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.

Let's just throw in a general word of caution: this is going to get rough. 50 Shades is basically a romanticized take on a harrowing, abusive relationship. A quick rewrite could change this book from "BDSM romance" to "sexy horror," and you'd only have to change the last couple chapters. Also, the sexy horror version would make way more sense. CG is terrifying, basically from the point that he's introduced.

He gets way more terrifying when he shows up at the hardware store where Ana works and asks her to point him toward the rape supplies.

Look at me! Jumping ahead to the end of Chapter 2, where some shit happens. Let's back up, and talk about the beginning of Chapter 2, where nothing happens and nothing makes any sense and I decide that EL James is a racist.

When we left off--
Let me just set the scene with the first paragraph of the second chapter, and for your sake and mine, I'll try not to quote too heavily.

Editor's note: he's going to quote too heavily. 

My heart is pounding. The elevator arrives on the first floor, and I scramble out as soon as the doors slide open, stumbling once but fortunately not sprawling onto the immaculate sandstone floor. I race for the wide glass doors, and suddenly I'm free in the bracing, cleansing, damp air of Seattle. Raising my face, I welcome the cool, refreshing rain. I close my eyes and take a deep, purifying breath, trying to recover what's left of my equilibrium.

Let's play that game I like to play where I note all the things about this paragraph that make me groan. (In an angry way. Don't get any ideas.) Feel free to play along at home!

  1. Ana fucking falls down again. It's not just that Ana has no agency or even any desires. She can't even walk most of the time, without a man around to pick her clumsy ass off the ground. She's such an object, so utterly lacking in subjectivity, that she can barely manage to control her own body. And not even like, control her own body in the sense of reproductive freedom. Control her own body in the sense that she lacks basic motor control.
  2. Sandstone! Glass! (Shut up. Shut up. Shut up.)
  3. Look at that dumb string of adjectives about the air / rain. It sure looks to me like EL decided to add the rain in as an afterthought. First, we get the "damp air," and then, at the very end of the next sentence, "rain." I don't know about you, but when I'm standing in the rain, the first thing I notice that's damp is the goddamn rain. Did she edit anything? Or did she just do a find / replace to change "Bella" to "Anastasia"?
  4. This usage of equilibrium makes no sense. You cannot divide equilibrium into amounts. If you drop "what's left of" from that last sentence, it's fine. "What's left of" is like this extra phrase, intended to add emphasis, which instead breaks the sentence. This is one of EL's best tricks: modifying a serviceable, trite sentence, and in so doing, wrecking it entirely. 
Ana heads back toward Vancouver. Here's a funny thought she has: "Shaking my head, I realize that Grey's more like a man twice his age." True! Well, really, he's more like an ageless vampire who possesses the gift of permanent youth. But yeah--everything about this book would make more sense if Grey were fifty-four instead of twenty-seven. 

EL likes to mix up specific details, often misused, with vague phrases that feel like placeholders. 

The former: Ana makes a couple references early in the chapter to "Interstate 5," which is not anything that anyone in Seattle would ever say. (Or, really, anyone in any part of western Washington or Oregon, either.) "I-5" maybe, but more likely just "the freeway." I was probably ten before I understood that "I-5" was a particular freeway, and that the terms "freeway" and "I-5" weren't interchangeable. Whatever. Just another one of those local nits to pick. Also, EL has Ana "leave the city limits behind" before she gets on the interstate, which is silly. EL is unaware that American highways go through cities, I guess. I can't imagine where else a highway would go, though. "You don't want this interstate too close to the city! Interstates are awfully loud! Let's just leave a few miles in between the highway and the city. People will really appreciate that."

And now, a vague placeholder: "I switch on the stereo and turn the volume up loud, sit back and listen to thumping indie rock music as I press down on the accelerator." Where to start! I seriously don't know how to approach this sentence. Do I start with the way she's mangled a simple series and turned it into a weird ooze of half-clauses? Do I start by pondering whether or not Ana had been driving prior to this without sitting back? Is that a thing anyone has ever done ever? 

Fine. I'm going to skip that stuff and just move on to "thumping indie rock music." EL might as well have said "whatever it is that young people listen to" and abandoned any pretense. Thumping indie rock music. Here's a fun game! Please, suggest to me what you think she might have been listening to. Personally, since Ana is a northwest square who doesn't seem to have any opinions about anything, I'm assuming she's a Pearl Jam fan. But no one would ever describe Pearl Jam as "thumping" or "indie rock," so even though Pearl Jam fits Ana, Pearl Jam does not fit this terrible, terrible sentence.

