These horrible books take up an entire shelf at my local bookseller. By that I don’t mean colloquially, but instead that the works of El James (translation: the James) stretch from end to end. I found myself standing (stranded?) in the romance section, and felt like a pilgrim in an unholy land. On the way I passed several books that are better than this one, and I looked at them wistfully as I searched out my target.
A mousy, bookish girl completed my purchase. She tried her best, but from behind her turquoise frames I’m pretty sure that there was a bit of a judgement wafted my way. In case you’re wondering – yes I am stalling. I would almost rather write my own obituary and have it involve the words “Tragic Accident,” “Violent Combustion,” and, “Rabid Carnie Folk,” than talk about something that can be called a “book” in only the most generous of terms. An elaboration of my thoughts are incoming, but the short version is that Grey is the literary equivalent of having your fingers smashed in a car door.
Oh, make no mistake – this is not a review. If something is featured on this column it’s a raging dumpster fire. Reviews are not what we do here – this is The Takedown. So let’s get a sock and a half-brick and get to work.
Let’s make the attempt. Grey begins with the titular character Christian Grey bored with his life until on page 6 a miss Anastasia Steele falls into his office and his heart. Or something. They have an interview, which is only slightly more awkward than the way the book is written. During which they proceed to do something that could be flirting, or something. I guess? Look, I’ve had dental work that was less painful that what passes for tete-a-tete in this scene. But I need to get going, this thing is 557 pages long – proving that if God does exist he hates me.
After some more awkwardness, there’s a bunch of scenes that go nowhere, during which Grey becomes enamored with Ana for reasons that escape me. We know this because the book says it’s true. My notes say things here like, “Nobody cares,” and “This entire page is stupid,” and “That scene was pointless. Hey look! Another one!” At some point Ana gets all housed at a bar, and Christian, being a knight in shiny armor, goes all Zero Dark Thirty and tracks her down to “rescue” her. This scene is probably supposed to be all romantic, but instead is more “Big Brother is Watching You – and wants to have weird sex with you.” Since the POV character in this entire ordeal is Grey, we get to hear his justifications for being a cyber stalker. These reasons range from the almost decent – “she might hurt herself.” to the downright vile, “I don’t want anybody else to have sex with her.”
Eventually he finds and “rescues” her, via some vaguely described but nonetheless lengthy explanation and takes her back to his place. Let me repeat that – Christian Grey tracks down a drunk girl using extra-legal means to take her back to his place before somebody else does. I’m pretty sure Lord Byron wrote about that aspect of chivalry in his seminal work: The Early Bird Picks Up Drunk Chicks at the Bar.
Anyway, let’s say that they start this relationship because Ana is naive, or likes creepy stalkers, or my personal opinion – because she is profoundly mental. Christian’s issues include this weird need to never be touched. You know that it is true because he thinks it constantly when he’s not being a perv. Along with his collection of hangups, he is really into some warped version of BDSM (I’m not gonna link it. Google it somewhere people won’t see your screen). Combined, these proclivities lead him to setting up a contract with his submissives – not girlfriends per se, but people who agree to do sex stuff with him where Grey is in control. In the book, this contract is written in full and is 12 pages long. I’m sure somebody, somewhere gets their motor going reading legalese, but I’m also sure that those people can’t be within 20 yards of a school.
Where was I? Oh right, deep in madness town. Throughout the rest of the book Ana never actually signs the stupid red herring of a contract. Instead they engage in a variety of “sexy” encounters and the book takes a turn for the porny with the dialog to match. Grey lavishes her with gifts like she’s a hooker, and attempts to share his assorted fetishes with her. Eventually some nonsense that I won’t bore you with happens, and Ana convinces Grey to “punish” her, and he proceeds to whip her with a belt until she cries and leaves.
As part of the “bonus” materials – in case you thought you’d escaped, there is an additional 50 pages of Grey feeling sorry for himself, missing Ana and trying to concoct ways to get her back. Ironically enough for a book with this much sex, the narrative ends with a whimper, not a bang.
I’ll not get into the details, because too much has already been written about it, but suffice it to say that originally Fifty Shades of Grey was a fanfic of Twilight by Stephenie Meyer. Originally, Meyer had an idea to rewrite the first Twilight book from the perspective of the main male character and call it Midnight Sun. It was a stupid idea then, and it remains a stupid idea.
James has clearly never met an idea that she didn’t want to steal and execute with all of the skill of a palsied gymnast. This is the reason why, along with the self-loathing, I have a copy of Grey on my desk. The issue of course is that there is a fundamental reason that a writer picks the characters that they do to focus on. When selecting the protagonist, it is usually as easy as asking, “Who does the story revolve around?” Sometimes you have multiple characters, and when that happens the question must then become, “who has the best perspective to tell this narrative for each part?” The Game of Thrones books are really good at this second question. George R.R. Martin is able to find the characters that will have useful character arcs and also get to discover what is happening as the story progresses as the reader does. That’s why we’re all as shocked as SPOILER! Ned Stark when his head falls off – we didn’t know. Yet the story that we had was complete on its own terms.
