Thursday, July 18, 2013

50 Shades of the Complainist: Chapter 11

Ana reads some stuff and sends some emails. 

Warnings: I have lost all passion for life. Also, the usual warnings.

Most of this was written before the sort of vacation that all sensible people try to avoid. Wanted to get it finished in time to post while I was away, but failed! Now I will try again. Expect regular Tuesday schedule to return next week. Also, this post is pure text! That's what happens when I hate a chapter particularly much: I press on, and don't include any internet memes or whatever. Oh well. 

Last chapter we learned a bit about Christian Grey's background, at least sex-wise: when he was a teenager, an older woman seduced him and he was her submissive and obviously that's why he enjoys dominating women now because that's how it works, right? We don't need to rehash that bit too much. Just seems that EL wants to have her cake and eat it, too--on the one hand she wants CG to be edgy and enticing, but she also establishes that his sexuality a result of an inequitable relationship when he was younger. Hence she sets up the most obvious (Editor's note: and least interesting!) arc for the trilogy: at least as far as the bedroom (or sex dungeon) is concerned, CG and Ana Steele are going to meet somewhere in the middle. Which is to say, by the end, I presume CG will still be bossing Ana around because gender roles, but they'll be married and stuff and the kinkiest thing they're likely to do is to have the occasional episode of tied-up-with-a-necktie sex. See? CG will be "cured"! Isn't that so exciting? Terribly.

But before that digression, I wanted to compare how EL offers us some background for CG but none for Ana. Granted, he still doesn't quite make sense--he's a billionaire at 27, but lives like a man twice his age. And how did he make his money? Don't know. "Business." (When I rewrite this book I'll call it alternate-universe fan fiction--What if 50 Shades were set in an alternate universe where the standard conventions of narrative applied?! And then I'll make him a tech billionaire because obviously I will.) And is he from the northwest? Probably, because his mom and bro live close, but who knows. Don't really know anything about him other than the fact that he likes people tied up when he has sex with them, probably because he got tied up in his own first sexual encounters. (EL's psychology speaking here, not mine.)

So what do we know about Ana?

Lessee. She has got good grades, but not as good as Kate's. She lived with Kate all four years of college and didn't really know anyone when she started. She's good at cooking and likes reading books. She is bad at everything other than cooking and reading books, but lucked into a flexible job working retail at a hardware store. Up until she met CG, she pretty much thought boys were icky.

In other words, we know basically nothing about her at all. I'm still trying to figure out how it is that she ended up going to Washington State University in Vancouver. I'm sure it's a as good a school as any state university can be in this era of near-constant higher-ed budget cuts. But why WSU Vancouver? Was it just picked at random? Did EL want Ana to go to school in Portland but didn't like the idea of her having to pump her own gas? (Editor's note: you can't pump your own gas in Oregon. Weird, right?) WSU Vancouver is just not the sort of university that attracts students from outside its own region. So is that where Ana is from? Even though her mom somehow lives in Georgia?

I don't mean to waste time worrying about Ana's alma mater. I just mean that yes, CG is a bit of a mystery, but considering that Ana is our narrator, we scarcely know anything about her, either, and what we do know makes little sense.

This makes me think of Ana as a protagonist modeled after the style of a first-person video game. First-person games (and let's be fair: they're mostly about killing aliens or zombies or Nazis or alien-zombie-Nazis) sometimes acknowledge the problems inherent in the notion that your on-screen avatar is "you." The tricky thing about first-person games is this: you "are" the character you control, but you only know as much about that character as the game tells you.

Some games justify this lack of self-reflection by offering an in-game explanation. They give your character amnesia, perhaps, or, more often, just make you a weird loner who literally only grunts. (I'm looking at you, Borderlands 2.) The tactic is more or less effective depending on the game, but either way, it's a tactic used for two reasons: 1) Reducing character development makes things simpler for writers who aren't super good at writing. 2) The theory is that leaving your avatar an empty shell makes it easier for the player to implant into the world of the game and fill that empty shell with one's own personality and imagination.

I make this digression for two reasons. First, to encourage you to take a look at Left Gamer Review which is a sight I also write for, though not as frequently as I should. (Actually playing games is no more a prerequisite to reading LGR than actually reading 50 Shades is to reading here.)

In second place is my grand theory about how this book is plotted exactly like a first person video game. The majority of games are a series of action sequences strung together by a sometimes flimsy connective tissue. In a well-conceived plot, the most dramatic events derive their impact from the quieter moments that surround them. Quieter scenes are not merely "breaks" from more intense action, but rather are opportunities for contemplation or even dread which will make increase the overall drama.

