Tuesday, October 29, 2013

50 Shades of the Complainist: Chapter 25

Ana flies back to Seattle and then she has sex with Christian.

They have some sex. Using restraints and sensory deprivation. Whatever. I keep expecting stuff to get crazier, but nope! 

Someone named Jamie Dornan is the new Christian Grey, until he wises up and quits, just like that motorcycle dude did. I have no idea who this is. I haven't seen any of his listed credits on IMDB. Hell--I haven't even heard of any of his credits except for Marie Antoinette and that was basically his first credit so he's probably just a dude that opens up a door and says, "Oh, whuddup, Mary-A!" (I assume that's the sort of line that probably gets said in Marie Antoinette. Whatever.)

I'm basically going to do the same thing I do when following a political race: I immediately think best of the person I know the least about, because I don't have any real basis for hatred yet. So good luck, Jamie! Also: who cares? Also, IMDB offers this particularly useless bit of trivia: "Played a serious level of rugby in his native Ireland." What does that mean? No idea. Is this what his friends said before they staged a rugby intervention? "Jamie, we all love you, but we just need to talk for a moment about your rugby level. It's serious." 

But anyway, Jamie, if you are reading this, best of luck! Should you go through with this, 50 Shades will probably make you rich and ruin your career at the same time, as you'll be forever associated with this garbage. (Editor's note: this is also Alden's plan. He's weighed his options, and is happy making this his first and last book. Also, the publishing rights are still for sale. Ahem.)


The Penultimate Chapter!

Last week I got all sad and moped about how little plot this book's got. Basically none! I do whine about this basically every week, but it's only as we approach the end of this mess that the real "shape" of the "plot" becomes entirely apparent. I mean, I should've figured this out earlier, but only now can we start to reflect back on the earlier chapters and take note of all the possible plot threads that EL James introduces only to abandon:

  • José as secondary love-interest 
  • Kate as foil for Christian
Not very many! Almost none, actually! But let's do another list of all the little side-ideas that EL made us think were maybe going to go somewhere:

  • José's photography show. Was every important at about Chapter 3 but now I don't even know if it's a thing.
  • Ana was once upset about CG spending lots of money on her. He's spending more than ever, but we're talking about it less.
  • Ana's job search was resolved with absolutely no strain or plot implications.
  • It seemed as though there might be some stress related to our heroes meeting each other's families, but these meetings were completely amicable and worry-free once they actually happened.
  • CG presented Ana with a pretty complicated list of sex-stuff, but in practice, all he wants is for her to hold still and act like a corpse while they do the deed, so his personal sexual tastes haven't really affected the story nearly as much as his general dickishness. 

If EL would've developed either of the two listed (reasonably good!) potential subplots as subplots, maybe I wouldn't be quite so depressed right now! Having José as a sort of "anti-Christian" competing for Ana's affections and having Kate actively trying to chase Christian off would've given Ana something like an actual conflict to resolve. Even better if we were to also see more of Elliot. It's completely weird that Ana and her bff are dating brothers, but why not use it? EL could do far more to paint Elliot and Kate as a sort of happy, alternate-universe version of Ana and CG. She hints at it, but never uses it.

Even if readers split off into "Team Christian" and "Team José" factions we all still probably would've realized that Ana and CG were going to end up together in the end. But that's ok! This is commercial storytelling! It's not like when I go see the Transformers fight the Decepticons I think for even a moment that the Decepticons will win. That's not the point. In this kind of "junk food" entertainment, we're not really wondering how the thing is going to end. We know how it's going to end. What's entertaining is being surprised about the twists and turns the story takes before arriving at its scheduled destination.

So how does 50 Shades measure up? Not very well! Let's look at a sort of "default" romance plot, rephrased for more inclusive times:  person meets person, person loses person, person does some stuff and gets person back, and also maybe there's a cool montage. To generalize: the romance plot depends upon some kind of external obstacle which keeps apart two people we'd like to see together.

