Friday, June 29, 2012

Fifty Shades of Grey

This book's reputation doesn't lie: it is truly the most sadistic piece of writing ever unleashed upon a (clearly, by the sales figures) submissive and masochistic public. I've spent about three total hours reading, skimming, and suffering, and I feel like I endured a month locked in a dungeon being spanked with my own illusions that people actually have some modicum of taste and judgment. I'd rather be caned by the Marquis de Sade himself than have to reread Fifty Shades of Grey.

For those fortunate souls unfamiliar with FSoG, it was originally written as Twilight fanfiction. Bella and Edward, the dynamic adolescent rape victim and superannuated bloodsucking pervert duo from Twilight, are here reimagined as non-supernatural Ana Steele and Christian Grey. She's a virginal college senior who bites her lip a lot, and he's a multi-billionaire CEO/bondage enthusiast.

They meet-cute when Ana's roommate sends her to interview him for the college paper. After an awkward couple of dates, he hands her a sheaf of paperwork: a non-disclosure agreement and a contract laying out her responsibilities as his submissive, should she choose to accept the position(s) he has open. He wants her to be his sex slave and also to do whatever he says the rest of the time, including eating when and what he says -- and I mean that literally, as in food. Her feisty independence is established by the fact that she quibbles a little on the food section but agrees to the mandated hygiene treatments. (Yep, I'm sold. She's a total ball-buster, that one.)

As I understand from reading the terrifyingly many positive reviews of this book, there are two major selling points: the wonderful, tortured hero and the bondage sex. The wonderful, tortured hero has some cookie-cutter emotional issues:

[Ana asks:] "Why do you need to control me?"
"Because it satisfies a need that wasn't met during my formative years." (437)*

Which nicely complement Ana's sad-little-child-of-divorce issues:

This is why I'm so reticent about our relationship--because on some basic, fundamental level, I recognize within me a deep-seated compulsion to be loved and cherished. (473)

Although I'm not going to hand you the big ole' spoilery answer to why he's such a whiny douche, this will give you a clue:

So much for tortured. As for wonderful, by all means, judge for yourself:

His gray eyes are bleak as he runs his hand through his hair. He looks torn, frustrated, his expression stark, all his careful control has evaporated. (50)

He may not be wonderful, but we do know he's bleak, torn, frustrated, and stark, and that's a good start.

He said he likes his women sentient. (69)

Clearly, he's also a liar.

     "Does this mean you're going to make love to me tonight, Christian?" Holy shit. Did I just say that? His mouth drops open slightly, but he recovers quickly.

     "No, Anastasia, it doesn't. First, I don't make love. I fuck . . . hard." (96)

"You're very beautiful, Anastasia Steele. I can't wait to be inside you."

Holy shit. His words. He's so seductive. He takes my breath away. (114)

And a real cunning linguist, too.

"I want you to become well acquainted, on first name terms if you will, with my favorite and most cherished part of my body. I'm very attached to this." (135)

Hint: he's talking about his penis.

"Ana, baby!" he cries, and it's a wild invocation, stirring and touching the depths of my soul. (438)

And he's a man of many talents! Take my word for it, souls are the least of it; he stirs and touches the depths of many things in this book.

"Breakfast," he whispers, making it sound deliciously erotic.

How can he make bacon and eggs sound like forbidden fruit? It's an extraordinary skill. (455)

[After Ana offers to pay for breakfast:] "Are you trying to completely emasculate me?" (459)

Sadly, it probably would be that easy. Put simply, Christian Grey's level of seductive savoir-faire lies somewhere between Pepe Le Pew and this guy (NSFW).

