Review: E. L. James’s ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’

Now, before you say anything — let me confess. Yes: I went there. I read itI’m not quite sure why, but I did, and now there’s going to be a review of it on my blog. And while I’m on the disclaimers/mildly disingenuous confessions, let me also go right ahead and say this: It is a terrible book. It’s badly written, it has little to no plot (but somehow this is mysteriously stretched out across not one, but three – yes THREE! – books!), and what little plot it does have is somewhat submerged under repetitive and relentless sex scenes. If it wasn’t for the BDSM element, even the sex scenes would be beyond generic (and maybe they still are: I am no expert in BDSM erotic fiction). 

You could very well stop reading this review right there. Above is a true and apt summary of the precise nature and quality of this book. One has come not to expect too much from a world in which books like Twilight can be on the New York Times Best Seller list for over 235 weeks; one simply has to ascribe it to the zeitgeist, perhaps read in it a deeply engrained cultural unconscious which really hankers to get beyond the monotony of postmodernity and have sex with a vampire. E. L. James certainly did, and it’s more than telling that Fifty Shades of Grey began as Twilight-inspired fanfiction. (I believe its appropriate classification would have been ‘lemon’, if memories of my fanfiction-writing youth are accurate.) But even where the world and Best Seller lists fill one with horror and sorrow, it does always get worse.

The dreaded tie. auggghhh!!!

Nonetheless, I’m going to plough ahead with exploring precisely what the merits of this book might be (and sure it has some, despite the awful writing and the clichés and its shameless pandering to the fantasies of many). After all, I sat down and read it, and it would be sheer hypocrisy if I didn’t try and consider why; and since I didn’t stop, it’s evidently got some draw.

David Lodge writes in The Novelist at the Crossroads: And Other Essays on Fiction and Criticism (1971) that popular forms of literature (and ‘subliteratures’, he says) are those

“…in which the arousal and gratification of very basic fictional appetites (such as wonder, wish fulfilment, suspense) are only loosely controlled by the disciplines of realism)…”

That Fifty Shades of Grey is aiming for ‘gratification’, ‘arousal’, and ‘wish fulfilment’ is so blatantly evident that I don’t really need to examine the relevance of Lodge’s statement in this context. What I am going to emphasize, however, is that sometimes people just don’t want depth, epistemological/hermeneutic trickery or scrutiny, a deep philosophical or socio-political agenda, life-shattering revelations in fictional form — sometimes, they just want to satiate that “very basic fictional appetite” Lodge so brilliantly identifies. And this is why I chose to read this over (God forgive me) Infinite Jest, which is already evidently infinitely (ho ho!) better (I’m only on chapter 3). I do feel guilty, but at the end of the day, when you’re tired and exhausted and mildly blue, something that’s as simple and stupid as Fifty Shades is perhaps just as good sucking you in and out of your worries as anything else.

Having now disclaimed, and having examined in brief this book’s few merits (which are not of a qualitative nature, let me reiterate), I can now proceed to make fun of it. Hurray! WELL. Where does one start? “Only loosely controlled by the disciplines of realism” is APT, if not somewhat an understatement, for this book.

If you get beyond the whining and falsity – absolute disingenuousness! – of its first-person narrator, Anastasia Steele, you still have the awful present-tense narration to deal with. “My body convulses at the sweet, stinging bite” is a happy staple of various BDSM scenes (but never mind: we really have to suspend disbelief and dispel the image of A. S. scribbling furiously even in the midst of rampant and painful-sounding love-making). It only a good two-thirds of the way through that poor Ana Steele, so very lacking in self-esteem, is convinced that Christian Grey might actually have feelings for her (because naturally, the car, the Macbook Pro, the Blackberry, the first edition set of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, his flying thousands of miles to see her, and various amorous exclamations in the midst of ravishments are not enough to convince her). Things like this just make you want to bludgeon her over the head, and it seems that best seller lists are still not entirely ready for three-dimensional female characters. Virgin and Whore are the only two options Ana sees for herself, which is mildly tragic. Well, what can you do with these English Lit. students? So overly-filled with romantic ideals is Ana that she is even willing to forgo Parisian lights for England, because “It’s the home of Shakespeare, Austen, the Brontë sisters, Thomas Hardy. I’d like to see the places that inspired those people to write such wonderful books.” I can hardly go into the various shudders that Anastasia experiences throughout this novel, but they are usefully illuminated by Andrew Hagan in his review of the book, in The London Review of Books (I must confess it was this review that enticed me to the novel in the first place – was that the intended effect?)

And then there’s Christian Grey himself, millionaire/billionaire (of course) and exquisitely handsome – although E. L. James often forgoes some of the more traditional Mills & Boons-style epithets in favour of a more contemporary, zeitgeisty, “hot“. When she is waxing lyrical, it’s “freaking hot“. Despite being such a successful businessman and the CEO of a multi-million dollar company, Christian Grey has an extraordinary amount of spare time, which he utilizes effectively by following Anastasia around and screwing her multiple times (often in the same evening). Despite their highly charged love-making sessions, and the chemistry between them (this often manifests itself, weirdly enough, specifically when they take the elevator together), Christian Grey is tragically and in his own words, “fifty shades of fucked-up”. Here, at last, the novel’s enigmatic and intriguing title is explained – it’s both a clever play on Christian’s name and a deep, dark allusion to his troubled nature and past. But because Anastasia is “sweet”, “innocent”, and wants “more” than just being spanked or whipped in their creepy relationship (how could she!), naturally, their relationship cannot survive the demise of the book. But – we are not to worry, as Hagan’s review tells us, because Ana and Christian will be back at their ferocious love-making in the two sequel books, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed. (Just going by the titles here, I would venture that Anastasia succeeds in ‘saving’ poor Christian, assuaging his ‘fucked-up’ soul, and freeing him from the torments of his past. Whereupon they live happily ever after. The only mystery is – will he still be into BDSM?) 

In the meantime, we have to cross our fingers and pray that there is no screenwriter in the world adept enough to draw a script out of this one. I suspect that there might not be… (But oh – no, Bret Easton Ellis, whyyyyy??????)

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