Right? Great. So what happens in this story? They get together immediately, and face no external obstacles. All the potential external obstacles are abandoned, and we just have the fact that CG is a shitty person and Ana is a complete maroon. I've discussed this before, I'm sure, but here I am again: the only thing keeping these two from having a happy relationship is that they're just not right for each other.

So instead of a story that's about some likable characters overcoming obstacles, what we have is some unlikable characters moping around until they decide that maybe they should just stay together because of inertia. Riveting!

Meaning this: This love story is basically the story of every shitty relationship ever, except for the part where the guy is a billionaire and has a specific sexual requirements. 

That's a weird genre of erotica, right?

But where were we?

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

50 Shades of the Complainist: Chapter 24

Ana and Christian fly around in a glider.

I'm going to spend a long time right at the top talking more about the sex from the previous chapter. Skip ahead to the jump if you want to miss out on that. Later on, I'm going to spend a lot of time wishing that Ana and Christian would hurry up and have breakfast-sex at IHOP, but that's just wishful thinking on my part. They don't actually do it. 

Those of you who read my take on Chapter 23 may be asking the same question I'm asking:

Wait, so this is supposed to be sexy? 

It is, right? Isn't that the whole idea? People using the phrase "mommy porn" are all idiots--there's nothing about this mess that suggests that it's aimed at mothers in any way. But, it is decidedly pornographic. Or, if that's too strong a term, it's supposed to be erotic at least, right? Isn't "erotica" just like, porn for snobs?

Here's what I'm stuck on: nothing happened in Chapter 23 at all, like usual. Pretty much it was just about Christian meeting Ana's mom, Carla, and Carla insisting that Ana head upstairs and have sex with CG, despite CG's obvious stalker tendencies.

And then they did have sex. And the first thing about that sex scene that's striking is Ana's absolute dependence on Christian. She's oddly removed from her own body--only enjoying herself when she cedes control to Christian and then takes things one step further, essentially experiencing her own sexuality exclusively through Christian's eyes. You're familiar with the concept of the male gaze? Shorthand for the way that art (visual art most obviously but the idea can be applied more generally) on the whole presumes a male audience--and to go further, a straight, white, male audience. Ana is portrayed in Chapter 23 as essentially needing to adopt this male gaze as her own and use it to perceive herself.

Part of what fascinates me about this terrible book and its popularity is this sort of contradiction. Here we have what is ostensively pornography for women, written by a woman, but a scenario that is completely geared toward a man's experience of sex.

This makes me think Bic's "Cristal" [sic] ballpoint pens. Finally! A pen for women! The listing on Amazon for Cristal is one of those delightful community satire projects that crop up on Amazon from time to time. Most of the reviews are, as you would expect, bitterly sarcastic. And they should be! Because it's just a mutterblushing pen! My understanding is that ladies have managed to write with the same pens as men for quite some time. At least as far back as Title 9, right?

And that's my question with 50 Shades. It's all the same ideas, the same scenarios you'd expect if this thing were aimed at men, instead. There's some pseudoscience that will tell you that men and women's brains are wired differently or have different bumps or whatever and that's why men like porn and women "don't" but it seemed intuitive to me (even pre-50 Shades) that maybe if someone tried to sell porn to women that actually presumed that perhaps women were human beings with opinions and desires, there just might be a market!

50 Shades proves this. . . . sort of. Millions of women have read it! But also EL's portrayal of Ana Steele is endlessly degrading. Ana is a complete doofus. She lacks any agency, any subjectivity. She requires a man's instruction in order to derive any pleasure from the body that she quite literally drags around with her everywhere she goes.

So what I'm saying is, it turns out that it wasn't even necessary to adjust the sexist assumptions of pornography in order to sell a commodity tailored for straight men to straight women. You just have to package it differently, and distribute it through different channels. That's the real difference here, right? 50 Shades found an audience through networks of Twilight fans and through internet fanfic sites and then exploded via Amazon and Kindle. These are not places that straight men are venturing when they're feeling horny, I expect. So maybe that's the lesson. The way to sell porn to women is just to sell it out a different door. Good job, capitalism!

