As promised, Fifty Shades of Grey

October 02, 2014


I read Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James. I want to say that I did so that you don’t have to. Honestly though, part of me thinks you should. After all, this book birthed the mommy porn genre and sold over one hundred million copies. Seventy-five million of those sold in the United States alone, meaning nearly one-third of the country read or planned to read this book. That is incredible to me, and makes Fifty Shades of Grey, whether for better or worse, important. If it managed to say nothing of value to us, it just might say something about us. So yes, you should probably read it.

Fifty Shades follows the story of (and no, I’m not kidding) a character named Anastasia Steele. Ms. Steele is an English student with a passion for “the classics” – those books everyone you know can name, but probably didn’t read or like. When the book begins, we learn that she is preparing to graduate. And in that whole time, she’s never owned a computer or a smartphone. After all, no middle-class American girl in college would realistically own a laptop. She also drives a beat up 60’s beetle. In other words, assuming that you were born before say, 1970, she’s relatable. And that’s the point.

That's some sexy sexism right there!

That’s some sexy sexism right there!

When Ms. Steel meets the implausibly rich, beautiful, and successful Christian Grey, she falls into immediate lust. Christian is unaccountably successful, and says a lot of business-sounding things on cell phones, though I was never entirely clear about what his company did. He’s also one of the major donors to Anastasia’s university, and has carved out a considerable amount of time in his schedule for, well, fucking around with college students. For some reason that never struck me as clear, he becomes really interested in her. Probably because she’s a twenty-two year old virgin living in Washington state who has never gotten drunk or done drugs in her life. She’s never even masturbated, though seems vaguely aware that things sometimes feel funny down there. Her complete ignorance of her body is simply mind-boggling. She is also one of these increasingly rare souls that can’t get online and doesn’t really know how a cell phone works. If you’re a sadistic business magnate with no patience for relationships who’s looking for a quiet hookup that allows you to abuse young women without getting outed, she’s probably perfect (not that he knew any of this going in… HA!).

He’s also into BDSM, sexual slavery, physical and emotional abuse, and has unlimited resources to pursue his singular interests. Anastasia pretty quickly resolves to change him of his ways, even if she has to play along for a bit. Sounds like a match destined to wind up in the flesh markets of Thailand or something doesn’t it?

Fortunately, Ana has two friends that help her feel her way through all of this: her inner goddess and her subconscious.


The inner goddess! Years of progress in gender equality undone by a bit of old-fashioned sexual and sociological ignorance.

Her inner goddess was my favorite: a nervous little ball of insecurity and sex hormones that dances the samba, hides behind the subconscious, occasionally jumps for joy, and otherwise behaves a bit like a confused puppy. Regardless, I found the book to be much funnier once I started to associate this entity with the iconic girl from the cover of Blind Melon’s famous album cover (with no disrespect intended to the actual person – I’m sure she’s fully-formed and unworthy of my grotesque association). Anastasia’s subconscious on the other hand, is the voice of grousing anxiety. The one that tells you to eat your vegetables. Not because they’re good for you; not because they’re tasty; but because you’ll hate them and you deserve to suffer. I couldn’t help thinking of Mrs. Bitters from the children’s cartoon Invader Zim. I’m no psychologist of course, but I’m not sure that the subconscious is really meant to be equated with one’s inner critic. Regardless, between the two of them, I was in stitches for most of the book. And they do make noteworthy appearances about three times per chapter.

You subconscious will help you learn to hate every decision you've ever made. I think that's what Freud said.

You subconscious will help you learn to hate every decision you’ve ever made. I think that’s what Freud said.

What surprised me, and might surprise you, is that actual sex takes up less of the overall content than you might think. Really, this is an exploration of the character of Anastasia. We visit with her family, follow her rationalizations for pursuing Grey, witness her fail at job interviews (she gets the job of course, but not for any comprehensible reason), and see how she deals with the strains and stresses that Grey likes to put her under. The sex scenes, while competently written, weren’t nearly a juicy as I’d been led to believe, and they all end the same way: Grey uses a toy or demands satisfaction or gets into some light bondage, Anastasia “shatters into a thousand/million pieces”, and they get cute and couple-y for a bit until Ana decides to go do something else usually involving a lunch or something (the meals are boring, but food represent the most descriptive bits of the book really). Take this pattern, stir up the details a little bit, repeat five or six times, and you’ve got mommy porn I guess.

The language is bad. That said, you’ll never be confused. EL James demonstrates a certain genius for remaining completely accessible to any reader. You won’t need a dictionary, save for a couple occasions when the thesaurus was broken out in order to break up the mind-numbing level of repetition. But even then, if you’ve been paying attention you’ll recognize that the author was just stuck for a synonym. See, I like language as art, EL James uses it like toppings at a frozen yogurt place. Adverbs plague every sentence like candle wax in a dungeon. Each paragraph is over-lubed with a variety of your favorite and overwrought cliches. The story meanders aimlessly around and characters drop in and out without really contributing to the plot. Of course, maybe a fourth of the dialogue and story is handled through a series of emails between Anastasia and Christian. At first I thought, how clever! After twenty pages of filler – not even words, but formatting filler, I was ready to drown my iPad. Or read something else (I’ll be reviewing Capital for the Twenty-First Century next. My brain needs a hosing).


Destinations, not journeys

But the book isn’t intended to appreciated aesthetically. Fifty Shades of Grey is a book about destinations, not journeys, so I won’t judge you if you really enjoyed it. Don’t try and persuade me that it’s good though. It’s not. It’s shit. But it does get the job done. And I think that’s what most people wanted. You aren’t meant to reflect on this book. Just get through it, clean yourself off, and make sure no one you respect finds out that you had fun with it – a bit like Christian and Anastasia.

The book has its humor, though I was unable to judge how much was intentional and how much I was inventing. The final scene could have been brilliant, but for the total lack of self-awareness (I won’t give it away, nor will most find it all that funny. No one can blame you for being too burned out by then). There is something ridiculous about the melodrama and prickliness that runs through the character development, albeit in a daytime telly kind of way. Considering that EL James was a TV producer before writing is hardly surprising. But then, a book like this wouldn’t be much fun if the characters were more thick-skinned.

Don't let your kids grow up to be this.

Don’t let your kids grow up to be this.

What does it say that this book sold so well and had such an impact on our pop-culture? Our everywoman, Anastasia Steele is, thankfully, unlike anyone I’ve ever met and I instinctively disliked her. But I’d imagine that she reflects how a lot of people might feel about themselves – neurotic, unworthy, unloved, pathetic, and foolish. For all that, this book’s popularity came as a surprise to many, including the author. But the fact is that our culture has a really hard time discussing sexual themes. Many people out there are deeply mixed up about these things, and have no basis to make judgements about what is really healthy in a relationship. We’re even worse when it comes to sex and sexual maturity. Anastasia’s story is a warning about what happens when naivety and disfunction meet: someone will wind up crying in an elevator with a sore ass.

Get it here!

Get it here!

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