50 Shades, though, is a big, dumb, first-person shooter. It's like Call of Duty. The breaks between action sequences in CoD games work like this: you get a little cutscene where a general or somebody is like, "Hey, action-soldier-guy! You killed enough people in Russia. Now it's time to kill some different people in Mali!" And then you're in Mali and you start fighting again. The cutscene gave you a little break and also explained to you why you were going to fight African militiamen instead of Russian special forces or whatever, but was clearly an afterthought. The game is defined by fighting, not by listening to generals.

That mindset is the only way I can explain this utter waste of a chapter. In Chapter 11, Ana gets a computer and reads wikipedia and exchanges a silly number of emails with Christian Grey. We don't learn anything about any of the characters. The story doesn't advance their relationship in any meaningful way; Chapter 11 is merely inserted to move from Russia to Mali, to return to our analogy. When they have sex next, they're going to have it at Ana's apartment, and somehow, this fact necessitates a chapter of Ana reading wikipedia. Honestly, I've got to give the edge to Call of Duty. At least those games operate with a certain honesty--they know you came to shoot villains, not to listen to generals unfurl the tissue-thin plot, so they keep the plot-unfurling to a minimum and the action to a maximum.

So where were we?

  1. Ana meets Christian, the dreamy billionaire, for an awkward interview. 
  2. 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. 
  3. 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.
  4. Christian tells Ana that they're incompatible and she gets sad. Ana drunk-dials Christian and he freaks out and traces her phone Batman-style, just in time to chase off José, who's acting rape-y. Ana passes out at the bar.
  5. Ana awakes in Christian's hotel room. Christian explains that he brought her there because he didn't want her to puke in his car. He says that they can't take things further until he's explained his secrets, so they arrange a helicopter ride together to Seattle and make out in an elevator.
  6. Ana and Christian fly to Seattle in a helicopter. Ana signs a non-disclosure agreement and then opens up the door to the sex dungeon.
  7. Ana and Christian tour the sex dungeon and we see some of his much-discussed paperwork, which is an agreement far more all-encompassing than, say, a typical marriage, even though they met less than two weeks ago. CG gets super angry when he learns that Ana is a virgin. 
  8. Ana and Christian have sex and later, when Ana wakes up, CG is playing a piano because he has a case of the feels.
  9. The next morning Ana cooks breakfast and then they have sex in the bath and then in the bed and then Christian hears his mom talking to his manservant, Taylor. 
  10. Mom leaves right away, so Ana and Christian drive from Seattle to Vancouver and also they stop at a restaurant and CG reveals that he played the role of submissive to an older woman when he was a teenager. 
At the end of Chapter 10, Ana opened up the envelope containing her full sex contract, which was supposed to be some kind of cliffhanger or something I guess. I can't imagine that anyone will be surprised about its contents--basically it's just a document stating in various ways that Christian will be the boss and Ana will never have any influence over anything ever. 

But, of course, there are all sorts of notes about how this is really all for Ana, don't you know! "2 The fundamental purpose of this contract is to allow the Submissive to explore her sensuality and her limits safely, with due respect and regard for her needs, her limits, and her well-being." ORLY. The amount of respect CG seems to think Ana is due is approximately zero, and this contract will do nothing to make anyone think otherwise. 

Though this chapter is short, it's totally unreadable. I remain shocked by the fact that EL has made no effort whatsoever to make BDSM sexy. Instead, we get lots of contract language: "The Dominant my flog, spank, whip, or corporally punish the Submissive as he sees fit, for purposes of discipline, for his own personal enjoyment, or for any other reason, which he is not obliged to provide." Hot, right? I know! So hot. So very, very hot. If this intrigued Ana at all, I might be able to get behind it, but she is not impressed. After all the different bits about how Ana has to live her life exactly the way CG wants, EL has the gall to repeat, word for word, the contract stuff that we already saw. So that's fun. This book is already three hundred pages longer than it should be but whatever. Why not repeat some of the exact same pages again? 

