Tuesday, May 28, 2013

50 Shades of the Complainist: Chapter 5

Ana wakes up at Christian's hotel, and she doesn't understand how completely unreasonable this is, so they make plans for a helicopter ride and kiss in an elevator. 

Warning: this is essentially a chapter about Ana getting kidnapped while drunk. 

Of all my complaints about this book, here's my most complainy: it lacks any plot. Things "happen" in this book, in the sense that it isn't just Ana and CG lolling around in his fabulous bedroom for three hundred pages, but having things happen is not the same as having a plot.

A plot is an organizing principle that keeps a story from feeling like a cutting from a diary. Our lives don't have plots. They're just a collection of a bunch of things that happened to us, which is why biopics are almost always boring. (Exception: still trying to think of an exception.) A plot takes a bunch of things that happen to some characters and organizes them into the form of a question and an answer.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Complainist Fiction: Our Soccer Coach Teaches Art History

Our Soccer Coach Teaches Art History
by Alden Eagle

Guys, I’m not going to sugarcoat this: that was a terrible forty minutes of soccer. You looked like a Dutch painting. Like a seventeenth-century still-life. Some explosions of color, sure, but little sense of dynamism or vitality. Specifically, you guys are making me think of Vase of Flowers With Watch by William van Aelst. Now, who knows the painting I’m talking about? Anybody? 

Fine. I’ll just have to tell you about it. It’s a painting where there’s this table with a bunch of stuff on top of it. I guess actually it might be more of a ledge or a counter top, but that isn’t the main focus so forget it. What’s important is the vase filled with flowers and the watch.

This is a painting about slow decay. The watch is reminding us about the passage of time and the fact that we’re all going to die. And there are some signs that the flowers in the bouquet have already been there too long and the petals are starting to fall off and there are little holes where bugs have eaten the flowers and the leaves. It’s a painting that says, “Look, even here, where everything’s pretty, where there are all these flowers and nature’s bounty and everything, the stench of death is still in the air and there’s no getting around it.”

Gentlemen, this is not a flattering comparison! Look, I’m not going to tell you that I love Dutch still-life paintings. I’m more of a Vermeer guy, myself. Give me a lady making dinner or something, and not just a bunch of flowers. But even people who love a a good still-life, even people who adore a painting of a vase of dying flowers--those people would agree with me that a soccer team does not want to play the way a seventeenth-century Dutch master paints. If you play soccer like a Dutch painting, you will lose. Everybody knows that.

You guys are lucky we’re only down by two goals. It could have easily been worse. I’m talking to you here, Clay, so stop picking at the grass and listen up.  Defenders: you’re reminding me of A Still Life With a Dead Rabbit and Falcon by Dirck De Bray. Unfortunately, I mean that you’re reminding me of the dead rabbit, and not the falcon. Just standing around idle, like you barely even know that there’s a game happening. We really needed some of that falcon’s alertness, guys. The falcon knows what’s going on. The rabbit just lies there limp. 

Forwards? Strikers? Don’t think I’m going to start complimenting you guys, either. You’re playing sloppy, and you keep losing the ball with these lazy passes. You can’t just loft the ball in the general direction of the player you want to get it to. It’s so obvious. It’s like the skull in Still Life With a Skull and a Writing Quill. Think a skull symbolizes death? Of course it does! Pietro! How many times are you just going to lob a pass from the middle up to the wing like that? Their defenders know exactly what you’re trying to do, so they beat us to the ball every time. We need a little finesse, Pietro. You can’t just be so blunt and obvious.

We’ve got to change the painting in the second half, guys. We’ve got to. 

You’ve seen The Funeral of the Anarchist Galli? I hope? It’s a all about motion and energy, and that’s what we’re lacking. The black-clad anarchists in the painting are angular bundles of kinetic energy, ready to explode. We’re practically seeing their last bits of restraint wearing off before our eyes. That’s how we need to play soccer! You know the painting, yes? Carlo Carrà? Italian Futurist?

Seriously? Raise your hands if you’ve seen the damn painting. Anyone? Oh, of course. Just my luck--only Adams has seen it. No offense, Adams, but I don’t care if you know what I’m talking about. I don’t need the goalkeeper to know about Carrà’s careful control of line and color or the way the anarchists’ banners blend into the background, suggesting an endless field of movement and boiling tension. 

