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?

Instead, they meet in a way that isn't cute at all. There's nothing cute about their little interview. And the only thing that's keeping them apart is the fact that they're terrible people who are completely wrong for each other in every way, so how are they supposed to overcome that? By "telling" rather than "showing" I suppose. We're told, by Ana, that she's happy with CG now and then, but the whole thing seems kind of miserable to me. And we're constantly being told how attractive CG and Ana are, but never really find reason to believe it ourselves. Neither seems like a person I'd want to spend any time with.

But yet, here we are, spending hours and hours together!

What I'm getting at, I think, is that it's insufficient to look at this book and say, "Oh, it's a romance novel, and that's how those things are." The whole point of a romance plot is to keep people apart (until the end!) whom the reader wants to see together. Never am I interested in seeing Ana and CG together. They couldn't be more wrong for each other. I think they're both probably wrong for everyone. So, what're we supposed to enjoy? The sex? I guess we'll see, when they finally have sex together.

(Editor's note: Chapter 8. Bow chicka bow bow. Sorry. Lots of dumb stuff to get through first.)

So where were we?

To recap: Ana meets Christian, the dreamy billionaire, for an awkward interview. She then encounters him a few days later when he buys supplies for his sex dungeon at the hardware store where she works. Ana gets his phone number and decides to help her friend Kate set up a photo shoot with CG because that somehow makes more sense than just seeing if he wants to hang out like a regular person. Ana's admirer José joins Ana and Kate to photograph Christian, after which Christian takes Ana to a cafe, where they both act awkward. Christian starts to push Ana away, for reasons she does not understand. Then, Ana is nearly hit by a bike, but Christian yanks her out of harm's way.

And now we're all caught up! I think I'll just keep using this same recap, but adding little bits on at the start of each summary. The whole plot for the whole book can probably be taken care of with about three paragraphs, I expect. 

When we left our heroes those people we've been talking about, Ana had just about walked into a pesky cyclist, only to be rescued by CG. Lots of chapters end with CG swearing at Ana, usually because she's fallen down or is about to fall down.

During this "rescue" (ironic quotes because seriously?) Ana decides that she wants CG to kiss her, and that the way to get him to kiss her is to think really hard about it, and send him signals via telepathy.

Once again, Ana forgets how to use her body, and requires a man's assistance. Here's an obnoxious sentence, from just after the "rescue" and before CG has let Ana go: "He's breathing harder than usual, and I've stopped breathing altogether."

One might be inclined to regard Ana's claim that she's stopped breathing as a figure of speech, but further down the page, after CG tells Ana to avoid him, he tells her to breathe, thus allowing her to breathe again: "Breathe, Anastasia, breathe. I'm going to stand you up and let you go." So, no, Ana somehow just stopped breathing, but also was attuned enough to her surroundings to notice that CG was breathing hard. Good thing a man is there to make sure she breathes again, so that she doesn't die!

We will have to presume that Ana does, indeed start breathing again. She is more concerned about the fact that CG doesn't kiss her than about the fact that, somehow, for her, breathing is a voluntary rather than involuntary muscle response. "And the only think I can think is that I wanted to be kissed, made it pretty damned obvious, and he didn't do it."

What do you think she did that, in her mind, made it so obvious? I hope she was all, like, puckering her lips and stuff. Considering she's never kissed anyone, it seems a bit presumptuous of her to assume that her silent signals were clear. Unless, of course, she looked like this:

And for the first time in twenty-one years, I want to be kissed.
They then do the sort of whispery, murmury shit that they do all the time that makes this book the worst. Ana storms off, feeling rejected. "I turn on my heel, vaguely amazed that I don't trip, and without giving him a second glance, I disappear down the sidewalk toward the underground garage." Good one with the not falling down, I suppose.

Ana hides in the garage to cry. "Unbidden and unwelcome tears pool in my eyes." You know, as opposed to those tears that people encourage. By which I mean method actors who need to cry for a scene. Ana just wants us to know that she isn't one of those, and EL wants to remind us that she is like, so good at thinking up words that mean almost the same thing as each other and like, start with the same letter.

EL likes to make a generic point, and then over-make it for no reason. "I am crying over the loss of something I never had." Wait let me say that again in case somebody didn't get it the first time. "Mourning something that never was--my dashed hopes, my dashed dreams, and my soured expectations."All pretty dramatic, considering that Ana only decided she wanted to be kissed like, two minutes earlier. Maybe she's acting like this because she didn't get it out of her system when she was fourteen like the rest of us.

