Thursday, May 2, 2013

50 Shades of the Complainist: Chapter 1

tldnr: 
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!



Our characters:

1. Anastasia Steele 
Get it? Steele? Because she's like, stronger than she knows, you know? It's amusing to me that the first chapter is all about establishing how ordinary Anastasia is, but look at that name. No, wait--even better, do a google image search for the word "steele" and see what sort of people appear as a result. It's a depressing mix--nearly all the women who appear are icy blonde pinup types in various submissive poses. The men are a mix of doofs, body builders, and former head of the RNC Michael Steele.

Anastasia Steele is not the name of an average woman from your neighborhood or college, is what I'm saying. Anastasia Steele is a name that you make up when you become a certain kind of dancer or writer of romance novels. It's the kind of name that appears in an early Bond movie--probably the vaguely Russian assassin who Bond woos away from her villainous boyfriend in the second act before she gets murdered in the third.

Forget all that stuff, though, because our Anastasia Steele is boring. Boring, boring, boring. This whole chapter is pretty much about establishing how boring she is.

2. Kate Kavanaugh
One time in college, a roommate found a record by some obscure band whose name I forget. This was before absolutely everything was available on the internet and I couldn't find out much about the band, but I do remember learning that day that lots of white power punk bands liked to swap an extra K into their name as a clue to other racists that they were also racists. I'm going to amuse myself by presuming that Kate Kavanaugh was born Catherine Cavanaugh, but changed her name when she joined the KKK. Also, Kate doesn't do anything in this chapter other than be sick, so who cares. She makes a token appearance as Ana's roommate.

Apparently Kate is also "articulate, strong, persuasive, argumentative, beautiful. . . " Or so I am told by Anastasia. I see no evidence of Kate being any of these things, but this is a novel with a lot of telling. It's all pretty much just telling, actually. This whole book should be the subtext for a better book, maybe, since it's absolutely without subtext or innuendo. (Note to writers: innuendo is a good "tool" for "writing" books, particularly ones with "sex.")

3. Christian Grey
Christian is a billionaire Seattle financier. He's the sort of rich guy character lazy authors write because they don't know how rich guys get rich and aren't interested in finding anything out. Hence we get a lot of dumb "business" jargon about Christian, and none of it makes sense. It's ridiculous from the first page. Check out his business: "Grey Enterprises Holdings, Inc."

Come on, CG! This is the 21st century! "INC" is so last-millennium! It's all about the LLC now! The two plurals stacked next to each other and the pairing of "enterprises" with "holdings" just makes me angry. I work weekends at a hi-fi store, and there's a particularly nice turntable we sell in an off-black color that its manufacturer calls "anthracite." BOOM! Just improved your book, EL James! Anthracite, LLC is a million times better than Grey Enterprises Holdings, Inc. It sounds vague and cold and hard and scientific instead of super dumb and super fake.

Anyway, he's a billionaire somehow, and young, and has red hair, and is cold and unyielding, kind of like the mineral anthracite, which should totally be in this book because come on.

(I'm seriously contemplating rewriting this entire thing. My version will be about 1/3 as long. For a short novel, this thing wastes a Lot of your time. I mean, it's all a waste of time, obviously, but also I mean that it's a repetitive waste of time.)

So here's what happens:
Our story begins in the dumbest, laziest way: Anastasia is looking in a mirror and thinking about her life and not liking how she looks. Yawn. We join her "trying to brush [her] hair into submission." OH SNAP! Did she say into submission? Yes, she did. How long before Christian beats her with a hairbrush? A couple chapters, or what? Now I see why people love this book! The foreshadowing! (Just kidding. It's terrible.)

"I roll my eyes in exasperation and gaze at the pale, brown-haired girl with blue eyes too big for her face staring back at me, and give up." I hate this kind of empty description so, so much. Visual detail can be valuable in fiction, but it's got to do something. Every visual detail has to double as something else, or else it's a waste of time. It has to also hint at character, plot, or mood. Just stating that Ana has blue eyes does nothing for anyone. I'm not imagining her in any different way than I was before, and nothing about this description differentiates Ana from literally a billion other people. I also hate the part about her eyes being too big. Listen, idiot! You know what people have enormous eyes? Besides anime characters? Oh, and cows? Which I know aren't people? Sexy people have enormous eyes. Look that shit up.