No wonder you guys are so difficult to coach properly. How can anyone play soccer without understanding the basics of art appreciation? 

Good news for us--my art history textbook was in my bag. Take a look so you know what I’m talking about. Look, guys. The color! The intensity! The boldness! That is our game plan for the second half, gentlemen. Got it? The Funeral of the Anarchist Galli. That is how we need to play soccer. I only wish I’d made copies for everyone, but sometimes you have to improvise. I thought this was going to be more of a Picasso-style match, but forget all those drills we ran at practice--the Guernica offense and all that. That’s over.

Did everyone get some water? Some orange slices? 

Good. Bring it in. Hands in. Let’s hear it: “Italian Futurists” on three! 

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

50 Shades of the Complainist: Chapter 4

Christian sends Ana mixed signals, so Ana gets drunk and José tries to take advantage of her and Christian comes to her aid but acts patronizing and stalkery in the process. 

New in this chapter: an attempted rape and some anger-inducing victim-blaming. Yes, CG really is a dream boyfriend!

Some thoughts on romance:

A writer-friend once gave me a succinct quick summary of how the contemporary rom-com works. And I know that that's a pop film genre and romance novels have their own, very different conventions. And also I know that this book is terribly unfunny. But still, I like comparing 50 Shades to my expectations about a sort of typical, romance plot.

Here, roughly, was how he summarized rom-coms: You've got some people, and they get along, and so they sleep together, because it's the modern world and that's what people do. But in order to make a plot out of it, there's got to be some reason they can't keep sleeping together, and that's why rom-coms feel contrived--they're basically an organized series of unlikely obstacles preventing two people who like each other from enjoying each other's company, when in real life, people who like each other pair off, and then endure mundane relationship dramas that are not as entertaining as contrived, pre-relationship dramas.

So, I would personally expect Ana and Christian to "meet cute" and then have sex and then get driven apart by something and have figure out how to get back together, with the protagonist (Ana, since she's the narrator) having to do the larger part of the work in patching things up. Knowing that this book is all about BDSM, that would seem like a logical wedge between them. And then the book could be about how Ana learns to stop worrying and love the paddle.

But what do we get instead?

Friday, May 17, 2013

Complainist Letters: Rejection

Dear Editor,

I hope you will consider my story, “Two Sad Orphans and the Terrible Things That Happened to Them Down By the Tracks,” for publication in your journal.

Should you find that it does not suit your needs at this current time, I have gone ahead and drafted a brief, heartfelt letter expressing this point. I have included said letter as a postscript. I know that you are busy, so please feel free to send this letter back to me at your convenience. You could, of course, write your own, or edit mine, but why bother, when this perfectly good one is already available?

Thank you for your consideration, 
Alden Eagle

Dear Alden Eagle,

Thank you for giving us the opportunity to read your story, “Two Sad Orphans and the Terrible Things That Happened to Them Down By the Tracks.” You captured the sadness of the orphans and the terribleness of the things that happened to them down by the tracks with such exquisite pathos that we cannot help but wonder if our journal is even up to the task of sharing this story with the world.

Were it up to us, these orphans would be splashed across the pages of not just our journal, but every journal. And not just the journals of the English-speaking world. If we could, we would arrange for careful translations into all the world’s great tongues.

But alas, we cannot. Ours is a modest concern, and we cannot even afford to pay the majority of contributors to our website, let alone field the army of translators that this job would require, were it done properly. It is with a heavy heart, then, that we must admit that we cannot provide a home for these sad orphans. We believe that the only thing worse than a story rejected is a story forgotten, thanks to a spotlight too dim. In this case, our spotlight is too dim.

Please do not think of this as us rejecting you. Instead, think of it as us using our limited wisdom to let you know that you must, instead, reject us. You must take this story back, and quickly! Every moment it spends in our ink-stained fingers threatens to diminish its sad, terrible magic.

You honor us by thinking us worthy of this gem. If only you were correct!

Regretfully yours, 

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

50 Shades of the Complainist: Chapter 3

Kate makes José take pictures of Christian and then Christian saves Ana from a bicycle and Ana thinks this is sexy.