Here's what I'm really trying to figure out, though:
Why was it so important for EL James to stage a sex scene while Ana was menstruating?

The Complainist's resident medical advisor offered, unsolicited, her take:

"Can I offer a lady person's perspective on the last published 50 Shades chapter? Gross. Yeah, mostly gross."

This is reassuring to me in two ways. First, I work from the assumption that men and women aren't nearly as different as our popular entertainments, lazy comedians, and so on would have us believe. But despite this assumption, I do recognize that there's something potentially offensive about a man (me!) heaping such clever insults at a book marketed as entertainment for women. (Editor's note: and here we are excluding EL James herself, whom we actively seek to offend.) There's that chance that someone will try to convince me that I simply don't get it, because I'm a dude. So! I am always particularly reassured when women agree with me. Because some of my best friends are women! I swear!

Second, as readers who know me in real life understand, our resident medical advisor shares my actual residence. And so little would trouble me more than to learn that she found any of this book appealing. You, gentle reader, may have learned some troubling things about me as we've shared this time together, but I have not yet learned anything troubling about anyone else, and I do hope that remains unchanged.

But back to Ana and what is, perhaps, the bloodiest sex scene in popular fiction: why? Why, why, why? What did EL James seek to accomplish in Chapter 23, when she showed us so very much about Ana's uterus?

As I often find when trying to make sense of this dumb book, I can come up with a few plausible answers, but they all seem insufficient, so I don't trust any of them. Here are a few plausible answers, all of which fail under actual scrutiny:

  1. CG's willingness to do it every single day of the month means that he's particularly generous and considerate of Ana's desires. Interesting theory! It's too bad that it's contradicted by the whole rest of the book, since CG is not at all generous nor considerate. Besides, if he were really being considerate, he could've been like, "Oh, is this an awkward time? Why don't you tell me using words what sort of sex things you'd enjoy doing on this particular night, and we can do those things, and I won't be disappointed if the things on your list don't match up perfectly with the things I'd most like to do myself." You know--instead of acting totally unilaterally. (Side note: this draws attention to just how limited CG's actual sexual repertoire is. He's basically limited to missionary plus restraints. Yawn.)
  2. EL probably chose to talk about Ana's period because EL is such a stickler for realism. This is a real-life thing, so shouldn't it be part of this very realistic novel? It is true that EL does often overwhelm with pointless details that any other writer would skip, but come on. The pointless details are not because EL wants to be realistic. They're a result of EL's writing process, which mostly involves treading water in between arguments or sex scenes. Plus, the sex was already the least realistic part of the book. 
  3. The fact that Ana's on her period makes the scene extra sexy for the reader! This isn't true, is it? I'm pretty sure this isn't true. At least, that wasn't my experience, nor the experience of my medical advisor, but I suppose your opinion could vary? Seriously though: go ahead. Tell me if you think this is anything but the worst! You can even do it anonymously! I don't care! But don't lie to me. Only post anonymously that you enjoyed it if you did. I don't need a bunch of trolls, trolls!
  4. This is just more vampire shit, right? I guess this is most likely. The whole scene was just some vampire bullshit that got left over from a previous draft in which Christian was literally a vampire. Which, in a way, makes it worse, right? 
Seriously, though--if anybody wants to explain to me how any of this is hot, I promise to listen! Because it would be way more fun to read this mess if I found any of it hot. 

But where were we?

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

50 Shades of the Complainist: Chapter 23

Christian meets Ana's mom and then Ana and Christian have sex in Christian's hotel room.

There will be blood.

