Review of “Fifty Shades of Grey” by E. L. James
A while back, I had drinks with one of this blog’s best commenters, and he strongly recommended this book (he also provided some thoughts, some of which I’ve taken).
The recommendation came with a set of warnings, which should be heeded. To put it bluntly, the book is quite horrible. I merely repeat the obvious by saying that the writing is poor (it’s not just not good, it’s prole, it’s juvenile, it’s absurd), the characters are unbelievable, etc. Consult a mainstream review for more on these obvious aspects of the book.
And yet . . .
There’s clearly something about the book. There’s tons of erotic fiction, but this sells very well. And, as much as I might be embarrassed to admit it, I was intrigued by the book. So, the question is: what is it about the book that pulls everyone in?
The obvious answer is the erotic scenes. But I don’t think that’s the right answer. They aren’t as good or as juicy as I’d been led to believe by what I’d heard about the book. See the quotes at the end here for a sample. Terrible.
I think the answer must be that the book takes the reader inside the mind of a woman. Not just any woman though. This woman appears to be entirely devoid of values of any kind (I don’t think this can be excused away by bad writing). She seems vaguely to want a “relationship” beyond the extremely physical, but she has absolutely no idea what this means in any practical sense. Is she, perhaps, the quintessential modern female?
The main character in the book is Anastasia Steele (apparently porn names aren’t taboo in the erotic fiction genre). The next two most important characters are her “subconscious” and her “inner goddess.” They often engage in conversation with each other. One “character” might be excited by a certain situation while the other is crying in the corner. It is their interaction that is impossible not to watch, like a car accident.
Their interaction creates one character (Ana) who is impossibly whimsical. The book goes on and on about her various concerns and emotions and thoughts. Then, suddenly, she makes some absurdly impulsive decision.
For a long time, I thought one of these characters might be her rationalization hamster. Eventually, you realize that she doesn’t have one – she’s fully modern in the sense that she’s progressed beyond the need to even rationalize her completely emotional, directionless decisions. The inner goddess wants to be whipped, the subconscious thinks maybe she should go on a real date first, and the body just does what it’s feeling at any given moment.
Behold, the modern woman fully unleashed!
Beyond these most interesting bits, it’s worth reflecting on some other aspects of the story.
In the story, Ana (who is in her early 20s) has never been attracted to anyone she has met. Until she meets Christian Grey. Her attraction to him is described as entirely uncontrollable, something she just can’t help. It definitely can’t be explained by his physical beauty, epic financial success, or generally mysterious demeanor. Here are some words she uses to describe him:
Confusing, confounding, mysterious, puzzling, elusive, threatening, “gives nothing away”, wicked, possessive, sphinxlike, riddle, dangerous, intimidating, “keeps changing direction”, “feel like I’m being interviewed for a job”, cryptic, controlling, dictatorial, overbearing, amused, bemused, “I have no idea what he’s thinking”, “laughing at me”, entertained, high-handed, antagonizing, difficult, complicated, pompous ass, secretive, unreadable, telepathic, spooky, dark knight, irreconcilable, intense, confident, teasing, frustrating, unfathomable, alien, playful, smirking, “not a man I want to cross”, aloof, distant, masked, distracting, all-consuming, “I am plagued with questions”, surprising, unpredictable, “claiming me”, menacing, etc.
The feminist sites seem to think this “emotional connection” is what makes the book so irresistible to women. How lame and predictable is that connection though?
We live in the age of universal democracy. The masses have spoken, and they love this stuff.