Tuesday, July 30, 2013

50 Shades of the Complainist: Chapter 13

Ana and Christian negotiate their contract over dinner and it seems like things are going to get kind of hot but then they don't.

Let me start this week by mentioning that I'm in a better mood this week than last week and feel better able to further investigate Fifty Shades of Grey as a social phenomenon. Why? Because of the hundreds of clicks Chapter 12 received! Just kidding. It remains under fifty, and also, our little blog has been discovered by some manner of spam-robot, and so I fear that I'm getting an increased volume of "traffic" that isn't really traffic at all. Ah, well! These are the problems we face in the digital age! (These, and all the regular, real-world problems we haven't solved yet.)

Maybe I just liked this chapter more because no one gets tied up or has wine spat into her mouth? Who can even speculate! SPOILER ALERT: no one gets tied up or has any wine spit into her mouth in this chapter, so you'll want to stop here if you're just in it for the wine-spitting.

I do want to return to last week's chapter for a moment, though, and add a couple of caveats to some of my criticism. It's a terrible chapter--this is not a retraction or anything that bold.

I do want to make it clear that I understand the drive to take sex, add danger, and stir. My problem is that when this book pairs them together, the ratio of danger to sex is askew, and everything ends up being pretty gross and terrifying.

The "stuck in a rut" marriage between oldsters or middle-agesters is a pretty common cliché, but like most clichés, there's something obviously true at its core. (Editor's note: clichés are not to be confused with stereotypes, which are things made up by bigots.) Overfamiliarity can inspire boredom. Obviously. And, several chapters ago, when those crazy kids first took a long enough break from blushing and muttering and murmuring dryly to have sex, we talked about how there's only so much a reader can really get out of a straightforward sex scene.

But by making things dangerous the sexy writer (Not talking to you, EL.) creates tension. What we expect to happen might not happen at all, once danger is involved, so we better keep reading to find out! We all know this. This goes back forever. This goes back as far as Zeus turning into a rape-swan or Dracula biting ladies all sexy-like. Somebody has probably already written a book about how every "erotic thriller" is basically just Dracula repackaged, so I won't do so myself. But the thing about danger in a novel is that danger is a thing introduced by a villain, and a villain is someone to be thwarted and defeated.

So I'm not saying that I wish Ana and Christian could just meet and cute and and have 500 pages of undangerous sex because that would be terrible. Rather, I'm saying that in Dracula, Dracula is a sexy villain, and the point is that he's hard to fight because he's so sexy, but he's still a villain. Christian Grey is, in basically every regard, Dracula. I keep reading this book wanting to see Ana improve herself so that she can get away from Christian. But instead, the story is about Ana learning to reduce her own independence so that she can submit to Christian. Fifty Shades is like a weird version of Dracula in which Mina does her best to make sure that Dracula feels at home once he moves to London. (Editor's note: we're claiming that idea, so you owe us if you use it, Hollywood!) 

Extra note: I think it's important to separate EL's "literary" BDSM from the sorts of relationships people might have in the real world. Because in this book, CG's interest in kink is perfectly analogous to a vampire's need to bite people and drink their blood. And of course these things are not analogous in real life. But think about it: CG was essentially "infected" with kink at an early age, and now he desires nothing but to pass this "infection" on to Ana. And, it's incurable. Once a sex-vampire, always a sex-vampire!

Hm. I didn't plan on writing nearly so much about vampires to start this section, but then, this is a book about vampires, as we all know, so I guess I ought not be that surprised.

And now! Back to Mina and the Count!

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. 
  11. Ana reads the sex contract and gets a new computer from Christian and they exchange some emails and Ana reads about BDSM on wikipedia.
  12. Ana sends a "joke" email to Christian, telling him that she doesn't want to see him again, so he sneaks in and forces himself on her. 
The next day, Ana talks to her mom on the phone about how her mom's boyfriend / husband / something sprained his ankle so they can't go to her graduation. EL often gives us unbelievable explanations to questions we weren't even asking. In this case, the question no one was asking is "Why isn't Ana's mom coming to her graduation?" No one was asking because who cares? I didn't even go to my own college graduation. I was not in the slightest curious about who would or would not be attending Ana's. But, you see, the explanation for why her mother isn't attending is so fake-sounding that now I am curious! What're you covering up, Ana's mom? What's really going on here, and why won't anyone get to the bottom of it? Of course, nothing at all is going on, ever, but I'm always desperate for any sign that this book is going to unexpectedly get interesting, so I always jump on these odd little details. 