(Editor's note, Monday, 7:47PDT: Alden is once again, behind schedule. We told him to take the week off, but he called us "mutterblushers" and threw a bottle at us. So, despite our suggestion, and the advice of his doctors, Alden decided to power through and complete this essay in a single evening, fueled only by a cocktail of cocktails and his own rage. The decreasing quality that you will doubtless detect as you approach the end of this essay is due to the author's inebriation and the lateness of the hour. Enjoy!)

Right! Starting this off completely sober (Editor's note: Well, basically sober. One beer, so far.) but with no idea at all what actually happens in this chapter. It used to be that I'd read through the chapter, then go through it a second time while taking notes. This is probably why my earlier summaries were more coherent. But let's be real: I've got senior-itis. I'm about to graduate from this dumb book and I've already been accepted at my backup college, so we're working kind of fast and loose here. Whatever. I'm still probably putting in more effort than the author of the original source material. 

One note from last week:
I made a whole thing out of this particular sentence: "And my period has started, so I must remember to take my pill in the morning." I received a consultation from The Complainist's house medical expert (a real doctor!) who noted that those starting a birth-control regimen are sometimes advised to start said regimen when their period starts. The reason for this is simple: that way, you know you weren't pregnant when you started your prescription. 

My version, to be fair, was funnier. But this does get at a deeper issue. Ana mentions taking a pill in Chapter 22. She was prescribed her pill in Chapter 18. That feels like forever ago! But, in fact, it was basically one weekend! Chapters 18-20 all take place during a single obnoxious day. Chapter 21 is the day after that. And Chapter 22 is the day after Chapter 21. So to me, it felt like Ana had been on the pill for ages but now that I look at it more carefully, she was only written a prescription a couple days ago and omigod this book is so slow. It's almost unbelievable how little is happening in this thing. 

And now, for a bunch more nothing!

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

50 Shades of the Complainist: Chapter 22

Ana flies to Georgia and then Christian flies to Georgia.

Christian does the stalker-type stuff that he always does.

I declared in the beginning of 2013 that I was going to spend too much money on stereo equipment and write a book. I have, effectively, accomplished both of these goals (Editor's note: "predictions" might be more fair here.) although not quite in the manner I expected. You see, I have basically written an entire book about Fifty Shades of Grey.

In total, I've written about 125,000 words about this dumb book. Has anyone written more about it, by volume? I don't know. I mean, probably, but I only say that because I just seem an unlikely person to have written the most criticism about 50 Shades. I have no evidence. I'm sure that there are plenty of people who've written a million words or more of 50 Shades fanfic, and I see from a quick check of Amazon that there are a number of digital-only parody versions and a surprising number of tangentially related cookbooks. But I don't see anything like a readers' guide, which I guess I'm kind of working on in my own bitter way.

Now all I have to do is convince some risk-taking publisher that the inevitable movie-backlash is going to make my brand of snark a lucrative investment. This thing is probably worth hundreds of dozens of dollars, right? I'm assuming that the price of the paperback version of this book (Editor's note: the only print version.) will be ten dollars, and that it will sell more than 200 copies.

I'll also clean it up a bit, make it a little less bloggy, and not mention as often how much I'm drinking while doing this. Or maybe that's what people want? Even more cocktail recipes? Not sure! But in any case, that's what I'll be up to in a couple weeks when our heroes have concluded the first third of their adventures: trying to get in on some of that sweet, sweet, 50 Shades cheddar.

But first! A trip to Georgia!

Friday, October 4, 2013

50 Shades of the Complainist: Catching up before the final 5 chapters

The following is a special note for anyone just joining us. Sure, we'd love it if you started from the beginning, but you can also just start here! If you're lazy! We understand lazy! You merely adopted laziness. We were born in it, molded by it, so we know where you're coming from. Start here! And follow along as we speed along to the unthrilling conclusion of Fifty Shades of Grey.

This is it, Complainers! (Editor's note: that's a cool collective term for anybody who's ever read this blog, right? Complainers? No?) Just five chapters separate us from the end of Fifty Shades of Grey, the inexplicably popular novel we've been insulting in surgical detail.