She thinks maybe her overreaction is because she's never been rejected before. (Cue tiny violin.) This sets Ana up to remind us of yet another thing she's bad at: "Okay . . . so I was always one of the last to be picked for basketball or volleyball, but I understand that. . . I am a serious liability in any sporting field." I should actually keep a running list of stuff that Ana hates or is bad at, because those are literally the only things we learn about her. It's like this perverse exercise in attempted character development purely through negatives. Also worth noting that pretty much every time we learn that Ana is terrible at something, it's a "boy" thing, like sports, or building stuff. EL's portrayal of Ana's femininity is so depressing.

We get some more personification of Ana's "subconscious." This time, she mixes things up by listening. "Stop! Stop now! my subconscious is metaphorically screaming at me, arms folded, leaning on one leg, and tapping her foot in frustration." Since her subconscious is already a metaphor for her better judgment, I'm not sure what it means for a metaphor to be metaphorically screaming at her. Her subconscious, based on the stompy feet, is also a grumpy toddler, which completely makes sense.

The toddler is right, though. Let's consider, again, our timeline. I know it seems like Ana and CG have been together practically forever, but that's simply because my analysis is so careful, and also because they're horrible people, and when you have two horrible people talking to each other, it seems like days are passing when, in fact, CG and Ana have probably only spent about an hour together in total. They had maybe twenty minutes on Monday at CG's office, and then another ten at the hardware store. The photo-shoot somehow took a half hour, and then let's say that coffee took another half hour. Fine then. Ninety minutes they've spent together. Ninety minutes, and when CG is all, like, "Eh, maybe not so much," Ana acts like she was just abandoned at the altar.

Ana returns home and gets angry at Kate for caring about her. Maybe Ana is a masochist, considering how rude she is to Kate who's pretty much the nicest to her all the time (other than dispatching her to Seattle for that interview and, as a result, ruining her life) and how nice she is to CG who just wants to tie her up and hit her with things.

We get the phrase "Katherine Kavanagh Inquisition" again, because EL never encountered a cliche that she didn't consider worth using and then recycling. EL's approach to literature is very green. She repurposed an existing novel, and then carefully reused as many phrases and descriptors as she could. Very responsible, really, when you think about it.

Jump ahead to Ana's final exam, which is also Kate's final exam, because college is just like high school and your friends all take the same classes and they all have tests at the end. Here is Ana's reaction to finishing her last exam: "A Cheshire cat grin spreads over my face." Pretty weak cliche, EL! But whatever. I'll let you have it, so long as you just do it once, and never again. Deal?

Ana spies Kate across the room. Same paragraph: "She [Kate] glances across at me, and I catch her Cheshire cat smile, too." Groan.

Hey, you guys know me. And you know the last thing I want to do is type a whole long passage from this book to pick it apart. That's because I don't want my fingers to get used to typing absolute garbage lest this effect my own ability to write somehow. But I'm baffled by this sequence, and I'm going to share it with you.

We head back to our apartment together in her Mercedes, refusing to discuss our final paper. Kate is more concerned about what she's going to wear to the bar this evening. I am busily fishing around in my purse for my keys.

"Ana, there's a package for you." Kate is standing on the steps up to the front door holding a brown paper parcel. Odd. I haven't ordered anything from Amazon recently. Kate gives me the parcel and takes my keys to open the front door. It's addressed to Miss Anastasia Steele. There's no sender's address or name. Perhaps it's from my Mom or Ray. 

"It's probably from my folks."

Goddammit. Where to start. 1) So, it doesn't matter that they drive the Mercedes. Nothing happens in the car, so just skip to the steps. 2) And why is Ana fishing for her keys? Is she doing this during the car ride? Is she all like, "OMG gotta get inside fast as I can! Gotta get these keys ready!" Or, I think more likely, that sentence is meant for the following paragraph, and is intended to "explain" why it is that Kate spies the package first, even though this is the sort of thing that needs no explanation. 4) There is nothing that suggests that this package looks like an Amazon package, Ana, so don't be an idiot. 5) It's ambiguous as to whether or not this is a scary package without shipping information (IE hand-delivered) or simply shipped commercially but without a return address. Two possibilities, each of which would suggest something very different to Ana. Also, it's unclear whether her address is even on the package. It might not be! 6) Why is Kate using Ana's keys and also who cares? 7) Why the hell do we get Ana thinking maybe it's from her parents, and then immediately saying the same thing aloud? Is EL getting paid by the word for this shit?