We sort of, kind of, obliquely, a little bit, start talking about sex. Ugh. This book takes forever. 

So, this chapter is pretty terrible. You knew that already. I think I need to quit reading ahead, though, because now I have to go back and remind myself what already happened, so it's kind of like I'm reading this book twice at the same time. My hope, though, is that since so little happens in this chapter,  and it pretty much rehashes a bunch of junk already established, we can get through this relatively painlessly. Relatively.

(Editor's note: This summary ended up being pretty much exactly the same length as the previous two.)

I've been thinking about what it means to hate something so popular. I'm not reading this in a "so bad it's good kind of way."

(Note: if this video looks wonky, it's because Blogger has an extremely clunky method for "quickly" embedding videos that is frustratingly inferior to the way that, for instance, WordPress handles such things. I'd be happy to complain about the problem in great detail to you if you are the world's most bored person. Whatever.)

50 Shades is, indeed, so bad it's gone past good and come around again to bad, and it's worse for the trip. Asked of me on facebook: I continue to be genuinely stunned at how bad the book's writing is. Do you think that people just skip to the sex stuff?"

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Complainist Fiction: Cafe Bichon

Cafe Bichon
Alden Eagle

I guess what I really feel like is like a latte, but with a little more foam than usual, you know? So somewhere in between a latte and a cappuccino. Can you do that? Just do it the way you would do a latte, but with a little less milk and a little more foam. I used to go to this place on the east side, and the guy there called it a cappalatte which is kind of cute but also kind of dumb. I mean, it doesn’t need its own name, and it isn’t like cappuccino is a compound word that you can split up like that, right?

Thank you for doing that for me. I’m sorry about being so picky, especially when there’s a line like this. Hey just wondering- are you using like, a traditional grind for those beans? Like, a standard espresso grind? This place the east side, my usual place? They do what they call an ultrafine grind, or sort of a double grind that, I mean, I don’t know if it’s the greatest for every kind of drink, but for cappalattes it works very well. Give it a little extra bitterness that you wouldn’t really notice in a latte, and would be a little too much in a cappuccino, I think, but is really nice in a kind of hybrid drink like you’re making me. 

No? Just a regular espresso grind? I mean, that’s fine, yeah. Just do what you usually do. I don’t want you to grind extra beans just for me. That would be crazy, right? Like if I were so needy that I needed you guys to do like a special grind every time I came in here? Just because I got used to them doing that for me at Cafe Bichon? Yeah that would be the worst, right? I’d be like, the worst cafe customer. I’d come in and you guys would be like, “Uh oh! It’s that guy who wants the special grind! They guy with the Guy Fawkes mustache is back!”

You know, Guy Fawkes. The guy who tried to blow up parliament? V for Vendetta? No? It was a pretty landmark graphic novel. Lot of people read it. Especially progressives. People who care about the future of the world kind of people. Like us. Like I assume we both are. No?

Huh. Interesting. You should really Netflix it. I mean, if you don’t want to read the whole book. Gets a little wordy for, you know. For busy people.

Hey can I ask how long you pull the espresso for? 

Actually, you know what would be even better, would be if I could just watch you pull a shot, just the way you normally would, and then I can kind of get an idea as to whether or not you’re doing it the way I like. Is that ok?

No, I don’t want you to throw a shot away or anything like that. Let me just ask around.
Excuse me- yeah. Were you by any chance going to get an espresso drink? 

Oh, perfect! Yeah just let me watch her Americano, ok? That’s great. You make her Americano, and I’ll just sort of check it out, see if you’re doing it the sort of more European way that I like. 

Thanks! You are so accommodating. I really, really appreciate it. It’s not every place that will bend over backwards like this. Bichon, of course, like I said. And you guys. 

Hm. I can’t really see that well from this angle. Sorry. Trying to just peer around while you do that. Yeah.

I think that’ll work, yeah. I usually like a slightly longer pull, but I think at Bichon they needed a little longer pull because of the ultrafine grind, so I bet that’ll work. 

Actually, though, I know this is like a pretty big imposition. But could I just try your Americano? I just want to know kind of what the character of the espresso is here, since  this is my first time? I won’t even put my mouth on it of course. I’ll just like, dip a spoon in, ok?