One might even say robo-surgical detail!
Many of you have been with us since the beginning, and we thank you. Still more have checked in now and then, and we thank you, too, but we can't help but wonder quite why you skipped 15.2, for instance. (Editor's note: We know you skipped 15.2. Everyone skipped 15.2.) 

But still others may have heard about our little project and said, "Wow this seems fun, but since I wasn't on board from the beginning, jumping in now would be akin to leaping into the DC Universe, and by that I mean jumping in at some point other than one of their frequent reboots!"

Never fear! This special update is for you! These are some extra notes to help you join us as we count down to the ridiculous conclusion of this ridiculous book. This is going to be kind of like that time I had a housemate who was way into Sex in the City and and I watched the last five episodes with her and was all like, "Oh, snap! Turns out Baryshnikov is a real jerk! I feel so invested!" (Editor's note: this will totally make sense to you if you're a huge Sex in the City fan like we are.) That's all you need--a real "fan" to sit on the couch with you for these last few outings, and then you'll have no trouble following all the novel's nuances as we rocket toward its stunning conclusion.

First thing to note is that there are no nuances. Just one uninteresting conflict, attacked again and again in essentially the same ways: Recent college grad Ana Steele has a billionaire boyfriend named Christian Grey who's possessive, cold, demanding, mercurial, and terrifying. But, he's super good at sex, so maybe Ana should stay with him after all?

That's basically the whole story. Author EL James uses two sorts of scenes throughout the novel: 1) jerk scenes which show us how much of a jerk Christian is, and 2) sex scenes which show us how good he is at sex.

The unfortunate thing about this book is that EL is far more convincing in the jerk scenes than in the sex scenes. As in, yes, EL is utterly successful in making me hate CG (Editor's note: We use a lot of shortcuts here. Because lazy.) when that's her plan, but terrible at making me feel like he's got redeeming qualities and terrible at making me think that he's sexy. He seems just as unpleasant in the bedroom as he seems anywhere else.

About the sex: yes, they have a bunch of sex. You probably know that this book features not just sex, but a particular sort of sex. You know--kinky sex. Now, I don't know about you, but I'm not very interested in having kinky sex, but if someone wants to write about it a way that sounds compelling, I have no qualms about reading.

EL does not make it sound compelling, however. Instead, she makes it sound pretty much boring, and also? Not even that kinky. Early on, Christian gives Ana this whole long list of stuff that she's to do and not do in order to fulfill her part of their mutual BDSM relationship. The list is super-detailed, and mostly names stuff that Ana must not do. It also has a list of sex-stuff that CG wants Ana to agree to do. It's presented in blandly clinical detail, but it's still Christian's sexual wish list, and it's lengthy.

It makes the reader expect that some complicated stuff is going to go down, but the reader's expectations are proved false. Christian and Ana have basically regular sex, aside from the fact that Ana is basically forbidden from ever moving (sometimes restraints are involved, sometimes not) and sometimes gets spanked. Ana enjoys herself, which is great for her, but this reader finds the scenes dull. Maybe you will find this sort of thing interesting, but to me, the power dynamics of their relationship makes the sex less sexy, not more.

In essence, it feels to me like EL James is borrowing some of the trappings of BDSM culture, but none of the content. She's taking a relationship that is borderline abusive, but using the jargon of BDSM to make it sound like what Ana and CG have is something novel, when instead, they have something completely mundane: a relationship where one party calls all the shots and the other party is mainly miserable but is offered just enough affection at just the right time to consider it worth sticking around for another day. Fun, right!?

Also, nothing ever happens in this book. It's just a lot of Ana worrying about whether or not things are working well between her and Christian (they aren't!) and then the two of them having sex. Occasionally, other people are brought in, but they only appear to give further expression to this central, boring conflict. For instance, Ana's roommate Kate shows up periodically to tell Ana that her relationship is shitty, but Ana never listens.