Once Christian has used his irresistibly subtle wiles to lure Ana into his Red Room of Pain (no, I am not making that up), she finally experiences good sex:

Oh my. My heartbeat picks up again. This feels so . . . so good. (70)

Oh my . . . I didn't know it would feel like this . . . didn't know it could feel as good as this. (117)

He's so good at sex--even I've figured this out. (223)

[While looking in a mirror:] I watch in fascination at the wanton creature writhing in front of me. Oh, this feels good. (429)

And nice sex:

I stare at him dumbfounded as I stop breathing and everything inside me clenches tight. Ooh . . . that's so nice. (129)

"How nice was that?" he asks through gritted teeth.
Oh my. (196)

And then she learns what all the fuss is about:

Oh my. That was extraordinary. Now I know what all the fuss is about. (116)

Now I know what all the fuss was about. (118)

Once initiated into the nice, good, fussiness of sex, she then spends most of the rest of the book in a state of ungrammatical and often italicized arousal:

I am still panting, trying to slow my breathing, my thumping heart, and my thoughts are in riotous disarray. Wow . . . that was astounding. (118)

Two orgasms . . . coming apart at the seams, like the spin cycle on a washing machine, wow. (118)

I writhe . . . oh my. (141)

Oh . . . my. The feeling is sore and sweet and bold and gentle all at once. (142)

I'm tied, literally, to my bed, and I'm so aroused. (192)

I'm a ball of sexual tense need. (195)

He slams into me and stops abruptly as he reaches his climax, pulling at my wrists and sinking gracefully and wordlessly onto me.
     Wow . . . that was unexpected. I slowly materialize back on Earth. (372)

Oh my . . . I want him. My breath hitches. (420)

Oh my . . . sex in IHOP. (457)

Oh boy, I think my heart is going to jump out of my chest, and I'm melting from the inside out, desire coursing through me. Could I be any more excited? (487)

Oh boy, I know I sure couldn't.

Oh my . . . I am fit to burst already. Why is this so erotic? (489)

Oh my. My whole body tightens at the thought. Piano. Wow. (497)

In short:

The pleasure was indescribable. (118) 

By this author, at least. But if you don't succeed, try, try again; there are plenty of eloquent descriptions of Christian's arousal, too:

His growing erection presses against my behind. It's such a turn-on knowing that it's my body making him feel this way. (135)

Wow . . . feels much firmer than I expected. (136)

Ooh, burn.

He reacts the same way. I affect him . . . wow. (219)

Wow . . . to be this wanted by this Greek god. (479)

Difficult as it may be to imagine an author keeping up this level of mastery over the English language for a full 514 pages, and not just in the good and nice scenes, E.L. James totally pulls it off. The overall tone for FSoG is perfectly set by the author bio, which contains a misplaced modifier**, and by the dedication: "For Niall, the master of my universe." I'll give everyone a moment to go and take a long shower in Clorox. Ready? Great, although I doubt that feeling of ickiness will ever go away.

The rest follows along in a similar vein: turgid, unorginal, and about as appealing as a used condom that's been left out in the sun on an August afternoon. Because mere clear, coherent, grammatical description could not possibly do these characters justice***, I have to use more excerpts; please accept my apologies. Within just a few pages, I learned that while Fifty Shades of Grey offers the spicy, romantic eroticism of a proctology textbook written for nine-year-olds, it also has the literary sophistication of a proctology textbook written for nine-year-olds:

[Christian telling Ana about his business philosophy:] "Business is all about people, Miss Steele, and I'm very good at judging people. I know how they tick, what makes them flourish, what doesn't, what inspires them, and how to incentivize them. I employ an exceptional team, and I reward them well." He pauses and fixes me with his gray stare. "My belief is to achieve success in any scheme one has to make oneself master of that scheme, know it inside and out, know every detail. I work hard, very hard to do that. I make decisions based on logic and facts. I have a natural gut instinct [Wait, didn't he just say he uses logic and facts in the last sentence?] that can spot and nurture a good solid idea and good people. The bottom line is it's always down to good people." (10)

This goes on for another page and a half. I kept myself awake by editing for grammar, punctuation, and stupidity. Speaking of which:

Sometimes I wonder if there's something wrong with me. Perhaps I've spent too long in the company of my literary romantic heroes, and consequently my ideals and expectations are far too high. But in reality, nobody's ever made me feel like that. (24)

But? I do not think that conjunction means what you think it means.