Then Ana decides to "fire up the e-mail program" because her goddamned computer is steam-powered or something. Ana can't use her computer with having to "fire up" something--either the entire machine, or a specific application. Whenever EL introduces a new character or some new element, she attaches one or two words and never separates them. So until the end of the book, and, I imagine, the entire trilogy, computers are just going to have to be fired up before they can be used. 

There's an email from CG. He's the kind of prick who pastes in dictionary definitions into emails in the most patronizing way possible. In this case, he puts in the definition of "submissive" after writing, "Following my more thorough examination of your issues, may I bring to your attention the definition of submissive." So pretty much he's like, "read the contract read the contract tell me what you think read the contract" and then when Ana does, and finds some parts she doesn't like, he gets all pouty and sniffs. Ugh. Then Ana sends back the definition of "compromise" and then there are two pages of them snipping at each other over whether or not CG will pick up Ana so that she doesn't have to drive. RIVETING. You know how all your emails are real boring, right? Especially emails that are all about "Oh hai when were we gonna do the thing at the place?" Their emails are equally super boring. 

Here's why Ana wants to drive herself to their dinner appointment: "Doesn't he understand that I may need to make a quick getaway? Not that my Beetle is quick . . . but still--I need a means of escape." Fun fact: lately I have this problem where I accidentally spell "escape" "excape" which I think you'll agree is at least as interesting as anything happening in this chapter so far. More important, let's just take a moment and think about how Ana wants to make sure that she has a means of excape. Not that it's weird to want an "out" from a date in case things don't go well, but I expect I'm not the only one who reads this as quite sinister and who has to wonder why she doesn't just skip the date in the first place, if she's so worried. (Editor's note: And she should be worried!)

Then Ana talks to her ex-stepdad Ray and whatever. Here's a part I like: Ray is about to watch a soccer match "so our conversation is mercifully brief." Hey Ana! You called him! If you don't wanna talk to him, maybe don't call him? Also Ray is my absolute favorite character because he's only appeared over the phone and only very briefly, and he is, like myself, a Seattle Sounders supporter which makes him the only character in this novel with whom I share even a single interest. I'm going to write a bunch of Ray fanfic about him going to soccer matches and drinking beer and eating garlic fries. 

The next day at the hardware store, this guy Paul whose family runs the store harasses Ana. "He follows me around the store all day asking me for a date. It's annoying." It's worse than annoying, Ana! Quit that dumb hardware store and sue. Don't let Paul do that shit. Then Ana goes home and worries about her date with CG and readers get to wonder why the hell all this other business was included in the chapter at all. The phone calls, the emails--what was the point? None of them furthered the plot. And none of these scenes that start the chapter contain any information that couldn't be given to us in a sentence or so. In particular, I wonder about the call between Ana and her mom, considering that Mom had already told all the pertinent information to Kate, who then relayed it to Ana. So why waste our time with this stuff? 

While working on this chapter I chatted with my cafe-writing friend about this blog a bit. (Editor's note: yes, Alden wrote the better part of this in public! He was a copy of 50 Shades sitting in plain sight! It's open though, so as to disguise the cover for reasons obvious.) And something we talked about is this curious impulse in fan-fiction to document the absolutely mundane. There's a variety of fanfic writer who wonders what it would be like if Kirk and Spock had sex and while I don't share that specific curiosity, I understand it, because that's at least about sex and sex is interesting. But there's this other variety who is less interested in Kirk and Spock having sex, and instead says, "Hey! I wonder what it's like on the Enterprise when there are no aliens around or conflicts or problems with the ship or anything at all. Like, what's it like on the Enterprise when nothing happens at all? What's that like, I wonder?"

If you look at fanfic websites, that's the main kind of story getting posted, other than the ones about unlikely sexual pairings. "Stories" in which nothing happens in the slightest. Where people just get up and eat breakfast or whatever and wonder around and do nothing. There is quite a bit of that in 50 Shades. A basically unbearable amount. 

For instance, we get this long sequence of Ana getting ready for her date. Yawn. Here's one part I do like because Ana is at least honest about how boring and worthless she is: "I wish I could feel more enthused about clothes and make an extra effort, but clothes are just not my thing. What is your thing, Anastasia? Christian's softly spoken question haunts me." Ha! Good question! I think that Ana's lack of enthusiasm for fashion is supposed to suggest to us that she's just naturally attractive without thinking about it or something but to me it just suggests that she's naturally boring. 