Editor's note: Alden is two pages into Chapter 2. 

Ana drives back to Vancouver and arrives at her apartment. Ana gives us this warning about Kate: "I know Kate is going to want a blow-by-blow account, [Editor's note: heh.] and she is tenacious." In fact, Kate is quite nice to Ana, which almost makes me wish I hadn't accused Kate of being in the KKK in my summary of Chapter 1. It's Ana who's unreasonable.

"Ana, thank you so much for doing this. I owe you, I know. How was it? What was he like?" Oh no--here we go, the Katherine Kavanagh Inquisition.

"How was school, Ana?" "OMIGOD MOM LEAVE ME ALONE I HATE YOU DOOR SLAM" Ana vacillates between telling the reader how much she loves Kate and acting like Kate is the worst person in the world. 

It is at this point that the most ridiculous the second most ridiculous one of the more ridiculous events of the chapter transpires. (Editor's note: did you get that joke? That's a Spanish Inquisition joke! Get it?) Ana says, "I have to run. I can still make my shift at Clayton's." 

Are you following me here? Ana had an interview with CG at 2PM. This went late, but the whole thing was only a couple pages, so let's be generous and presume that the interview was scheduled for fifteen and went twenty. And let's assume that Ana snagged a sweet parking spot near the headquarters of Anthracite, LLC and let's assume that she didn't get too bogged down in afternoon traffic. That still makes it 5:30! Clayton's, we learn at the bottom of the page, is a mom and pop hardware store. Mom and pop hardware stores close at 5:30! They don't start shifts at 5:30! 

Oh, and here's what her boss says to Ana when Ana strolls in at 5:30! "Ana! I thought you weren't going to make it today!" Ana! I thought you weren't going to make it today! I'm repeating that because it's making me furious. Do you think EL has never had a job? I think maybe EL has never had a job, and thats why she thinks a job is a place where you go when you feel like working, not a place where you go whenever you're scheduled to work, and if you don't go at that time, you get fired and someone else ends up with your job. 

We also get another quick reminder that Ana is a girl who does girl stuff, not boy stuff because boy stuff is for boys. "I've come to know a little bit about most everything we sell--although ironically, I'm crap at any DIY. I leave all that to my dad." I think Ana is suggesting that we'd expect her to be handy since she works at a hardware store, and that there's an ironic dissonance between that expectation and her actual lack of skill. But she's mistaken! I know that Ana can barely handle bipedal locomotion, so I do not expect that she would be able to handle household repairs, nor do I think she should be allowed to carry around tools with pointy parts. 

But seriously: "I leave that all to my dad." Ugh. Also, "I'm crap at DIY" is another one of those EL James sentences that only sounds like an approximation of human speech if you imagine it in a British accent. 

This is another opportunity for EL just to make Ana full-on northwest. But, of course, EL knows nothing about Seattle; she just picked Seattle because it was close to whatever town Stephanie Meyer picked as the location for Twilight and any intersection between Ana's life and the actual way a person might live in Washington is purely coincidental. But seriously: if EL had just gone ahead and made it clear that Ana felt underdressed at CG's office because she only owns hiking clothes, that'd make total sense! And what if she worked at a hardware store because she actually knows about hardware and is like, a capable, competent, outdoorsy type? You know--the sort of woman of who might live in the Portland area? But, no. Ana is "crap at" everything. 

Ana arrives at the hardware store only to leave again. She's greeted by her boss, spends one sentence working, and then returns back to her apartment again. I don't know why EL took us there. Wait, yes I do: she did it because Ana and Kate have the same exact conversation twice, and that quick trip to the hardware store breaks it up. That almost makes it seem like the two conversations serve different purposes, but they don't. It should've just been once scene, uninterrupted. The only difference is that Kate actually does ask some questions the second time around, and accuses Ana of liking CG, which she totally doesn't do because boys are like so gross. Kate: "Oh, come on, Ana--even you can't be immune to his looks." 

Ana, we know you're a sort of pre-sexual being who doesn't understand human emotions even when she's feeling them. But even you must be aware that Christian possesses the sort of features that humans regard as desirable in men. 