And 8) how did EL manage to write such a bad sequence? It's like a clown-car of ambiguity, misdirection, and useless details.

Here's a rewrite:

Back at our apartment, Kate hesitates as she unlocks the door ahead of me. "Ana! There's a package for you. Were you expecting anything?"She sings as she hands me a parcel: "Brown paper packages tied up with strings." 

"These are a few of my favorite things," I say, taking the package from her. I don't feel as cheerful as Kate sounds, though. This doesn't feel right. The package was hand delivered. No return address, no shipping label. Doesn't even have my full address. Just "Miss Anastasia Steele" in immaculate script. 

"Graduation present? Your mom maybe?" Kate asks, stepping inside. 

"Probably," I say, lingering on the porch. But I know it's not from my mom. Couldn't be. 

DON'T THANK ME. You could've easily done the same thing. I do like the tied up with strings / favorite things part, because I can only assume that we're going to see Ana tied up with strings later on, and that she's going to be way, way into it. But otherwise, this is just simple writing. Convey the information that needs to be conveyed to get us to the next part of the story, and, if you can, offer a little bit of tension to build anticipation. Simple.

EL is always throwing in little bits of nonsense, like that stuff about the keys. Ana looking for them, and then Kate opening the door with them. Who cares! And look how little tension EL creates. The only part that suggests anything is amiss is also completely dumb: "Odd. I haven't ordered anything from Amazon recently." Again, this does not look at all like an Amazon package. Plus, the very word "Amazon" saps the tension out of the scene. Weird, scary shit does not come in Amazon packages! The last thing EL should be doing here is making us think of friendly packages from Amazon. Let us think this is a bomb! Or the tip of an ear! Anything but a paperback from Amazon.

And tell us what Ana thinks! She's the narrator! She must have some opinion about this package. The fact that she says it's probably from her parents makes it seem like this seems totally normal to her, which also kills any tension, and also makes Ana seem like a huge idiot.

"I open the parcel, and inside I find a half leather box containing three seemingly identical old cloth-covered books in mint condition and a plain white card."

I'm including this sentence because what the hell is a "half leather box"? Is this a leather slipcover? Then say "inside I find three cloth-covered books inside a leather slipcover." Say what you mean, EL! Also, we soon learn that this is a three-volume, first edition of Tess of the d'Urbervilles and no matter how well these books have been maintained, if they are from 1891, they are not in "mint" condition. Also, if they were in mint condition, somehow, Ana would not call them "old" because it would not be immediately clear that they were old. "Old" suggests signs of age, which means "not mint." Oh, and also? "three seemingly identical old cloth-covered books"? Hey you know what's a good method for differentiating books from each other? The mutterblushing writing on them. They only seem identical if you ignore the words on the cover and spine. Most literate people take note of the words on the cover and spine, particularly if the books are in a slipcover, which would draw one's attention to the spine immediately.

"I open the parcel, and inside I find three matching clothbound books in a leather slipcover and a plain white card." It's. Just. Not. That. Hard. To. Be. Clear.

(Editor's note: And here we see why these posts are so long. It takes Alden a dozen lines to complain about all the sins that EL has committed in two lines.)

So, yeah. Fancy first editions. Obviously from CG, because expensive. Ana interprets this as further evidence of CG pushing her away, but let's be reals. Telling this naive person who's never been in a relationship that your sexiness is too dangerous for her is basically like telling your kids they can't have anymore cookies because they're too delicious for children. In my tldnr at the top, I accused CG of sending "mixed signals" but that's not entirely true. More like "indirect" signals. As in, he could just be like, "Hey Ana. You. Me. Bonezone." But instead he's all being cute with these books and whatever. What a jerk. Ana decides to send the books back but first she's gonna get her drunk on to celebrate being done with exams.

At the bar, José buys a pitcher of margaritas because Mexican. Also, they got some big-ass pitchers at this bar, because Ana has five glasses. Five! Or maybe she's drinking out of tiny glasses? Whatever.

At first, Ana and José are getting along swimmingly, and it seems like a good time. Kate gets real British when she's drunk: "'More drink, Ana!' Kate bellows." More drink! EL doesn't understand that British English and American English handle certain plurals in different ways. Whatever.

Ana decides to drunk-dial CG. This goes exactly the opposite of every drunk-dial ever. The usual thing that happens is that the drunk-dialer, the one with reduced inhibitions, reveals too much and regrets it. In this case, CG, the drunk-dial recipient, reveals that he is a sociopath, and regrets nothing.

