I read E.L. James’ Fifty Shades Of Grey this week, something I was sure I’d never do- but hey, let’s just say I’m not opposed to trying new things. My roommate Lauren read it as part of a book club she participates in, and when she finished it she was livid (see her review here). Because I love discussing anything with her I said, “Come on, now I have to read this. We’ll talk about it when I’m done.”
Within a few days she gave me a paperback copy to read. That’s right- a physical copy of the book. I had no interest in hiding the fact I was reading pornography with a Kindle, Nook, or whatever e-reader people are using these days.
The moment I started reading it I was like, “Holy God, I want this to be over.” The way I dealt with this was reading it as quickly as possible, whenever possible and with absolutely no shame. I read it everywhere. I read it at work. I read it on the street. I read it on the bus and the train. I didn’t care what people thought. Anyone who saw me with this book would know I wasn’t enjoying it very much. I’m sure that my expression looked like someone watching open heart surgery.
This brings me to the second reason why I read Grey. I was disturbed by the popularity of a book that centers on a woman who is willing to subject herself to degradation and abuse because a man is beautiful. That’s it. There’s no other reason. He’s beautiful and the simple act of looking at him gets her sexually aroused to the point where she can’t breathe and her brain shuts down. From the get go, this is why she allows him to do pretty much anything to her.
The result? This book has gotten millions of women very hot and bothered, ushering it into the pop culture lexicon. It now has two sequels. A film adaptation is in the works. It has helped coin the phrase: “Mommy Porn.”
For my part, this book kind of made me want to die. Like many women I had fantasies about it, but mine consisted of drop-kicking it so hard it would hit a ceiling and ricochet to the ground in .005 seconds. I also had fantasies about throwing full bottles of Bollinger La Grande Année Rosé into Christian Grey’s “perfect” face. At one point I punched the book while reading it. That’s right- I punched a book. It was fast and instinctual, and I had never done that to a piece of literature before.
A lot of this was due to the writing. That’s fault #1. E.L. James isn’t a good writer. In fact, I’m 100% sure her favorite writer is Stephenie Meyer, and it has been documented that Grey started out as Twilight fan fiction. There is some resemblance between the stories: Ana’s physical appearance, her clumsiness, love of books and having suitors who are cute but not “good enough”; Christian’s hair color, piano playing, exhaustive stalking tendencies and conversations where he repeatedly warns Ana to “stay away” and that “he isn’t good for her.”
Basically Grey is what the Twilight series would have been if Meyer hadn’t diverted and suppressed her fantasies. “I think Stephenie Meyer is the kind of woman who likes to get hit during sex,” I told a friend once. That may or may not be true. Either way, E.L. James has no shame in admitting it.
Thing is, James does more than borrow character traits and subject matter from Meyer’s books. She writes just like Meyer. This made the book a hell on Earth for me. She is in love with her thesaurus. Her metaphors and word choices are terrible. Her characters do and say the same things over and over again. Ana bites her lip and Christian runs his hands through his hair constantly. I even noticed that Christian’s mouth forms “a hard line” just about every other moment or so, which is how Meyer describes Edward Cullen every other moment as well. Also, no one “says” things like a normal person- they “murmur” everything. Seriously, Grey has more mentions of people murmuring than the Twilight series and The Book Of Mormon put together.
Above all, I cringed whenever Ana’s inner monologue would respond with: Oh my, which happens about 50,000 times during the course of the story. It was worse than Meyer’s obsession with the word “chagrin.” The effect was simply awful, and the only way it would work would be if George Takei did the audiobook for this thing. In fact, I think Takei would improve it.
Then there was the inner goddess, medulla oblongata and the subconscious: basically metaphors for Anna’s thought process. I’m not even going to go there. There were also mentions of a “green man” and “bluebeard” telling her what to do. Any sane editor would have told James to take these references out, but they stayed. What I got from it? Apparently Ana has at least five shades of crazy going on in her head.
So the writing was awful, and buried beneath this are the characters and the subject matter. That’s fault #2. Man, Grey doesn’t have characters. It has constructs. Ana is a hodge-podge of clichés and like many modern female “heroines” she is self-serving but supposedly worth it because she is “special.” As for Christian I had a harder time. He doesn’t seem like a real person. For all the descriptions of his physical beauty I could never fully imagine what he looked like. After a while all I could imagine was a giant dick that walks around in a charcoal designer suit, steepling his long fingers and cocking his head all of the time because he has an inner ear problem.