Then there's a whole paragraph about Ana getting ready or whatever, including some pit-shaving and it makes me wonder if there are any other novels out there that talk so mutterblushing much about armpits! I'm sure there's some obscure subgenre of erotica for armpit fetishists, but outside of that niche, I kind of expect this book is setting some kind of record. Then she puts on makeup: "None of my literary heroines had to deal with makeup--maybe I'd know more about it if they had." The thing I like about this is that actually, her literary heroines probably did wear makeup. They just didn't waste time talking about it. 

Ana drives to meet CG at the hotel bar. "Taking a deep breath and mentally girding my loins, I head into the hotel." I'm glad EL included that little word "mentally" in there. Otherwise I would've assumed that Ana were literally wrapping something around her crotch. Just a metaphor, folks! Don't worry!

Inside the bar, Ana and CG have some smalltalk and they're bad at smalltalk so that's awfully entertaining. Then it's on to contract talk! Yay!

"Relationships like this are built on honesty and trust," he continues. "If you don't trust me--trust me to know how I'm affecting you, how face I can go with you, how far I can take you--if you can't be honest with me, then we really can't do this."

Hey remember that one time when you came over to Ana's house unannounced and sneaked in and forced yourself on her? We do, because that was like ten pages ago! So while I applaud CG for summarizing the situation correctly, it's pretty funny that he somehow imagines himself worthy of trust. I mean, I suppose we all believe ourselves trustworthy, even if we aren't. But this is a man who openly states that he's likely to do something nutty just because a lady bites her lip in his presence. Sounds like not even Christian trusts Christian! so why should Ana? 

She doesn't, is the thing. All evidence is that she doesn't--she looked around for an escape route when he came to her house. And she insisted on driving herself to dinner so that she'd be able to bounce. But CG manages to coerce consent out of her in the heat of the moment. And now, in the relatively calm atmosphere of the hotel bar, Ana stalls. That's the only real explanation for her failure to answer the question. 

Ana makes this super funny joke after changing the subject and asking about CG's previous submissives: "Is there a store you go to? Submissives 'R' Us?" EL even managed to make the "R" face backwards! Hilarious! Pure, pure genius! CG laughs, but I think a better answer would've been, "Yeah, Ana! There's a store where I buy people! Only they're real expensive and that's why I'm being so pushy with you. Just trying to save a little money!"

Ana on trust: "Do I trust him? Is that what this all comes down to--trust? Surely that should be a two-way thing. I remember his snit when I phoned José."

Well, it doesn't all come down to trust. There are going to be some other factors, too. There are people I trust, but I don't necessarily want them to tie me up and make out with my feet. But yeah--if you don't trust CG--and you don't, maybe break up with him for real, Ana! I like how she suggests that trust "should be a two-way" thing since, yes, it should, of course, but it's currently a zero-way thing!

The moment at which Alden decides that Ana actually does have an eating disorder:

"Are you hungry?" he asks, distracting me from my thoughts.
Oh no . . . food.
"Have you eaten today?"
I stare at him. Honesty . . . Holy crap, he's not going to like my answer.

"No." My voice is small.

Let's just get my disclaimer out of the way: CG is a dick and a bully, and I don't have any idea what one ought to do for someone with an eating disorder (other than try to get that person to talk to somebody who does know what to do) but I know enough to know that CG being a bully is completely the opposite of what's appropriate.

But still! At every other point when CG was doing his food-bully thing, he's accusing Ana of not eating enough, as though he were a parent hectoring a fussy child. This time, Ana says she hasn't eaten all day, and what's more, she's on a dinner date, and says she isn't hungry. Doesn't even have the sense to figure out how to keep up appearances: "I had to take a late lunch, so I'm not exactly starving." So either A) Ana literally has an eating disorder or B) She's so put off by CG that his presence in her life robs her of her ability to eat meals like a healthy person. Either way! Not good. Healthy people don't just not eat all day and then say that they don't need dinner, either. 

But of course, CG bullies her into dinner. "We can eat down here or in my suite. What would you prefer?" And eating dinner in a hotel suite is crazy so they don't do that and also Ana remains terrified of CG and explicitly tells him that she wants to stay in public so he doesn't do any rapes. "I think we should stay in public, on neutral ground." You know! Like for the Superbowl. Fun. 

They go to a private tiny dining room which, for the sake of proceeding in a timely fashion, we should all just agree to pretend is a real thing. Sure, "an intimate dining room. Just one secluded table. The room is small but sumptuous." Probably this is a real thing but you only get to find out about it if you're a rich jerk? Maybe! 