CG freaks out about the fact that Ana, a woman of legal drinking age, is at a bar, and has perhaps had too much to drink. Again, he's only spent about ninety minutes with her, and knows scarcely anything about her life, so he's in no position to pass judgment. He gets more and more insistent, and then we get this "fun" foreshadowing:

"Anastasia, where are you? Tell me now." His tone is so . . . so dictatorial, his usual control freak. I imagine him as an old-time movie director wearing jodhpurs, holding an old-fashioned megaphone and a riding crop. The image makes me laugh out loud.

"You're so . . . domineering." I giggle.

Hehe. Get it? Riding crop? Domineering? Joke's on you, Ana! Because he's probably literally holding a riding crop! (This would actually be kind of a great gag when they make this into a movie. Split screen with CG on the phone, but like, also not letting it interrupt whatever flogging he happens to be in the middle of.)

They get off the phone, but then CG calls back a minute later and says nothing but "I'm coming to get you," and it's impossible to think of it as anything but a terrifying threat. It's such an astounding overreaction.

Ana ends up buying a more beer, even though she is legit pretty drunk. She had five margaritas! From the magical bottomless margarita pitcher! Kate seems like a pretty bad friend in this moment. "'You've been gone so long,' Kate scolds me. 'Where were you?'" Yo, probably in the long-ass line at the bathroom and the long-ass line at the bar! And then when Ana excuses herself to go be drunk outside, Kate calls her a lightweight rather than checking on her. Kate should know that Ana has never been drunk before--they've lived together throughout all of college. And she should definitely see if she's okay.

But, Kate doesn't, leaving José with a great opportunity to step outside and assault Ana.

Now, I don't want to defend José and I won't because he's indefensible. He grabs Ana and she makes it clear that she's uncomfortable right away. She meekly tries to get him to back off, then says, "José, what are you doing?" which is as good as "no" and then follows that by saying "no" quite clearly and emphatically twice. There can be no confusion whatsoever as to the fact that Ana wants José to step away. He holds her against her will and kisses her.

Yet still, the way this sequence hinges, plot-wise, makes me uncomfortable. Not just because of what José does to Ana, but because this is essentially a contrived event to let CG arrive and be a "hero." The idea, I suppose, is that we're supposed to imagine that CG's arrival keeps things from getting much, much worse. But to me, CG is such a thorough manipulator, so consistently in the wrong, that this "hero" moment just feels false.

A line that gets used in writing workshops as a sort of shorthand for character development goes more or less like this: "Does he pet the dog, or does he kick the dog?" The dog isn't a character. The dog is a prop--an object acted upon by a character, purely so that we can judge that character. Nice people pet dogs. Mean people kick dogs. Likewise, José is a prop for CG. He serves as an opportunity for CG to look like the good guy for a moment, but as soon as the moment passes, CG is once again the villain. Once again the character who poses the most danger to Ana. It's terribly contrived, and I hate it, because as soon as José releases Ana, CG proceeds to do a series spectacularly creepy things, all of which I guess we're supposed to think are romantic.

I also think it's worth noting that Ana never particularly reacts to CG as though her white knight has just arrived. She's embarrassed to be drunk around him, and surprised, since he lives three hours away and also she didn't tell him where she was, so how would he even know where to go. Everything about her response suggests embarrassment, rather than relief.

And no wonder! CG warns away José, but saves every bit of his wrath for Ana, because puking is the worst thing a person can do, obviously: "It's about knowing your limit, Anastasia. I mean, I'm all for pushing limits, but really this is beyond the pale. Do you make a habit of this kind of behavior?" What a dick! "Do you make a habit of being grabbed by men who don't understand the meaning of the word "no?" She gets it! She's embarrassed as hell! She's been through some shit and, I expect, could use a friend, but instead, she gets a lecture of the "it's always the lady's fault!" variety. "You shouldn't get so drunk" is reasonable advice, in the sense that you're too drunk if you're puking. But in this context, it sounds dangerously close to, "well maybe you should've have dressed so sexy, then."

CG picks up Ana before she falls down, which, at this precise moment, is less crazy than all the other times he's done it. I still hate it, because it's the worst. But here, she's drunk, so if there were one moment where it would seem okay for CG to keep her from falling down, and only one moment, this would be that moment. Only he's already done it like, eight times, so this is just another one in a long series and I hate it and stop, EL, stop! Also, he doesn't just like, keep her from falling down for a sec and then help her to a place to sit. They have a whole dumb conversation.