Editor's note: We are still on the first page of this book. 

Ana is whipping her hair into submission because she has to drive all the way from Vancouver, Washington (across the river from Portland, Oregon) to Seattle, Washington, to do an interview for their college newspaper, because phones haven't been invented in the 50shades-iverse.

No, but seriously, how ridiculous is this? This is a student paper for a small university. Probably only has a couple thousand students. (Editor's note: more like three thousand. And this dumb book is listed on the poor university's wikipedia entry.) And yet somehow, someone is going to give up an entire day and drive to Seattle to do an interview? Portland to Seattle can easily take three hours. So round trip, that's a full day, plus like $40 in gas. "But then Kate can talk anyone into anything." Kate is sick and can't go, nor does it occur to her, at this point, to call Christian's office and see if she can't do the thing over the phone instead. Kate sez: "As the editor, I can't blow this off. Please."

So instead of blowing it off, Kate gets her roommate, who doesn't even write for the paper, to go instead. If we pretend that this interview thing actually matters (and it doesn't!) we'd also imagine that the paper probably has another reporter or two, and that Kate would've asked one of them, first. (That is, assuming there still aren't phones.)

But, whatever. They've gotta meet somehow! So that they can have uncomfortable, bruisey sex with each other! For three whole books! And so Ana is enlisted.

Here are two more examples of things I hate:

Editor's note: these two things take place on pages 1 and 2, respectively.

1. A lack of attention to chronology. In the opening paragraph, Ana is preparing herself for the interview. When we first see Kate, Kate is begging Ana to do the interview, which Ana has already decided to do.  "Ana, I'm sorry. it took me nine months to get this interview. It will take another six to reschedule, and we'll both have graduated by then. As the editor, i can't blow this off. Please." So, what are we to make of this? Is Kate ranting and delirious? Is she just being repetitive, since these facts surely would've been part of her initial plea to Ana, right? These details about the interview are the sort of thing that Ana would already know. The scene would be far stronger if it were Ana revealing how important the interview is, and if Kate, instead of being so whiney, were instead trying to haul her sick ass out the door, only to be thwarted by some combination of her illness and Ana's insistence that she stay. It'd make both characters much more sympathetic.

2. A failure to understand how college students live. "I made you some soup to heat up later." Yeah, it's the middle of finals and whatever, but Ana is just making her roommate soup? And when you make soup, you make it hot, because of cooking and whatever. So also, couldn't Kate eat the soup right then, probably? Here, I'll fix the line: "I've got some Ramen in the cupboard if you want any." SOLVED!

So, Ana drives to Seattle, but can't do so without using the phrase "pedal to the metal." (Editor's note: this book is terrible.) We get a series of repetitive descriptions of Grey's office building. We get it! It's modern! And made of metal! And glass! And there's sandstone!

I'm having this problem where literally every sentence generates some sort of complaint. Ana keeps pointing out the glass, steel, and sandstone over and over. She says that Grey's building is "all curved glass and steel, an architect's utilitarian fantasy," and that is just dumb as hell. Curved glass is not terribly utilitarian, and this is a literal building, not a fantasy. At least, it's not an architect's fantasy. It's more like a lazy author's fantasy about what a modern place of business might look like. Whatever.

This is really not going very quickly, but I'll try to cut through the next three pages and get to the scene where CG finally makes an appearance. Basically, Ana encounters a number of office workers with blond hair, and she hates blond hair, I guess, so this upsets her. Also, the way she describes people is kind of bizarre: "Behind the solid sandstone desk (Editor's note: Enough with the sandstone!) a very attractive, groomed, blonde young woman smiles pleasantly at me." So what are we supposed to do with this? Remember that our narrator is twenty-two. Is this twenty-two year old really going to use the phrase "young woman," particularly about someone working at this building? The receptionist is certainly older than Ana, isn't she? And of course the receptionist is groomed! That's a thing people do before they go to work or whatever!

You're just going to have to put up with this kind of senseless rage if we're going to get along together. This kind of space-wasting visual detail just makes me angry. The receptionist looks like a receptionist. Great. Here's a better version of the same sentence, that I'm making up right now without thinking about it and also I've been drinking: "Behind the polished stone desk, an attractive blonde receptionist smiles at me stiffly." That's not a great sentence, but the "groomed" part was just dumb, so mine is better just for having lost "groomed." And we're supposed to get the idea here that Ana is intimidated, so at least offer some little hint that she deserves to be. Let's make the people at the office a little meaner, right? As it stands, Ana is just being intimidated for no reason, and it's kind of pathetic.

