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fifty shades of grey

27 november 2012

The following review will be NSFW. And full of spoilers! What more could you want.

When I announced on Facebook that I was reading E.L. James's Fifty Shades of Grey, a friend opined that my account had certainly been hacked. If you click around this website, you'll know that I don't spend all of my time reading Proust, but I have spent a certain amount of time doing that, and a life long enough to read Proust might indeed seem far too short to spend on Fifty Shades of Grey. So what gives?

I am supposed to keep up an academic knowledge of popular culture. Most of the time, it's futile; popular culture is by definition something that falls below academic scrutiny, so when professors become aware of it, it's no longer popular. But sometimes a phenomenon is large and fast-growing enough that professors can neither avoid knowing about it, nor assimilate it quickly. We watch it roll over us like an action-movie trainwreck.

Fifty Shades rolled over American culture this summer and crushed other literature in its path. It was a parody meme almost before anyone had gotten all the way through it. Within weeks, it seemed, a book that you couldn't have sent through the mail 50 years ago was appearing in cardboard dumps at the local drugstore, and being read aloud in mocking tones on YouTube. Why?

Partly, of course, it's about pornography, and about the peculiar American relationship with the prurient. Tales – yea, perhaps videos! – of mechanical sexual encounters interspersed with perfunctory plot episodes are just a "Safe Search Off" click or two away from this or any other Internet page. Of course, that's dirty stuff that only sketchy people do. But if the same dirty stuff gets packaged by Random House in trade paperback, it gains both an imprimatur and the tang of novelty. Even if the porn is exactly like every other boring porn on the planet, when it suddenly appears in the supermarket beside Going Rogue and The Five People You Meet in Heaven, it seems innovative in context.

OK, that's enough meta: on to the NSFW spoilers. Fifty Shades of Grey is narrated by Ana Steele, a twentysomething woman on the cusp of graduating from college. She meets and immediately bonds in mutual crushiness with Christian Grey, a romance-novel hero who is inexhaustibly wealthy and powerful (and seems to make his incalculable wealth by feeding the displaced of Darfur, so he's approvable as well as improbable). Grey sweeps Ana off her feet, buys her a new car, sends her a $14,000 first edition of Tess of the Durbervilles (because she's an English major, of course, and so has all of Victorian literature conveniently memorized, so she can quote it in mash notes and erotic e-mails).

Romance heroes, however dashing, rich, and mysterious, have to have a problem: raving wife in the attic, tendency to walk muttering about the moors at night. Christian Grey's problem is that he likes to suspend women he's just met from a grid in the ceiling of his personal Red Room of Pain by means of nipple clamps. Well, nobody's perfect.

You could write an interesting fiction about people who like to salt their eroticism with pain: as another FB friend pointed out, the smart (and earnestly romantic) film Secretary did just that for characters played by James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal.

E.L. James has not written an interesting fiction. In fact, instead of playing the romance-fiction formula off against real-life embodiments of dominance and masochism, she has opted for a standard-issue porn story.

Ana, inevitably, is a virgin. She has never even masturbated. You could write an interesting fiction about that – such people certainly exist. But, see E.L. James, above. When Christian Grey announces to Ana "I don't make love. I fuck … hard" (96), one might expect her either to call 911, or to say she'll see him in a few years after she's had some tepid starter relationships. Instead, of course, she goes straight to bed with him, and ten hours after he has taken her virginity in his lordly mastery, she has had five soul-shattering orgasms in five sex positions of increasing degree of difficulty.

Well, at least he isn't a pizza delivery man. No, after loosening our heroine up with his softcore technique, Christian proceeds to send her an eleven-page contract with 21 clauses and three appendices (165-175), which James includes in full so the reader can dwell over its fascinating subclauses and provisos. I wish I were making this up, but the contract includes little preference questionnaires like this:

Where 1 is likes intensely and 5 is dislikes intensely: 1-2-3-4-5
Etc. Honestly, looking back over it, the contract is the most interesting part of the whole novel, so I shouldn't be ragging on it.

Despite all the prospective vigorous fisting that the contract portends, Ana & Christian's depicted sexual relationship goes from A to B to C as predictably as a spelling primer. They play the basic scales of the popular porn positions, and then move on to some spanking, and then the riding crop comes out. Meanwhile, in the non-porn interludes, Ana and Christian talk like recently introduced acquaintances who have been programmed by Emily Post. They trade nudge-nudge one-line e-mails that absorb enough white space that the novel extends to 514 pages.

As another friend noted (it's an erudite crowd I hang with), Ana's reaction to everything that happens in her life is the italicized internal-monologue phrase Holy crap. Admittedly, James provides a lot of elegant variations on Holy crap. Sometimes it's holy fuck, sometimes holy hell, sometimes holy shit. Less holy variants include double crap and the reserved-for-fiendish-plot-twists "triple crap." I do not remember her saying "Holy Moly." This stultifying verbal tic points to the dearth of character development. Ana is a woman who responds to the snap of a riding crop on her genitals with "holy crap." She also responds to not being able to find the right underwear with "holy crap." I think she's suffering from flat affect.

Christian wants to play Dominant to Ana's Submissive in a role-playing erotic relationship. Inevitably, one could also write an interesting fiction about that, which doesn't happen here. Such relationships exist, a subculture is organized about them, and they're an intriguing window onto human sexual potential. But there are no bondage clubs or other such support groups here. For Christian, bondage and domination are like Fight Club; the first rule is that you don't talk about them. For Ana, the whole idea of talking about them is "holy crap." Their relationship is in a locked room from the start, and you just know it's fixing to run its course toward a well-adjusted cozy monogamy in the sequels that life is well and truly too short to read. (That there are sequels I know from seeing them in Kroger's, and also intrinsically from the trajectory of the plot of Fifty Shades of Grey: artificial conflict evoked to break the characters apart so they can do the same damn coming-together again that they did in Novel One.)

Did I really read Fifty Shades of Grey, as I advertised on Facebook? As I've opined elsewhere with reference to sport fiction, you don't really read the game stories; you flip through them to see who wins, and pick up the story on the other side. (I've burned through many a baseball novel that way: how many game situations can there possibly be?) In porn (I imagine, I mean, geez, I wouldn't have any direct knowledge of that, of course), the same principle applies: riffle quickly through the sex scenes, keeping score of the orgasms and their provenance, and then get on with the plot. Except in Fifty Shades of Grey you find yourself riffling through the plot as well. Twenty pages of stilted chatter and "holy crap," and then ten pages of "his glorious member filled me till he found his release," and pretty soon it's page 514 and your duty to popular culture has found its own release.

So one asks again: why was this novel a hit? But that's a discussion for another forum and another audience.

James, E.L. Fifty Shades of Grey. 2011. New York: Vintage [Random House], 2012.