Key points of this conversation, both of which are kind of crazy:

  1. Brother Elliot. CG introduces his bro, EG, and says he's talking to Kate, and that they've arrived together. This is weird because CG has only been here like, one minute. So how the hell does he know that Elliot is talking to Kate already? And why would Elliott be talking to Kate? Is Elliott and Kate a thing that I missed? Is Elliott a thing? Has he even been in this book? This book is so torturous that when strange twists happen, it's easy to assume that you've missed some key detail while you were rolling your eyes about something else.
  2. How did he locate her? "I tracked your cell phone, Anastasia." Ending the sentence with "Anastasia" is the same as saying, "I tracked your cell phone, idiot." What a dick. Also, CG is Lucius Fox, apparently. 
Have we talked about mouths pressing into hard lines? "His mouth presses into a hard line, and he sighs heavily." Angry people are always pressing their mouths into lines. I don't have anything to say about this, other than it's another EL-ism that she uses again and again. And again. And again. CG is always pressing his mouth into a hard line because of something that Ana does, and yet, somehow, we're supposed to believe they're great for each other.

They return into the bar to find Kate to tell her that CG is taking Ana back to her house. This is something that Kate should veto, but nothing that should happen ever does in this book, so whatever. Kate is somewhere dancing, so CG makes Ana drink a glass of water. Getting water for a drunk person isn't unreasonable, but somehow CG manages to make even reasonable gestures seem terribly rude. "'Drink.' He shouts his order at me." Ugh. 

SYMBOLISM: "The moving lights are twisting and turning in time to the music, casting strange colored light and shadows all over the bar and the clientele. He's alternately green, blue, white, and a demonic red." Ooh! Red! Demonic! This would be a better bit of symbolism, though, if CG weren't every color. Also everything about him is usually described as "gray" so jumping over to this "devil = red" lazy symbolism isn't doing much for anyone.

Also, we start to get Ana's super-vague sexy talk. "All those forbidden, unfamiliar feelings that I have tried to deny surface and run amok through my drained body. I flush, and somewhere deep, deep down my muscles clench deliciously." 

Does that seem hot? "Somewhere deep, deep down" feels symbolic. As in, "somewhere deep in my psyche." As in, the sort of specific place that you couldn't identify. But then she gets specific with muscles, but not so specific. I've read ahead, so I know that parts of the sex scenes get specific to the point of feeling a little clinical and boring, which is odd, considering the vagueness of a passage like this one. Or! Maybe this is actually a marvelous description of arousal and I am not in possession of the right muscles. (I welcome your opinion, dear reader.)

Here, to end the chapter, another ridiculous thing happens, and I know you're probably all like, "What? Something ridiculous happens? No way!" But what happens is that even though Ana just got done puking, is still pretty messed up and drunk, and just had a narrow escape from a man holding her against her will, CG grabs her and spins her around amongst the bar's dancing patrons. It's bizarre, and it's part of why I hate the sequence where CG "saves" Ana from José. José acted entirely out of his own selfish desires, but I feel like CG is just as selfish, only the book rewards him while punishing José. 

Here's a horrible sentence that happens during the dancing: "In the back of my mind, my mother's oft-recited warning comes to me: Never trust a man who can't dance." Your mom gave some pretty worthless-ass advice, Ana! You know what would be solid advice? Never trust a man who is obviously stalking you! Who bosses you around like it's his job! Who tracks your phone like he's the CIA! Who talks like a British vampire! Who acts like he's a hundred but tells you he's twenty-seven! There are so, so many reasons not to trust CG, but Ana decides to trust him, I suppose following some inverse property of her mom's dumb advice. Always trust a man who can dance, no matter what, including obvious non-dance evidence that he ought not be trusted.

We get a quick look at Kate and Elliott and they're all in love or whatever because of course they are. This book lets people become soulmates in less time than it would take them to watch a film, so sure. Kate and Elliott. This chapter is full of so much terrible that I can't work up any energy to get mad about the fact that they're instantly perfect for each other. Whatever.

Oh and then Ana passes out because she's drunk and spinning her around the dance floor was a stupid idea, CG. He gets mad and says a swear ("Fuck!" ends the chapter.) and that's that. 

He kind of kidnaps her next, but you'll have to wait for next week or that. Or just read this book yourself. I mean, if you're desperate. And a masochist. 

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