For Fifty Shades of Grey, James already had a main character – Bella Swan / Ana Steele. In an effort to keep the tone the same in her derivative work, she stuck with the same basic protagonist. In other words, those questions that good writers need to ask when constructing their story probably never floated across James’ brain meat. While I am by no means saying that Meyer is a decent writer, at least she came to the conclusion that retelling the story from another perspective was a fundamentally flawed endeavor and shelved it. Instead the writer of Grey probably thought that, “plotting is hard, and why bother to do it a second time when I can rewrite the same lukewarm garbage again?”
What we end up with is a story that is simply poorly plotted. Christian Grey is not the correct character to have at the middle of a story. The original take in Fifty Shades had to do with uncovering information about him while he more or less drove the plot for his own inscrutable reasons. It’s the same reason that Dracula doesn’t ever have anything from Vlad’s point of view – it sort of ruins the whole thing. To wit:
“I sat in my tomb again today. Stopped at the Westenra house for a little bite of ginger. Oh I crack me up. Anyvay. Once I have her as a Vampire bride I really do think that I vant to focus on the Mrs. Harker. That’s the ticket! I can see nothing wrong with this plan at all.”
See? It makes the whole thing stupid. Since the plot can’t focus on the core mystery it instead fills out the page count with a whole bunch of boring nothing. At one point Grey and Ana’s Dad have a lengthy conversation about fishing because – Fuck my life to death. Even the “sexy” parts make me want to turn celibate, since we know all of Christian’s motivations the scenes can be viewed as rewarding bad behavior. The whole thing is gross, and the POV makes us complicit, and after finishing this book I feel an overwhelming need for one of those showers where I cry.
I hate all of them. I want them to get Face AIDS. If that’s not a thing that exists I want our top scientists to begin the laborious work of making Face AIDS a thing I can then inflict on these people. I kept thinking that the story would be better if somehow a condom broke and Christian Grey impregnated Ana with cancer and she gave him terminal ass herpes in some psycho-sexual Yankee Swap. Let’s be honest here – the main characters of Grey and Ana are so poorly executed that they hardly even count as “characters” in any mescaline soaked sense.
Here’s the thing: good characters need to be able to exist on their own. In Grey the character of Christian is such a non-entity that the James is forced to introduce Ana on page 6. She does this because by his very nature Christian is reflexive; without Ana he simply ceases to be. Almost half of Grey’s dialog, external and internal, is about Ana. The other half is about fishing, or bicycles or any number of equally boring things I learned to skim.
Here’s a fun game you can play with your educated friends. Imagine a character in fiction and throw them on a desert island. A reasonably crafted character should, given a bit, be able to work out something to do on that island. Maybe they’re the type that escapes? Maybe instead they build a giant underground lair? Or perhaps that’s the start of some grand adventure? Good characters will exist no matter where they are placed because they are developed well enough to survive the exercise. If you left Christian Grey on an island he would whack it like it was the last living mole, stare at the sand, and die. Coincidentally, before he meets Ana on page 6, what the hell was the rest of his life like? It’s easy to imagine a bunch of pointless sex and wall staring and being insufferable.
But hey, at least what characterization is on the page for Grey makes him out to be a total cretin. Early in the book, before Grey and Ana are in a relationship, he has the following internal monologue when he met another male character. The levels of insecurity were shocking. Below is the exchange that is a cross between unbearable and a screwdriver lobotomy:
Shit. Is this her boyfriend?…Are they fucking?
“Mr. Grey.” Rodriguez (he’s not really relevant and is gone from the book after this. I like to imagine he was stung to death by killer bees)… gives me a dark look as we shake hands, It’s a warning. He’s telling me to back off. He likes her. He likes her a lot.
Well, game on, kid.
Now, there is a lot wrong with the passage above, but let’s focus on the characterization. Throughout Grey doesn’t think of Ana as a person, but a piece in some sort of game. The problem is that this isn’t a one off, but this is how he acts. It is possible to have characters that are unlikable, or unredeemable. However a writer starts to run into a real problem with the reader doesn’t want to spend any time with their character. Again, this is one of those vestigial tails of the book being told from the wrong perspective.
The thing is that Ana is even worse somehow. If she has character, none of it was present here. I have to assume that any characterization on her part in Fifty Shades was due to the internal monologue that James insists on employing. In Grey she gets to be reduced to fetish object – a collection of brown hair, perky moobs and (as the book is keen to tell us 1000 fucking times) a “smart” mouth. Any sense of agency is nowhere to be found, and you could swap her out with a blow up doll of some sort and have the narrative barely notice.