Here's another gem: Ana shares her wardrobe with us. "I'm beginning to wish I'd borrowed one of Kate's formal blazers rather than worn my navy-blue jacket. I have made an effort and worn my one and only skirt, my sensible brown knee-length boots, and a blue sweater."

My complaints about this chapter have probably already exceeded the word count of the actual chapter, but let's proceed. 1. Navy-blue is a perfectly reasonable color for a formal blazer. At least for men, it's probably the dominant color of blazers, so "navy-blue jacket" is a completely meaningless bit of description. We know she isn't wearing a blazer. Is she wearing one of these maybe? Or some other northwesty, outdoorsy jacket? Maybe! That might make her feel out of place in a swank office building. But we'll never know. 2. Srsly? She only owns one skirt? And yet decided to wear it today? 3. The word "sensible" is making it totally impossible for me to visualize these knee-length boots. As a rule, if boots are "sensible" and go up to your knees, they are rain boots, and I doubt she's wearing rain boots.

You see what I'm getting at? This book is filled with description that in no way aids our understanding. It's part of why this book is such a quick read. Huge swaths of it are just instantly understood by your brain to be not worth thinking about, and are then ignored.

Theme: EL James doesn't understand America.
EL James Britishness comes through all the time. Characters end up sounding stilted and weird, or only make sense if you read in a British accent. And I know that American authors are always writing about other places and getting everything wrong. Sure. I'm not condoning that, nor am I offended that EL James doesn't know anything about Seattle. I'm just saying that if she were good at writing, she'd manage to make American characters not sound so weird and unnatural all the time. Also, my understanding is that American culture is kind of impossible to avoid, so you'd think it wouldn't be so tough to fake. But c'mon. "Olivia returns with a glass of iced water." Anybody brings me water and calls it iced water? They're getting a glass of ice water in the face! On principle!

Here's the one that's more specifically British, and less just weird: "Mr. Grey will see you now, Miss Steele. Do go through." That is a very non-American usage of "do." But, it sounds fine if you imagine it in a British accent.

Side note: "Miss Steele." Is anyone saying "Miss" anymore? Is that a thing? I honestly don't know. I mean, I'm not saying it, but are people?

Finally, though, CG shows up, and gets interviewed by AS, and their conversation can only be described as sextacular unlikely.

Ana trips on her way into the office because she's an idiot. Although formally she's the subject of this novel, I guess, since she's the narrator and all, but she's constantly an object. Things just happen to her; she does not have an effect on other things. Like when she meets CG, and trips on her way into the office. Let me give you this paragraph because it's so fucking terrible that I am going to have to make up new swears. It's flaxing terrible!

Double crap--me and my two left feet! I am on my hands and knees in the doorway to Mr. Grey's office, and gentle hands are around me, helping me to stand. I am so embarrassed, damn my clumsiness. I have to steel myself to glance up. Holy cow--he's so young.

Shall we catalog this paragraph's offenses? 1. "Double crap." She literally wrote "Double crap" and then, I presume, read that phrase again later on and decided that, yes, it could stay. 2. Two left feet! What a fun and unusual way of establishing her clumsiness! 3. Ooh. She's on her hands and knees! Ugh. 4. Comma splices make the baby Jesus cry. 5. Anastasia Steel has got to steel herself! Heh. That's funny, because, like, her name is "Steele" and she has to "steel" herself. That's like, really good writing, you know? Like, when  you use two words that sound alike? A homophobe? I think it's called?

Note: on the next page, we get this: "If this guy is over thirty, then I'm a monkey's uncle." This book just hits new lows again and again. Monkey's. Uncle.

I particularly enjoy when this dumb book assumes that its readers are also dumb: "Apart from the paintings, the rest of the office is cold, clean, and clinical. I wonder if it reflects the personality of the Adonis who sinks gracefully into one of the white leather chairs opposite me." OMG MAYBE! The building has his name over the door, so yeah, probably all that time you wasted reminding us that everything was made of glass and steel (OMG kind of like "Steele" right???) was also ham-fisted character info as well.