"I've ordered already. I hope you don't mind."
Frankly, I'm relieved. I'm not sure I can make any further decisions.

Note that Ana hasn't made any decisions. CG asked her if she wanted to eat in his suite or "down here" and then when Ana asked to eat somewhere public, he busted out a third option that wasn't on offer, but became the rule. So Ana kind of made one decision, or rather, kind of expressed an opinion, and then had it ignored. Hard to see how she could make any "further" decisions when she hasn't made any to start with. ("I've had nothing yet," Alice replied in an offended tone, "so I can't take more.")

CG is strangely easygoing about Ana's contract concerns. The whole situation is ridiculous, of course, but CG basically yields to Ana's first few desired modifications and, I must say, is basically reasonable. I mean, he still holds enormous power over Ana and is still a huge prick and all that, but Ana was assuming that this was going to be a big fight but it's actually quite muted. 

The waiter brings some food. "How can I possibly eat? Holy Moses--he's ordered oysters on a bed of ice." 

ZOMG OYSTERS! I wonder if Ana has ever been to the northwest, where a lot of fancy restaurants have oysters, which, if served on the half-shell, are often served on ice. Oh well! Maybe she'll visit some day!

This oyster scene is the kind of scene that, in a different context, could be a cool double entendre, but because Ana and CG have done a bunch of sex already, it's just a waste of time. 

I reach across and pick up my first-ever oyster. Okay . . . here goes nothing. I squirt some lemon juice on it and tip it up. It slips down my throat, all sea water, salt, the sharp tang of citrus, and fleshiness . . . ooh. I lick my lips, and he's watching me intently, his eyes hooded.
"I'll have another," I say dryly. 

DO YOU GET IT GUYS? SEE WHAT SHE DID THERE LOL. Ugh. You know what would make this scene totally worth it? If later on, Ana were to squeeze a lemon on CG's wiener. And say, "Here goes nothing!" (Editor's note: Alden sometimes does these jokes that he thinks are super hilarious, but that he worries are not fit for public consumption. The editorial staff leaves some of them in to keep him from whining, but most of them we remove ahead of time so that they don't bother you.)

This "seductive" moment is one of the parts of this chapter that made me feel like maybe the book ought to just start at Chapter 13. Here's what I'm saying: the "plot" (such as it is) remains stuck on its only point: will Ana sign the thing, or not? During this chapter, Ana actually forces the issue, at least as much as she ever forces an issue. She arrives intending to have the debate, but waffles. But at least she tries! And, at least compared to the rest of this book, I kinda like this dinner scene. We see Ana get all hot and bothered despite trying to play cool, and CG, for the first time, makes some kind of attempt to suggest that his sex contract might be fun for Ana, too, and not just for himself. 

Here's what I'm really saying:
If, for some reason, I have failed to convince you to never ever read this book, I hope I can at least convince you that there is absolutely no reason to read anything prior to Chapter 13. Perhaps nobody ever shared this valuable bit of wisdom with EL: start telling the story at the last possible minute. My advice in writing workshops to writers of short stories is basically always this: Cut the first seven pages. I'm assuming that the story is twenty-or-so pages long. The first seven can almost always go, and the remaining thirteen will be better for it. (Editor's note: the only reason that Alden is immune to his own advice is that his stories are usually only seven pages long total, so he really should just cut the first three pages instead.)

This book would be way stronger if it started with this chapter. Mostly that's only true because it's super terrible, and so less would certainly be more. But being more generous: nothing has changed between Ana and CG over the course of the first twelve chapters. And this is a romance! So the whole story is just changes in their relationship! So if their relationship isn't changing, the story isn't going anywhere, and I'm bored. 

Back to the oysters:
"Did you choose these deliberately? Aren't they known for their aphrodisiac qualities?"
"No, they are the first item on the menu. I don't need an aphrodisiac near you. I think you know that, and I think you react the same way near me," he says simply. "So where were we?" He glances at my e-mail as I reach for another oyster.
He reacts the same way. I affect him . . . wow.

"Did you choose these deliberately?" Better response: No I ordered them accidentally, like often happens at restaurants. What an aggressively stupid question. 

But here's the thing! CG's answer is actually more dumb than Ana's dumb question! "No, they are the first item on the menu." She asks if he chose his restaurant order deliberately, and against all odds, the answer is no! No, he just ordered whatever was at the top! Stunning. CG's order-whatever's-listed-first system is certainly a better way to order a meal than letting Ana look at the menu and compare the things on the menu to her own pre-existing opinions about food!