Page 174 is rough. It's a list of all the sex stuff that CG and his lawyers could think up that didn't conflict with the previously-established hard limits. I guess I'll tell you some of it. Nobody read my last chapter and I have a cold and hate my life so I have limited patience in typing out too much of this. Whatever. (Editor's note: This was written when Alden did have a cold and we have left this language in to preserve the original context. He still hates his life, so that part is still true.) I'm not using EL's column formatting because it's too hard and also I don't care. Don't say I never did nothing for ya:

Does the Submissive consent to:

  • Masturbation
  • Cunnilingus
  • Fellatio
  • Swallowing Semen
  • Vaginal intercourse
  • Vaginal fisting
  • Anal intercourse
  • Anal fisting
Does the Submissive consent to the use of:
  • Vibrators
  • Butt plus
  • Dildos
  • Other vaginal/anal toys
Does the Submissive consent to:
  • Bondage with rope
  • Bondage with leather cuffs
  • Bondage with handcuffs/shackles/manacles
  • Bondage with tape
  • Bondage with other
And so on. I'm sick of typing this. Some thoughts: not sure why "Semen" gets capitalized, but I'm not sure of a lot of the things happening in this book. I guess in a kind of totally hypothetical way I can understand the value of getting this all down on paper in a relationship like this, but honestly, parts of the list are so long that it just gets ridiculous. How many different things does CG really want to tie up Ana with, really? And why isn't the one thing that he's actually used as a restraint--his tie--on the list? It seems like that's his go-to move, so why doesn't he include it? 

And I dunno. I don't want to dwell on this, but fisting? This list lacks any context. Meaning, it's unclear how CG feels about the list. It's too long to be like, his sex bucket list, and it's presented without any hierarchy. So CG wants to tie Ana up with tape. Fine. I'm sure there's a sexy way for us to learn that, but this laundry list is not sexy at all. 

Ana feels the same way. The only thing that intrigues her at all is getting tied up, although I guess it's safe to assume that she's cool with the other things on the list that she's already done and enjoyed. 

Here is a particularly telling paragraph:

I stare at myself in the bathroom mirror. You can't seriously be considering this . . . My subconscious sounds sane and rational, not her usual snarky self. My inner goddess is jumping up and down, clapping her hands like a five-year-old. Please, let's do this . . . otherwise we'll end up alone with lots of cats and your classic novels to keep you company. 

  1. I hope that in the film version, there are little CGI characters looking at Ana over her shoulders and talking to her and everything, because that would be creepy and weird. 
  2. I always enjoy when EL manages to associate sex with five-year-olds. Did I say enjoy? I meant some other word. What's the word for something that's both horrifying and hilarious? There might not be such a word yet. Help me out? 
  3. This is one of the central problems with the novel: Ana isn't really that into the stuff that CG is into, but oh noes! What if she refuses? She'll die a spinster for sure! Except really, Ana has only had private conversations with three men during the first 176 pages of this book: CG, José, and this other dude who's parents run the hardware store, who's such a minor character that I can't be bothered to remind myself what his name is. It might be Paul? Doesn't matter. What does matter is that literally every man who's spoken privately with Ana in this novel wants to have sex with her. Does she not see this pattern? I won't get into my confusion about why all these dudes find her attractive, but the fact is that they do. It's absurd for any woman to do this whole, "But OMG it's this or end up on an episode of Hoarders!" thing, but it's particularly ridiculous coming from Ana. She was never interested in any sort of relationship with anyone until she met CG two weeks ago, and now she's contemplating signing this sex contract that's skeeving her out because she's somehow now terrified that this is her only shot at happiness. (As though she's seemed particularly happy with CG thus far.)
Ana goes to bed. Kate wakes her up in the morning. "I glance at my alarm. It's eight in the morning. Holy Moses, I've slept for nine hours." Outrageous, right? Nine hours! Slept until 8AM! I don't know which is more ridiculous! Nine hours of sleep is practically a coma. And the idea of a college student who's done with her coursework and is now merely awaiting graduation waking up at 8AM instead of getting up at 6 to milk the cows or whatever is terribly appalling. Western decadence!

Kate: "There's a man here with a delivery for you. You have to sign for it." That's how deliveries work, you know. They won't let just anyone sign for packages. Also: packages show up at 8AM. Is that a thing in the UK? Are delivery people hassling sleepy college students at 8AM? Terrifying. I guess I don't want to move there after all. 

Oh, and then the delivery guy is in their house. "A smart young man with a ponytail is standing in our living room clasping a large box." Story checks out. The dude was like, "I'm a computer delivery guy. Let me into your apartment." And Kate saw his ponytail and was like, "Sure. Classic computer delivery guy. Come on in."

