Sex. Everyone thinks about it. Great books, films and other works of art were inspired by it, and modern culture has made sex into the no. 1 advertising technique. It’s a nearly universal obsession. So how, then, does E.L. James’ BDSM “romance” “Fifty Shades of Grey” make sex feel so unappealing and revolting?
Since the much-touted sex scenes in “Fifty Shades” are almost all anyone talks about when discussing it, a plot summary seems almost pointless. For the sake of academia, however, here’s the “story”: Clumsy, personality-void brunette Anastasia “Ana” Steele goes in place of her friend Katherine to interview the creepy, condescending and borderline-sociopathic CEO of Grey Enterprises Holdings, Inc., Christian Grey. During the interview, Ana (formerly a shrinking violet and paragon of virginity, of course) is suddenly BAMF’d into her glad pants by his presence and becomes obsessed with Christian. After a series of (supposedly) erotically charged meetings and interrogations, she finds out that the reason he’s so controlling is that he’s a BDSM dominant and can only be in a relationship if his partner submits to him completely. Ana reluctantly agrees to give into his abuse desires, if it means being closer to the man she has a shallow physical attraction to loves . . .
. . . and that’s pretty much it. “Fifty Shades of Grey” is the kind of novel where very little of interest happens, and when something does happen, it’s almost impossible to figure out why the hell it happened in the first place. Soap opera tier distractions from the nonstop onslaught of sex scenes (Attempted rape! “Tragic” backstories!) appear, and then are brushed aside lazily as if to say, “Yeah, that’s nice, but it’s been a few pages. Don’t you think it’s time Christian and Ana had sex again?” The lack of focus on anything other than the sex robs the romance of all chemistry and the book as a whole of any depth.
In addition, the characters are either arbitrarily assigned overly simplistic, melodramatic reasons for their actions (such as Christian, who attributes his psychosis fetish to being seduced by an older woman at the age of 15, and to his “crack w—e” mother), or are given no reason at all for what they do (like Ana, who has not a thought in her pretty little head other than reactions to stimuli and endlessly repeating variations on “HOT DAMN CHRISTIAN YOU SEXY BEAST”). Why is Ana attracted to Christian, beyond being his being “hot?” That’s anyone’s guess.
As if the directionless “story” isn’t enough to wear readers down, none of the characters are intrinsically interesting or even likable. Ana is a complete blank slate, a placeholder for readers to project themselves onto (like anyone would want to), which is particularly annoying due to the novel being in first-person present tense. Christian has the opposite problem. He has a personality, alright: He’s a controlling and condescending douchebag. Why anyone would sympathize with him is a complete mystery, and James’ constant attempts to make him seem “tortured” ring false. “I’m fifty shades of f—ed up, Ana,” he says, as though this excuses all of his horrendous behavior. While Christian’s myriad flaws could have been further examined to make an interesting character, Ana is always quick to handwave them, using his attractiveness as a half-assed excuse.
Those holding out for James’ mastery of prose to outweigh the asinine plotting and putrid characterization will also be disappointed. Her style swings between dry, toneless laundry list musings about such scintillating subjects as Ana forgetting to eat for days at a time and florid, overblown nonsense (Ana compares herself to Icarus at one point when describing how Christian makes her feel, apparently forgetting how that story ends). Sometimes, she manages to combine the two extremes to hilarious effect: “His voice is warm and husky like dark melted chocolate fudge caramel . . . or something.” Unfortunately, these tendencies carry over into the sex scenes, and the style combined with the ridiculous nature of some of the acts (there’s a particularly gross scene involving a tampon), Ana’s only referring to her vagina as “down there” and her proclivity for repeating the phrases “Holy crap/f—k” and “Oh, my” every single time she’s aroused only adds to the hilarity.
Unfortunately, any potential for the book to become an unintentional comedy classic is steamrollered by its overwhelmingly misogynistic and repulsive nature. Christian’s interactions with Ana are disconcertingly abusive, paternal, predatory and condescending, four things which should never be said about any romance. To make matters worse, James clearly lacks any understanding about BDSM relationships. Rather than Ana and Christian exploring their limits gradually and Ana determining just how far she wants to go (as would be the norm), Christian unceremoniously gives Ana a contract full of overwhelming (and creepy) terms and conditions to determine what she wants, flinging her headfirst into a world she has no experience in. Christian repeatedly rejects Ana’s limits in favor of doing whatever he wants, and many scenes that are ostensibly romantic and sexy play out like rape scenes, making the novel a disturbing read.
The final verdict? Just go masturbate instead. Preferably not while reading this hideous book.
Speakeasy Grade: F