I don't understand, and also I hate, the fact that Ana can't just be a normal person who thinks about sex and maybe even has sex sometimes, since she's a college student and all. But alas, she has desires, you see, but she doesn't know what they are, until a man comes along and lets her know what they are. (Editor's note: she wants to be spanked, apparently.) 

Ana maybe dreams about sex the night after meeting CG, but it's hard to say: "That night I dream of dark places, bleak, cold white floors, and gray eyes." Yet again, EL fails to punctuate a series correctly. I'm also unclear as to whether or not this is a nightmare. It sounds like a terrifying nightmare! But, it also might be a sex dream, only Ana doesn't understand yet that it's a sex dream, because Christian hasn't had the ol' birds and bees talk with her yet. 

We then are introduced to some of Ana's family over the phone and it's boring and also who cares. The only thing of note is that Ana's stepdad likes watching soccer on tv which is funny because England. 

And then, we meet José Ethnic Sidekick Rodriguez. I've read elsewhere that José is the 50 Shades version of the main werewolf in Twilight. This makes sense, because he's really only around so that CG has someone to be jealous of later on. Ana, who doesn't understand her own emotions, somehow is perceptive enough to realize that José has feels for her. José is a photographer and probably wears a fedora and probably has a profile on okcupid where he complains that girls always friendzone him for being too nice and for not being a billionaire who likes to spank people.

Also, his name is José Rodriguez. Think about that one! You can pretty much imagine EL James at her computer: "I want everyone to make sure they know he's ethnic! I need a real ethnic name!" Also, he's "the first in his family to make it to college" because you know how it is with those people. You know what I mean? Those people? EL James knows what it means when someone says those people, is what I'm saying.

(Editor's note: Alden is suggesting that EL is really only comfortable writing about white British vampires.) 

José comes by with champagne because he is proud that the Portland Place Gallery is going to put up some of his photos. Hey have you guys heard of the Portland Place Gallery? It's this place in Portland. A gallery type place. In Portland. This is the shit that makes this book unreadable! This lazy shit. I'm only on page 23, and no one is having weird sex yet, or really doing much of anything at all, but it's already getting difficult to proceed, knowing that I've got to deal with more things like Portland Place Gallery. I can't wait until Ana and CG go for lattes at Seattle Area Cafe and then get sandwiches at Puget Sound Deli. 

This book is also filled with dumb little inconsistencies that, while not important, reflect a frustrating lack of care. On page 22, we get this: "For the rest of the week, I throw myself into my studies and my job at Clayton's. Kate is busy, too, compiling her last edition of the student newspaper . . ." On page 23, Kate says this in reference to José's sweet photography exhibition: "I should put this in the paper. Nothing like last-minute editorial changes on a Friday evening." 

First, no, no you shouldn't, because nobody gives a shit. Second, what the hell is this paper's publication schedule? It's obviously not daily, because she's been working on this edition all week. So when the hell does the paper actually get printed? Semesterly? It's clear that this newspaper is not anything that EL has thought about at all. It's just this vague thing that Kate does that's important to her. It will shortly become clear that the big, important interview with CG hasn't been published yet, either. We will recall that the newspaper was what got this whole dumb mess started, so this is not a trivial detail. Yet it's handled thoughtlessly. It's not just that this is a bad book. There are lots of bad books. The thing about this book is that it's so bad you have to wonder if the author herself has read it, or if maybe she just wrote it straight through and then ran spellcheck and hoped for the best. 

José's visit is sort of a "seed" setting him up to reappear on Chapter 3. (Note: his appearance in Chapter 3 is also completely pointless. I'll assume this is all due to EL's desire to match up with Twilight elements.) This is just one of many stretches in which things happen that do absolutely nothing to further the plot. 

Saturday, CG startles Ana at the hardware store, and proceeds to pick up a few things to keep his torture closet properly stocked. ALSO: the worst sentence ever published in a book. (Editor's note: We'll allow for the possibility that this is just the worst sentence contained in this particular book's first 25 pages.) 

"His voice is warm and husky like dark melted chocolate fudge caramel . . . or something." 