Computer guy: "I have a package for you here, but I have to set it up and show you how to use it." Yes, because Ana is an idiot who doesn't know how to do anything and couldn't possibly figure out how to unbox a MacBook without a man there to assist. 

It's a very fancy MacBook: "These aren't available in the shops yet, ma'am; the very latest from Apple." Rolling eyes. A current generation MacBook Pro just isn't enough for CG's lady! "It's got the latest OS and a full suite of programs, plus a one-point-five terabyte hard drive so you'll have plenty of room, thirty-two gigs of RAM." This whole sequence is comical. Ponytail doesn't set anything up--he just brags about features, including features that are silly and exceed anything available today. But of course, lists of computer specs never age well. Future generations trying to use this book to understand what the hell was wrong with our society will read about Ana's fancy computer and say, "That isn't even as much RAM as comes standard in my brain-phone, which is injected straight into my brain!" (I don't know why they're explaining how their brain-phones work. Curious.)

"The Mac laptop is sleek and silver and rather beautiful. It has a very large screen." Attention, writers! If you ever find yourself spending any time offering such an inane description of a common household object, kindly pick another field. The Kohler toilet is sleek and white and rather beautiful. It has a very large seat.

Here's a fun conversation that happens between Ana and Ponytail: 

". . . what are you planning to use it for?"
"Uh . . . e-mail."
"E-mail!" he chokes, raising his eyebrows with a slightly sick look on his face.

"And maybe Internet research?" I shrug apologetically.
He sighs.
"Well, this has full wireless N, and I've set it up with your Me account details. This baby is all ready to go, practically anywhere on the planet." He looks longingly at it.

You know how Mac guys are! Apple is all about making sure that its products are only useful to l33t hax0rs who need to do petaflops of gigawatts or whatever. So that's fun. I am also curious about in what sense this "baby" is ready to go "practically anywhere on the planet." I mean, in one sense, of course, you could bring your Macbook wherever you wanted. But it almost sounds like its "wireless N" and "Me account" mean that that this machine somehow has network access "practically anywhere on the planet" which is super dumb. Maybe CG should have sent Ana an Ipad with international roaming or something. That at least would have made some sense. Also: I like how much Ponytail is sexualizing this computer, which is exactly like every other Macbook, only with a comical amount of storage and RAM thrown in for no reason other than to be more.

Continuing on to the stupidest revelation of the book so far:

"Me account?"
"Your new e-mail address."
I have an e-mail address?

Gentle reader, EL would have us believe that Ana does not have an email address. This is literally impossible for a college student and has been since, when, the early 90s? Mid 90s? Every college student has been assigned, and expected to use, an email address for about twenty years. Doubtless longer at plenty of institutions. This section makes me more angry than any of the stupid shit I've put up with up until this point. I'm just offended by the idea that EL regards this as plausible. 

He points to an icon on the screen and continues to talk at me, but it's like white noise. I haven't got a clue what he's saying, and in all honestly, I'm not interested. Just tell me how to switch it on and off--I'll figure out the rest. After all, I've been using Kate's for four years.

1. Is "in all honestly" a typo, or a Britishism? I don't care, but I'll listen if you want to make a case one way or the other. 
2. The fact that she thinks "Just tell me how to switch it on and off" contradicts the notion that she's been using Kate's computer for four years. I imagine that Kate has the sort of computer you "switch on" by opening the thing up, and "switch off" by doing the reverse. Whatever. This whole thing is infuriating. 

I just want you to read this whole chapter with me while I yell at it, Mystery Science Theater style. You really need this whole dumb computer part to appreciate the full depths of its stupidity. 

Kate whistles, impressed, when she sees it.
"This is next-generation tech." She raises her eyebrows at me. "Most women get flowers or maybe jewelry," she says suggestively, trying to suppress a smile.
I scowl at her but can't keep a straight face. We both burst into a fit of giggles, and the computer man gapes at us, bemused. He finishes up and asks me to sign the delivery note.
As Kate shows him out, I sit with my cup of tea and open up the e-mail program, and waiting for me is an e-mail from Christian. My heart leaps into my mouth. I have an e-mail from Christian Grey. Nervously, I open it.

Ugh. No, this is not "next-generation tech," whatever that's supposed to mean. It's just a Macbook so let's all calm down, pretty please. Next: how do you interpret "she says suggestively"? I don't know what to do with it. Usually "suggestively" means "we're secretly talking about sex now" but I'm not sure that that makes any sense at all in this context. So what's she suggesting? Words mean things, EL! At least they used to.
Not sure what the hell everyone is giggling about. Also not sure what he "finishes up" since this is a computer, not a new washing machine. He isn't exactly doing some final adjustments with a wrench or whatever. And then the capper: OMG I HAS AN EMAILS! Why is this such a big deal? And why haven't they just been texting like regular people? Whatever.