In the end he only exists to fulfill James’ sexual and emotional fantasies and, by proxy, the reader’s. He is also the standard sought-after male in literature: handsome, rich, mysterious, physically strong and emotionally volatile. And since this is an erotic novel he also has a giant penis. Duh.
Despite Christian’s good looks, moneybags, sexual prowess and such I simply didn’t like him. I hated the way he talked to Ana in the beginning. Then he doesn’t stop talking. EVER. During sex he is always blathering about what he’s going to do and how he’s going to do it. This drove me crazy.
Christian: “I’m going to fuck you now. Hard.”
Ana’s inner monologue: Oh my…
Christian: “I’m going to-”
Me: “JESUS CHRIST STOP TALKING YOU ARE RUINING MY LIFE.”
For the record, Christian and Ana have sex a lot. That wasn’t a surprise. For all the response that Grey is getting from its readers, the sexual content doesn’t really explore new territory. I suppose that the Ben Wa balls scene may have thrown some readers, but toys are toys. The BDSM, spanking, biting and the sexual positions these two use are hardly new to me. They are an initiation, and plot-wise they kind of make sense. Ana is a virgin and just starting out. It’s not like Christian could go full-throttle and be like, “How do you feel about donkey punching while doing The Triple Lindy? I know it doesn’t work, but the hell with it- I’m hot.”
The weird thing is that the book suddenly makes a hairpin turn and goes into a direction I didn’t expect. I supposed that Ana would just sign the contract to become Christian’s submissive and begin her education, much like the protagonists in Venus In Furs (1870) and Story Of O (1954). That doesn’t happen. The two make an attempt for an actual relationship, and this is the only aspect of the book I found interesting. They actually communicate (mostly through e-mail, which was annoying and cheesy as hell) and try to respect one another in person, with mixed results.
The book also explores the challenges and repercussions of entering a relationship with someone who is emotionally and sexually damaged. Those issues intrigue me, but man oh man… I’d prefer to explore them somewhere else. Not here. I could hardly get through this book, and by the end those issues were clearly unresolved.
While reading Grey I also realized that you can’t get through it without comparing it to your own sexuality. Perhaps that’s part of its wide appeal. It either disgusts readers, titillates them, bores them or makes them want to do the same things. This goes hand-in-hand with Ana’s character, who is a sexual blank slate when the story begins. Through Christian she begins testing herself, and I suppose reading about it is a safe way to test what you would/wouldn’t be into. Then again, I’m a novice when it comes to erotica or pornography- I suppose that’s why most of it exists.
In my case, I learned to keep an open mind. Although I didn’t like what I was reading, I had to separate myself from what was happening. As dumb as Grey is, the characters are two consenting adults. If a woman accepts being raped in a boathouse or getting hit by a belt, it’s ultimately her decision in this relationship. What’s weird is that she thinks she can subvert and change her lover’s behavior. She also believes she is in love with him. I’m not sure if she is. I think she’s blinded by his prettiness and how she wants him to make her feel. When Christian warns her with the line, “I’m fifty shades of fucked up,” she doesn’t understand what he means.
There are many types of relationships and many things I don’t know or understand about people’s sexual needs. It’s an inexhaustible subject. What I do know is that this kind of relationship exists. I thought about acquaintances and friends of mine who have done similar things. I thought about the Sada Abe case in the 1930s. In fact, this stupid book made me think too much but it reminded me not to judge. I know if someone hit me in the crotch with a riding crop I’d probably beat them to death with a chair. However, for someone else it might be their ultimate fantasy. Grey just wasn’t my fantasy. Not even close. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t real.
However, some things about this book will always be unreal to me. I’d like to conclude with those details: a virgin having three orgasms during her first time. Contemplating sex on a table at an IHOP. A college graduate immediately getting a job in 2011. The fact that Ana’s lip-biting is entirely based on Kristen Stewart and seems like a defamation of character.
Also, two sequels to this book. Really? I won’t be reading either of them. I actually like the way Grey ended. Ana asks to get “punished” for real, and after only six blows she realizes that punishment hurts. I was like, “What? You didn’t see this coming?” Then, “You’re an idiot.” She promptly flips out and the two of them part ways.
The book ends with Ana crying. At that point I laughed and thought, “Oh man. It’s all because he was beautiful, wasn’t it? Oh believe me, beauty isn’t enough. It never is. And he’s just not worth it.”