Wow. Thank you. Thank you. You were gonna put some cream in anyway, right? Is this cream? Or half and half? Good, good. 

Wait. I should really let you do that, shouldn’t I? Kind of crazy of me. Getting ready to dump a bunch of half and half in when this is really your drink.

Oh. You take a lot. Wow. Have some coffee with your cream, why don’t you? Sorry. Dumb joke. Really, who am I to say what the right way of drinking coffee is? None of my business. I mean, I take my own coffee pretty seriously. Kind of a hobby of mine. Kind of a coffeeist, if that’s a word. 

Hmm. Well, I can’t really taste it, because of all the half and half. But I think I get the basic idea. Thank you. Really appreciate it. You know how it is- it’s always a little weird going to a new cafe for the first time, right? No?

Wow. For me it’s like borderline traumatic. Like the first time you go to a new dentist. I just feel like it’s so intimate. I mean, they’re making a drink that’s literally going to go inside your body. Think about that. It’s going to fill your mouth and just warm you up on the inside, and then it’s going to stay with you. That caffeine is going to stay with you, reminding you. Making you relive it for hours and hours.

Oh, sorry. Got distracted. Talking coffee. Happens all the time here I’m sure. Yeah so if you could pull my espresso for my cappalatte just like, five seconds longer than you did for that americano, I think that would be great. 

Do you want me to time it? Yeah let me time it on my phone. No, no, it’s no problem.

Shit, I’m sorry. Did you start already? I didn’t have the app ready yet, so I couldn’t time.

Can we just try one more? I mean, I’m sure someone will want that shot, even if it’s a little weaker than I like. Somebody will want it, I’m sure. I’m sure it’s perfectly good for like, three quarters of people.
Great. Second try. Great.

Annnnnn Stop! Perfect. That is really a delight. 

Thank you so much. Hmm. Is this really less than the usual milk you use? Because that still seems like kind of a lot. It’s fine, though! It’s fine. I’m sure it’ll be fantastic. Just maybe, next time, maybe a tiny bit less milk. Next time I come by, I mean.

Oh, and you made me a little latte art. That’s great. At Bichon they used to draw a lot of different stuff. I mean, the kind of leaf design is great but they did all kinds of stuff. Like one guy started doing this whole sort of devil motif, with like a pitchfork and stuff. It was great! Put so much time into it. And the devil guy was really kind of menacing! Kind of mean looking. I was like, you must be some kind of graphic designer or something, but the barista was like, oh no. Just like coffee art.

Thank you so much. This is really great. Really great. 

And next time? I’m sure we’ll get it exactly right. This is like, so close to perfect, I swear.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

50 Shades of the Complainist: Chapter 2

Christian stalks Anastasia at work, and then Anastasia arranges to meet up with him because she doesn't understand warning signs.

Editor's note: Thanks for all the reads and shares and so on! Guess we'll have to keep doing this, though, so there is a downside. For me, I mean. 


Twilight is filled with crypto-mormonism, is my understanding, so those books make the most sense if you read something like this hilarious guide to deciphering the many ways in which Stephanie Meyer's vampire saga uses Washington as a stand-in for Utah.

And in turn, 50 Shades is all crypto-vampirism. At this point everyone will know that EL James is the world's most famous fanfiction writer, and that almost everything that transpires in 50 Shades is directly analogous to something from Twilight. I haven't read Twilight so I can't tell you if familiarity with it would make 50 Shades more or less bearable.

Simply knowing that 50 Shades is basically the most successful act of plagiarism in the history of the written word explains quite a lot, though. It's filled with odd little dead ends--bits that seem to serve no purpose at all but may, in fact, be vestiges of Twilight subplots that were carried over but not actually used. I also see no reason not to go ahead and just read Christian Grey as a sort of generic British vampire. He's based on Edward from Twilight but I have no idea how Edward and CG compare, personality-wise. But since CG does not act like a human person acts, or speak like an American speaks, thinking of him as a British vampire dulls the pain a little. "Don't worry, Alden," I say to myself. "There's no such thing as Christian Grey because there's no such thing as vampires. Don't let the mean man give you nightmares."