Let's give that beauty its own line so that we can really take stock of it. Really let the depth of its stupidity resonate with us. Or something, indeed! What's fun is that chocolate, fudge, and caramel are distinct foodstuffs, meaning that I can only speculate what Ana means by stacking all three words together. (Source: I work at a chocolate factory.) I also don't know what melting this magical compound would do for it, texture-wise. And as for how this dessert would sound if it were, instead, a human voice, I just don't know. Neither does Ana, though, since she ends with the disclaimer "or something." Perhaps she's got another dessert she'd like to invent instead. Like toffee praline meringue. 

CG goes on to follow Ana around the store, so that she can direct him to the stuff that he's (I assume) going to use to hold her captive while he's preparing to harvest her skin for his own personal lady-suit. He buys cable ties, masking tape, and rope. Masking tape is a bit of a curveball; Serial Killer magazine consistently calls duct tape the one item never to be without. Masking tape seems like it'd be too easy to escape from.

Ana talks him into buying coveralls, too, which to me, suggests that she might just suspect him of being a murderer. "You wouldn't want to ruin your clothing." You know! By getting your clothes covered in murder blood!

CG's response: "I could always take them off." Get it? Because sex.

I mentioned the lack of innuendo in the first chapter, which isn't strictly true. CG is happy to drop hints about his nefarious intentions, but all these hints are for the reader. He's not flirting with Ana. Maybe he's trying to, but he speaks more like a villain who drops dumb hints about the hero's coming demise. His little jokes never connect with Ana in any way, so if EL wants him to come off as flirtatious, she's failing. He just sounds more and more like he's getting supplies to do some pretty evil shit, and the fact that he chooses to pick up these supplies while "in the area" three hours south of his home, at Ana's workplace, gives every suggestion that he plans to do the evil shit to her, specifically. If I didn't already know too much about this book, I'd assume that the plot was going to be about Ana falling in love with a wealthy murderer. 

He's super, super creepy the whole time he's in the store. When he picks his favorite zip ties, we get this: "'These will do,' he says with his oh-so-secret smile." And when Ana asks him if he's redecorating, this is his response: "'No, not redecorating,' he says quickly, then smirks, and I have the uncanny feeling that he's laughing at me."

You know, this is going to be how I imagine CG from now on. It fits! We're always getting told about CG's unruly, curly hair, and I've always thought that Sideshow Bob's voice sounded just dark melted chocolate fudge caramel . . . or something. 

Here's one for the comrades: Ana blushes all the goddamn time. It's one of those things that she just does so often throughout the book that I kind of stop noticing it. It's like living next to an open sewer. At a certain point your mind just stops acknowledging the smell so that you don't go crazy. But one particular incident is impossible to ignore, thanks to this little gem: "I feel the color in my cheeks rising again. I must be the color of The Communist Manifesto."

Do I really need to say anything about this? I do want to say something about it, but I kind of can't. Some of the things said in this book are so dumb that I can't really think up anything to say about them. I'll have to be satisfied by pointing them out to you and moving on. 

Ana finally goes ahead and admits to herself that she's interested in in CG, which is a super bad idea, but still kind of a relief, since it's terrible putting up with a narrator who doesn't want anything. She's at least aware of her own emotions, but on the other hand, she goes out of her way to arrange more time with a man who's just bought himself different ways to keep a victim restrained, so I have hard time feeling as though she's really improving. She also tells CG that Kate wants to take some photos of him to go along with the profile she's writing based on his interview, which sets them up to get together again before he returns to Seattle.

CG says that he's in town because he was visiting the WSU Vancouver "farming division" where he's funding research. WSU Vancouver is not a research university, really, but whatever. CG's interest in this particular school makes no sense. Maybe we'll get some explanation later on but I find it more likely that EL pretty much just picked a place on the map and went for it. 

But, remember how Kate told Ana that CG was sooooo busy? So busy, that if Ana didn't give up her whole day Monday to drive to Seattle, the interview would be lost forever? Five days later, and CG is visiting their campus. I bet someone could've convinced him to spare a few minutes to chat with a student journalist, maybe in between his trip to the farming division and his errand run at the sex shop hardware store.

So last week, you read me complaining about the interview. To recap: 1) Dumb that it's not done over the phone. 2) Dumb that Kate doesn't suggest doing it over the phone once she knows she's too sick to travel. 3) Dumb that someone unaffiliated with the newspaper ends up filling in.