The interview finally starts. AS asks bland, stock questions and CG gives uninteresting answers, often involving lengthy quotations from industrialists. Yawn. The entire thing reads like a get-to-know-your-characters exercise that one might do prior to writing a novel. As in, EL James should've written this interview scene between Anastasia and Christian as a pre-writing brainstorm sort of thing, and then put it aside and never included it in the actual story. It's just too one-sided. It's a lot of CG repeating, in different ways, that he likes to control stuff. Great. We get it. You'll be controlling Ana later on, with weird ropes and whatever. Yay.

What makes this scene terrible is Ana's complete lack of agenda. Now, I'm not going to say that this interview could actually be sexy, but I at least think it could be fun, if Ana would just flirt with Christian like a regular person in a romance novel. But Ana is an empty vessel. She's only doing this interview for Kate, and she's not trying to get anything in particular from Christian. And Christian is only meeting Ana for the first time, and he's done loads of interviews like this one, so what does he care?

I'm reminded of the best writing advice I've ever encountered, courtesy of David Mamet, in the form of an all-caps, typo-filled memo to the writers of a short-lived (and, I'll assume, terrible) tv show called The Unit.


SO: WE, THE WRITERS, MUST ASK OURSELVES OF EVERY SCENE THESE THREE QUESTIONS.
1) WHO WANTS WHAT?
2) WHAT HAPPENS IF HER DON'T GET IT?
3) WHY NOW?
Well, here's the thing about the interview! No one wants anything, other than a swift end to the interview. If the interview doesn't end swiftly, then it will just end less-swiftly, which is too bad, but hardly the end of the world. Why now? Well, no reason. Just happens to be the time that the interview was scheduled for, I guess. That's why this interview feels like a brainstorm--it utterly lacks drama. If Ana could just woman-up and say, "Oh, this guy looks like he would be fun to sex. I should try to sex him," then she could try to charm him or drop some hints or something! Anything! And then there would be something at stake in the scene, and we'd have a reason to read it. 
The only thing that creates any friction is the fact that Ana does a real shitty job conducting the interview, which makes CG curious, for some reason. Also he cancels some important fancy-pants business meeting he was supposed to have right after his interview with Ana. And then the interview ends like, two minutes after CG cancelled his next thing. Here's a suggestion, CG: maybe just make your next appointment wait a little bit? I mean, if you're so important, they'll probably wait for you, at least for two minutes. Hell, take ten! Make your next appointment wait ten whole minutes while you glare at Ana for asking you whether or not you were gay. If only he were! If only Christian Grey were gay, and then that would be the end of Anastasia's involvement with him, and the whole book would be over, and we wouldn't have to read it. 
(Editor's note: Ana asks CG if he's gay. This is somehow important, because everyone involved gets all huffy about it.)
Here's the one, final head-scratcher: 
"Did you have a coat?" Grey asks.
"A jacket."
Oh, hell. Really, Ana? You can't just say "Yes," like a regular person? For someone who only owns one skirt, you're pretty uptight about making sure we know that your jacket is not a coat. What's the difference between a jacket and a coat anyway? I'm willing to accept that certain, specific garments are best characterized as either "coats" or "jackets" but the casual northwest three-season jacket that I'm assuming Ana brought with her is not such a garment. Feel free to correct me, though, and tell me the difference between a coat and a jacket, and how confusing it would be for CG's assistant to check the coatrack for Ana's coat, and only see a jacket, and no coat, and think, "Well, there is this jacket here, but that can't be right, since I'm looking for a coat." 
I know this seems like I'm making a big deal out of a tiny sentence, but please trust me. There's so much terrible stuff that I didn't get around to bringing up, that I can't help but lose it every once in a while. I've got this built-up rage that's got to be released somehow.
So she gets her jacket, which is not a coat, and leaves, and that's the end of the chapter. That's it! Literally nothing to suggest what might follow. Just the end. 
That's how I'll end my little summary, too--by losing my mind over Ana saying "A jacket," instead of "Yes." Only 25 more chapters left in this shitshow! 

2 comments:

Andrea Carlin said...

You are speaking my thoughts from when I painfully read these books. I like your idea of you rewriting them. BOOM.

alden eagle said...

Books PLURAL? You made it through more than one? Well done. Well done!