Oh! I almost forgot one thing about vampires! They are inexorably linked with sexual violence! There's that, too. Vampires and CG share aloofness, wealth, a desire for solitude, and an air of mystery. Also, both are likely to murder you during sex.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

50 Shades of the Complainist: Chapter 1

Anastasia does a bad job interviewing Christian because she's awkward and he's sexy. 

Everything bad you've heard about this book is true. Everything good you've heard is false.

I'm sure I'll eventually settle into a groove and decide upon a specific format for these chapter summaries, but until then, I'm just going to try out a few different things and see what works for me. For this first chapter, I'll start with some character sketches and then go through the plot, such as it is.

I do like the idea of starting with tldnr because this chapter, at least, is nearly plot-free. I've read two different readers' own summaries of Chapter 1, but even that didn't prepare me for how little we get in the first sixteen pages.

We all know the basic background, though, right? That Anastasia is going to have all sorts of sex with Christian? And that the real question is not "Will they or won't they?" but instead, "Why do they keep doing this and why am I still reading about it?" We're all on the same page, right?

Good. Let the games begin!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

PREVIEW: 50 Shades of the Complainist

The Complainist will be summarizing 50 Shades of Grey chapter-by-chapter between now and however long this process requires. The rest of the world, I believe, has already moved on from this book but that isn't going to stop me from using its popularity. The Complainist stalled out when its editor's unemployment came to a merciful end, but 50 Shades is utterly complaint-worthy, and hence seems an excellent way to get this site re-started.

The Complainist was intended as an audio journal (Fine; a podcast.) of original fiction, and you will see mp3 posts soon, assuming there's some time left for them between reading EL James and being miserable. But, I hope you'll enjoy all the ink that's about to be spilt as I grind through this thing.

I've read not just one, but two separate, and great, 50 Shades blogs already, so I feel as though I know all the plot points already. I College at Thirty first, for reasons I don't remember or understand, and then followed up by reading Jenny Trout's coverage, mainly because College at Thirty wasn't updating as quickly as I would've liked. Both blogs are excellent and worth investigating. Mine will be a bit different, if only because both of these other reviewers enjoy reading romance fiction, and I'll lack any real familiarity with romance conventions and so on.

I think my fascination with this book comes from the intersection of my own writerly aspirations with my background selling books. 50 Shades is just impossibly successful. Most writers toil away in obscurity, and even "famous" writers are, if considered in the context of our entire entertainment culture, less famous than, say, some actor who had a featured role for one episode on a popular show. I love seeing portrayals of "famous writers" in tv and film, because fictional famous writers are invariably portrayed as legitimate famous people, with adoring fans, even though in real life, people basically don't read books at all.

But somehow, everybody read EL James, and this fact is frustrating and embarrassing. These books are just absolute garbage. Complaining that they're just Twilight fan fiction is valid, but insulting to Twilight fan fiction, which I'm going to assume is often better than these terrible, terrible books. 50 Shades does like, a dozen things in the opening scene that students in first-year writing classes are told to never do ever, and yet EL James basically outsold the rest of all authors writing in English combined in 2011-2012.

So what's the secret? How did these books take off?

I don't goddamn know! Is the thing. No one does! This is the sort of thing that ought not happen, that we all would've said couldn't happen, except for that it did. I do hope it's unrepeatable.

I do hope that we eventually see this phenomenon as a sort of pre-historical event. As in, maybe eventually, the world of entertainment will figure out that women do, in fact, think about sex now and again, and may, in fact, be interested in entertainment with sexual themes that is marketed with them in mind. And at that point, 50 Shades will be some weird historical curiosity. An asterisk. A sort of, "Hey, did you know that at one point, a woman wrote a terrible trilogy of garbage books that disguised an abusive relationship as a love story? And that tons of women were so sick of always being portrayed as sex objects and never as sex subjects that they overlooked these books' crazy misogyny and embarrassing writing and read them anyway? Weird, huh?"

Because it is pretty weird. The fact that these books were ever published is weird. The fact that they ever escaped from fan fiction message boards is completely baffling. And the fact that they dominated bestseller lists for so long is enough to make a person abandon fiction entirely, because who the hell can tell what's going on anymore?

But aren't you just jealous that no one wants to read your Game of Thrones fan fiction? Isn't that what this is about?

Partially, sure. Obvs.