And now we get another: 4) Dumb that this interview is happening at all on Monday, since CG is going to travel down to Vancouver himself in just a few days. Oh! And 5) The interview questions were all bullshit. CG is funding research at WSU Vancouver. Might be something you should ask him about in your interview for the WSU Vancouver newspaper! And not a bunch of bland questions about his business philosophy or whatever. (This paper, in real life, is called The Vancougar. Make up your own joke about that. I can't be responsible for everything.)

This book is filled with these little moments of fake stakes. We're told that something matters, and it seems like maybe it doesn't matter, and then the next chapter comes along and makes it clear. We were right all along; it didn't matter. I thought it was absurd that Ana drove all the way to Seattle for the interview, and then I'm proved right a few pages later. We get a problem that doesn't seem like a problem, and then we read a few pages more, and it turns out that, no, it wasn't a problem at all. And then we're like, well why are we reading this anyway? Oh, right, because sexy parts are just around the corner, we here. The sexy parts better be worth it.

(Spoiler alert: They are not worth it.)

These early chapters are going to get the longest reviews because a) this book is slowly draining my life force so I'll have the most energy at the beginning and b) I can complain about certain repeated stupidities early on and be done with them. I'll just have to count on you to remember that, for instance, the obnoxious way that EL uses speaker tags continues throughout the entire novel, even though I'm going to try not to mention it anywhere but here.

"Speaker tag" is basically writing workshop jargon for the way that a line of dialogue is attributed to a particular speaker. They are like bolts in the sense that they hold things together and also look stupid if they're big and showy and draw attention to themselves. Good writers know better than to use complicated verbs. "She says" and "she asks" are basically the only ones you see if you're reading something good. If you're good at writing dialogue, and EL is not, the tone used by a speaker when she speaks a line of dialogue will be suggested by the words chosen.

Instead, EL constantly jams speech verbs that feel like they're at war with the actual speech. Here's one of the many sentences I hate, grabbed from Chapter 2:

"After you," he murmurs, gesturing with his long-fingered, beautifully manicured hand. 

This sentence is guilty of a lot of things, but let's just look at "murmurs" first. There is an absurd amount of murmuring and muttering going on in this book, and it never makes sense. CG is a billionaire who's quite possibly buying equipment for a Patrick Bateman-style murder rampage! He's the master of the universe! (Editor's note: Fifty Shades of Grey was originally published online as fan fiction called Master of the Universe by Snowsqueen Icedragon. This is not a joke!) He's not going to come into some mom and pop hardware store that he could buy and sell a thousand times over and murmur

Our brains ignore little, unobtrusive words like "says" so that we can concentrate on the things that really matter. (Editor's note: Presuming that any of this really matters.) Using showy verbs to denote one speaker from another, and even worse, using showy verbs that feel poorly chosen, makes dialogue-heavy scenes feel awkward and contrived. And god is this book awkward. And contrived.

Related complaint: we're always getting complicated descriptions of how voices sound after we're done reading the words that the voices have said.

Here's an example. I could've chosen basically any line of dialogue, but here we go:

"Are you in Portland on business?" I ask, and my voice is high, like I've got my finger trapped in a door or something. 

This is an unbelievably bad analogy. EL is terrible at analogies. There's no way that Ana sounds like she's got her finger trapped in a door. "Socially awkward" does not sound the same as "intense pain." There's also something very tiring about reading a sentence, and then being told how that sentence was pronounced, particularly when that second, explanatory part is confusing. I end up re-reading a lot of dialogue, attempting to fuse the dialogue with the explanatory part. It's exhausting, and really doesn't illuminate anything. Now I'm imagining the scene as this weird slapstick thing, where Ana keeps injuring herself but trying to stay cool and not draw attention to it. (Stooges-style violence would really improve this book, now that I think about it.)

Speaking of awkward and contrived: that's the end of the chapter! Time for Kate to contrive an awkward photo shoot. If only she knew someone who was good at taking pictures. Maybe somebody who appeared in this chapter for the soul purpose of announcing that he was good at taking pictures.

Stay tuned for Chapter 3! I'm reading a chapter or two ahead as I write these, and let me tell you--Chapter 3 is pure garbage. Oh! Sorry! Should I have marked that as a spoiler? Too late now! You already know it: Chapter 3 is terrible, but I hope you'll read about it next week all the same. 

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