violence, and fashion have finally consumed everyone’s minds. It’s also frustrating in that the main character, Michael, never questions his dystopia and merely focuses on reuniting with his estranged fiancée; when we encounter a character who thinks outside of the society and tries to subvert it, you almost want to leap into her head instead, no matter how elegant Michael is. A light, if interesting, read.