I'm going to share with you the first email from CG so that you can note all the dumb headers and stuff. They appear every single time we see an email. The header, the signature, the timestamps, all of it. Groan. 

From: Christian Grey
Subject: Your New Computer
Date: May 22 2011 23:15
To: Anastasia Steele

Dear Miss Steele,
I trust you slept well. I hope that you put this laptop to good use, as discussed. 

I look forward to dinner Wednesday.

Happy to answer any questions before then, via e-mail, should you so desire.

Christian Grey
CEO, Grey Enterprises Holdings, Inc. 

I KNOW RIGHT? Jesus. Between them, we get 14 separate emails in this chapter alone. Each goddamn one has the whole thing. The Sender, the subject, the timestamp, CG's dumb signature. At least it means that the rest of this chapter goes super fast. Page 183, for instance, only has 34 new words, once you cut out the repeated garbage. So, thanks EL, I guess! 

Their first exchange is just a bunch of nonsense about how Ana ought to ask CG sex questions. Their back-and-forth isn't entertaining, really, but it feels a bit more natural than their actual conversations. Maybe it's because email involves that extra step of writing a thing and then deciding to send it. Their little jokes don't seem quite as stilted when they're delivered over email rather than face to face. 

After their morning exchange, we get about a half page of Ana going to her hardware store job and meeting up with José for coffee. I have no idea why. This is a prime example of EL just dumping some information on us with no hints about how it might further the plot or whatever. Next it's back to the emails, which are intolerably short and dumb. I don't think any of them are more than 140 characters, which makes it even more dumb that they aren't texting. And omigod Ana is so excited about email! This makes sense, I guess, since she's never sent or received one ever because she's a thawed-out cave person. 

CG chastises Ana for taking two whole minutes or whatever to email him instead of looking at internet porn so she understands BDSM. "While you are emailing, you are not researching." I think Ana should be all, "I got 32 gigs of RAM! I've got 200 tabs open! I'm multitasking like a mutterblusher!" 

Whatever. A couple of dumb emails later, and CG literally tells Ana to read wikipedia. "Always start with Wikipedia," he says. Groan.

I'll give you this last bit verbatim and then we'll be done with this dumb chapter.

I type "Submissive" into Wikipedia.
Half an hour later, I feel slight queasy and frankly shocked to my core. Do I really want this stuff in my head? Jeez--is this what he gets up to in the Red Room of Pain? I sit staring at the screen, and part of me, a very moist and integral part of me that I've only become acquainted with very recently, is seriously turned on. Oh my, some of this stuff is HOT. But is it for me? Holy shit . . . could I do this. I need space. I need to think. 

If you're interested: This entry does have one SUPER SEXY paragraph: 

In interpersonal relationships, some people prefer or are willing to adopt a submissive role in sexual activities or personal matters. The level and type of submission can vary from person to person, and from one context to another; and also is dependent on the other partner being willing to assume control in those situations. Some people can include occasional acts of submission in an otherwise conventional sex life, or adopt a submissive lifestyle. 

Right? I won't blame you if you need to take a break and take a cold shower or whatever. But, once you're ready to proceed, a question: have any of you read any of what wikipedia has to say about BDSM? Because I have. And it is not sexy. Why? Because I'm skeeved out by BDSM? No because it's wikipedia and nothing on wikipedia is sexy. 

There are so many better ways of doing this. In this "sexy" book the protagonist learns about BDSM in literally the least sexy way possible. Come on, EL! Have them go to some sex club together. Do some Eyes Wide Shut stuff. Or hell- have them rent The Story of O or whatever. The more I read this book, the more angry I get about how much it fails to actually do the thing you might expect it to do, which is to introduce an outsider to bondage. If you are actually curious about what CG is into, eleven chapters in, I guess you better go read wikipedia along with Ana, because this book isn't going to tell you anything!

"Slight queasy" is EL's typo, not mine, fyi. 

Let's end on this last thought: in this chapter, Ana tells us that she's only very recently become acquainted with email and her own vagina. These two ideas kind of tell you all you need to know about this book, I'm pretty sure. 

Next week: some very uncomfortable sex at Ana's house! 

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