Actually like last time, this is another thing that would become fundamentally better if you replaced all of the characters with dinosaurs. The numerous driving scenes suddenly get a lot more exciting, and I for one want to see a lizard pilot a helicopter. At the very least they would spare us from the most nonsensical and wooden dialogue seen since the last George Lucas script.
Throughout the book, the bobble headed Ana gets abused. Although, as far as I’m concerned the punishment that she deals with is far less than the tortures that the English Language endured at the hands El James. I mean, if this was a UFC fight the ref would have thrown themselves between English and El James, and stopped the match before English was beaten to death. As it is I feel compelled to look over and with a feeling of compassion, ask the Queen’s English if it’s okay and if I could get it anything. Ice perhaps.
The writing in this book almost makes up for all of the poets and bards that have come before. English is capable of such beauty and wit, and has a long history of true art. For 500+ pages El James proceeds to sodomize it. I hope she doesn’t then write about it, because that writing would set my teeth on edge too.
There’s a list of grievances, so let’s tuck in. The entire book is written in First Person Present Tense. That means that every line happens right now. Here’s an example for the power of this tense:
Ana wants “more.” I sigh heavily and plow my fingers through my hair. They always want more. All of them. What can I do about that? The hand-in-hand couple strolling to the coffee shop – Ana and I did that. We’ve eaten together at two restaurants, and it was…fun. Perhaps I could try. After all, she’s giving me so much. I loosen my tie. Could I do more?
Tenses can be a weird thing for a writer to wrap their head around. Present Tense is found almost exclusively in screen and stage plays. It does this because it exists to instruct actors, and having “And then he walked across the stage” creates a bit of confusion on the timing of the scene. This is why “He walks across the stage” is the common way of doing it. It’s present. Present tense in fiction can be very useful because it creates more of a sense of uncertainty. Horror can use this tense very effectively. The caveat is that you almost always see present tense in third person. Which would look like this:
Ana wants “more.” Grey sighs heavily and plows his fingers through his hair. They always want more. All of them but what can he do about that?…He loosens his tie and thinks, “Could I do more?”
For most people that second version sounds a lot more natural, and that’s because, ahem, normal Fucking people don’t talk in Fucking First Person Present Shitting Tense. It’s stilted as hell and makes you sound like an insane person, which is the case here. Nobody has ever said out loud, “I loosen my tie.” When people talk the default tense is almost always past. There’s a little future thrown in so you can make plans (eg: I am going burn this book tomorrow), but past wins 99% of the time. Let’s try that again:
Ana wants “more.” I sighed heavily and plowed my fingers through my hair. They always want more…I loosened my tie and thought, “Could I do more?”
Will you look at that? That almost looks like something a real person would say. Now read that first one again, the passage in First Person Present Tense. Doesn’t it make you cringe like nails on a chalkboard that’s being jammed inside of you? The entire book is written like that. Some part of me wants to believe it was written like that as a joke.
Moving along – “Fuck” is not a form of punctuation but the writing in this book treats it like it is. In fairness large chunks of this book are italicized for no reason. The fun part of a First Person narration is that, for good or ill, we are locked inside the greasy head of the narrator. El James uses italics like they are thoughts within the thoughts. Here’s an example that single-handedly almost drove me to substance abuse:
“Tell me,” I order. Sweet Lord, she’s frustrating.
“Well, I’ve not had sex before, so I don’t know,” she whispers.
The earth stops spinning.
I don’t fucking believe it.
“Never?” I’m incredulous.
There are several clauses that are clearly Grey’s dumbassed thoughts. “I don’t fucking believe it,” is a prime example. Clearly that’s a thought because it’s not an action and we’re still in the Twilight Zone of First Person narration that makes reading this hurt your soul. The question then is – why the hell are those other things italics? Why are they spaced like that? My notes on this section look like this:
How? (is this published)
Why? (am I doing this to myself?)
In other parts of the book El James will just drop a “Fuck” in wherever she wants a pause. It’s almost a twitch. If you ever lose a bet and end up reading this, just imagine that all of the italics are Grey’s version of Smeagol. It won’t make the writing any better, but you’ll laugh more.
Furthermore. If. You. Are. Going. To. Write. Like. This. You. Should. First, Play. In. Traffic. Because. I. Hate. You.
So there we go. Grey is based on an idea so bad that the lady that gave us sparkly vampires thought was too much. Then it was executed without the faintest whiff of ability before being belched into the face of an unsuspecting world. It might be the sort of book that creates novelists. People might read this and come to the conclusion that howler monkeys could do better work; then they’ll see how many copies this abomination sold, and decide that they can do better. In the meantime, subjecting yourself to this will make you start looking at bridges in a whole new light.
And that dear friends, is this installment of The Takedown. As usual put your comments in that saucy box below. If there’s a book/movie/game that you think deserves to be torn an auxiliary anus, let me know and there’s a very good chance it will be the next subject we stick on the slab.
Until next time.