[Ana gets up and then goes back to bed:] Returning to the bedroom, Christian is still asleep. (125)

You may think that I've chosen all of the worst that Fifty Shades of Grey has to offer; I assure you, there's much more: 514 pages, to be precise. To start with, it seems that Ana's mom and roommate share an STD, although James never really clarifies this:

Her curiosity oozes through the phone. (34)

My mom is oozing contrition, desperately sorry not to make my graduation. (206)

And then there are the sphinxes:

I can almost hear his sphinxlike smile through the phone. (35)

"Hi," I say softly, and my sphinxlike smile meets his. (332) 

In other parts of the book, Ana demonstrates the strength of character for which Christian often praises her (when he's not shaming and intimidating her for not drying her hair properly, of course -- and no, I'm not making that up, either):

"Hi," I bleat timidly in to (sic) the phone. (58)

Wow. I am in awe and slightly daunted by this underwear. (70)

And then she shows her intelligence:

We're talking about cheese . . . Holy crap. (103)

Ana also has some multiple-personality problems; her "inner goddess" and her "subconscious" (of which she is fully conscious at all times) appear regularly throughout FSoG:

My subconscious is figuratively tutting and glaring at me over her half-moon specs. (63)

I flush at the waywardness of my subconscious--she's doing her happy dance in a bright red hula skirt at the thought of being his. (67)

What, it's not figurative this time?

My subconscious has reared her ugly, snide head. (69)

No, dude, your mom's head is snide.

I flush, and my inner goddess smacks her lips together, glowing with pride. (256)

Guaranteed, you do not want to know the context of this. And if that made your flesh try to crawl all the way off of your body and buy a one-way ticket to Zimbabwe, try this:

He steps out of his Converse shoes and reaches down and takes his socks off individually. Christian Grey's feet . . . wow . . . what is it about naked feet? (122)

I'm trying to picture how someone would pull off both socks at once, as opposed to individually, while standing. Why? Because that's better than picturing some creepy asshole's gross feet, that's why.

Unlike Ana's oh-so-talented inner goddess, I have a gag reflex, and there's simply a limit to how many quotes I can transcribe. But before I go drown myself in a vat of Purell, I do have to give a brief shout-out to the last few pages of the book. E.L. James may have few authorial strengths, but when it comes to emo purple-prose melodrama, the exciting conclusion of FSoG reaches a new zenith of nadir, as it were:

My subconscious is shaking her head sadly, and my inner goddess is nowhere to be seen. Oh, this is a dark morning of the soul for me. [Fucking seriously?] I'm so alone. (507)

I cannot believe that my world is crumbling around me into a sterile pile of ashes, all my hopes and dreams cruelly dashed. (511)

The elevator doors close and it whisks me down to the bowels of the basement and to my own personal hell. (513)

[From the last paragraph of the novel:] I fall onto my bed, shoes and all, and howl. The pain is indescribable . . . physical, mental . . . metaphysical . . . it is everywhere, seeping into the marrow of my bones. Grief. This is grief--and I've brought it on myself. Deep down, a nasty, unbidden thought comes from my inner goddess, her lips contorted in a snarl . . . the physical pain from the bite of a belt is nothing, nothing compared to this devastation. (514)

The next time any one of you wants to know what I've done for you lately, please remember that I read this book so you don't have to.**** Fifty Shades of Grey gets zero stars.***** It is truly the worst book I have ever read that was published by an actual publishing house, and not scrawled in midget blood on used toilet paper by a schizophrenic. This has nothing to do with the subject matter, or even with the provenance of the characters; calling this fanfiction or BDSM porn is an insult to respectable fanfiction and BDSM porn everywhere. Ironically, E.L. James expressed my reaction to her novel more perfectly than I could ever do:

I did follow my heart, and I have a sore ass and an anguished, broken spirit to show for it. (507)

* All ellipses and italics in the quoted passages are in the original, unfortunately. Page numbers are in parentheses. Contextual info or my comments appear in brackets.

** Just in case I'm wrong about that, my condolences to Ms. James on the loss of her husband and children.

*** If I were E.L. James, that's the excuse I would use, anyway.

**** With one exception. My dear cousin, who gave me this book, read it first. E, can you possibly recommend a good PTSD therapist? I know you must be seeing one. Also, I hate you.

***** I don't even care that this book was written in the present tense. It doesn't. Even. Matter.

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