Next, we get one of those modifiers I hate: "he says simply." Here's a fun game: try substituting an adverb for its opposite and see if the resulting phrase makes any goddamn sense at all: "he says complicatedly." NOPE! No sense. So what does it mean for CG to say these words "simply"? No idea.  

And next, we get Ana being shocked again that CG feels feels about her. We're a little too far in for this sort of amazement, Ana! Have you been reading this book while you've been narrating it? Because every other pages, CG is basically like, "OMG Ana! I like you so much I have to do sexcrimes!"

They talk about submission and obedience and Ana keeps eating oysters and says that she trusts CG despite all evidence to the contrary. Fancy dinner arrives and Ana thinks, "I have never felt less like food," which makes sense if you assume that oysters aren't food. 

They keep talking about different stuff from the contract. Ana is adamant about not letting CG tell her what to eat, but I doubt I'm the only one who finds this bit pretty weird: "I am so not backing down on this. No one is going to dictate to me what I eat. How I fuck, yes, but eat . . . no, no way." 

That's a weird paragraph, right? Most people would consider both strange, but not Ana! "One makes sense! The other is madness!" Whatever.

But, CG concedes the point. He seems almost willing to compromise! Here's another weird part, though:

"Why can't I look at you?"
"That's a Dom/sub thing. You'll get used to it."

That's not an answer! "Oh that? That's just one of the arbitrary rules in this arbitrary system of rules. No big deal." Yet she puts up with it. And then asks why CG doesn't want her to touch him, which he also dodges. 

The next couple pages they engage in a little verbal tug-of-war and it's literally the first part of this book that's at all clever. Ana flips around from refusing food to using it as a stall tactic--she insists she wants to eat just as CG starts to push things toward sex. And it's fun because it's well established that Ana never wants to eat anything ever and that she also wants to have sex with CG. So, credit where credit is due! On page 224, EL James attempts to add some subtext to a conversation and it kind of works! Give her a medal! Or another billion dollars! I don't care. 

"If you were my sub, you wouldn't have to think about this. It would be easy." His voice is soft, seductive. "All those decisions--all the wearying though processes behind them. The 'is this the right thing to do? Should this happen here? Can it happen now? You wouldn't have to worry about any of that detail. That's what I'd do as your Dom. And right now, I know you want me, Anastasia." 

There you have it! On page 224, CG actually tries to describe an aspect of the Dom/sub relationship he desires in a way that could conceivably be attractive to Ana! Good jorb, Christian! It particularly works because Ana has already been all, "Ugh! Decisions! Who needs 'em? Or the right to make 'em?" I don't need to like CG for this scene to work, which is good, because I hate him and always will. But at least EL gives us an opportunity to see how Ana might be intrigued. 

But just as Ana starts to gain the upper hand, she peaces out. This is the first time El manages to create some actual sexual tension, and she lets it dissipate right away. Not that I want them to have sex at the restaurant or whatever. But this would be a great opportunity to let Ana skip away in triumph. Instead, she slinks off like usual.

Next, CG makes Ana wear his jacket because he has not heard of science: "Here. I don't want you catching cold." Ugh. Also, those of you following along at home may note that it is late May in Portland when this scene takes place. Portland is not the tropics, no, but it's a late spring evening and it just isn't cold. It's almost certainly in the 60s or lower 70s and Ana will be quite comfortable standing outside in this sort of temperature for two minutes or however long it takes for the valet to return with her car. Whatever. 

Next CG freaks out about Ana's shitty car, and Ana mounts this defense: "Okay, she's old. But she's mine, and she's roadworthy. My stepdad bought it for me." Interesting. It's weird when people personify objects like this, right? They know that English doesn't really use gendered pronouns for inanimate objects, right? Also, Ana makes it even stranger by switching from "she" to "it" so hastily. 

Then pretty much Ana just cries for the rest of the chapter. First in her car, and then at home. It's the same thing again: "I like him and he's good at sex but also he's dangerous and I want just a regular boyfriend and he doesn't want to be a regular boyfriend." I'm basically zipping through the last few pages because this chapter actually does some things right, but then pisses away all the goodwill it earned by making sure that, once again, things end exactly as they began. The same conflict is in the exact same spot. So, hell. I don't know. Maybe the book should really start at Chapter 14, instead? Maybe this chapter is as much of a waste as all the others? 


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