Kate is the only person we might call a secondary character. Everyone else is tertiary at best. There's José, a guy who likes Ana, but he's just in the background so that Christian has someone to be jealous of for no reason. There's also Elliot, Christian's brother, who is also Kate's boyfriend. While it is super weird that these two brothers are dating roommates, no one ever comments on how weird this is. This is true of a lot of the super weird things that happen in this book all the time.

A lot of this weirdness is due to the fact that, when she wrote the book, the author (who is English) had never been to Seattle, where her novel is set. I'm sure that thousands of Americans have written novels set in London despite never having been, so I can't be too upset. But I am surprised by just how poor a job EL does of making her characters seem American. Isn't American culture totally inescapable? Don't we push it all over the globe and make it nearly impossible for anyone, particularly in the English-speaking world, to not know exactly what's going on in American pop culture?

I guess the answer is "no," much to my surprise. EL James is proof that you can live in England and find Americans totally baffling, because no one in this book sounds American. I'm not saying that they sound British because I lack that expertise. But they don't sound like Americans. It's one of the factors that makes dialogue almost impossible to trudge through.

Right. So if you're jumping in now, don't worry that you've missed out on any plot, because you haven't missed any plot at all, since there isn't any. The only thing that might interest you at all is know that, at the end of Chapter 21, Ana made her way to the airport to get some time apart from Christian at her mother's house in Georgia.

Some things happened, sure, but none that matter to your understanding of the end of the book. It would be wrong to call this book "episodic" because that implies lots of little plots, the way that a TV show is "episodic." This has no small plots and no big plots. Just a bunch of tension due to the fact that CG is a terrible boyfriend and often seems like he just might murder Ana or, at the very least, lock her in a dungeon. (Editor's note: his condo does have a sex dungeons, so you never know!) There's tension, and every once in a while it gets resolved temporarily because Ana generally has a nice time when they have sex with each other, which allows for a period of calm between them. But then that calm leaves us, and the exact same tension returns.

So please, jump in next week! No reason not to worry that you won't understand what's going on. Basically nothing ever goes on, and in many cases, having actually read the book isn't very useful as preparation anyway, since the actual events tend to be so ridiculous. And if you enjoy some of these final chapters, please to go back and revisit some of the earlier entries. *

*I think the first few are probably the funniest, because each subsequent chapter makes me more jaded, miserable, and less capable of being hilarious. Hence the diminishing returns. 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

50 Shades of the Complainist: Chapter 21

Ana has an interview for an internship with a publishing company and then she goes to the airport.

This chapter is heroically dull. 

Ugh even I didn't think the notes on that last chapter were very entertaining, and nobody likes my jokes more than I do. So if I didn't thoroughly enjoy myself, the rest of you had little hope. At least we'll get to learn this week whether or not Ana will manage to buy a ticket to Georgia on the same day that she flies. Oh! And maybe we'll come to learn why she lives in Seattle and her mom lives in Georgia. See? This could be better! We could really get somewhere this week! I'm feeling optimistic!

Wait! I just remembered that 50 Shades wine is a thing and now I'm sad again. One great thing about writing these essays is that now my friends have made me a sort of clearing house for all 50 Shades news and non-news. This is fun for me keep it up not even being sarcastic! Or maybe I am and can't tell the difference anymore because reading this book has alienated me from genuine human emotions!

Either way, you want to know about EL's wine, right? Great! Figured you would! Allow the LA Times to catch you up to speed. I'll wait!

Back? Great! I think it only appropriate that this terrible wine designed to cash in on the fame of a terrible book gets a terrible article. First, the headline: "'Fifty Shades of Grey' wines now available -- handcuffs not included." Heehee. It's funny because Christian is always using handcuffs on Ana! (Editor's note: so far, Ana has not once worn handcuffs.)

But wait! There's more! 

"If you'll actually admit to reading any of the 'Fifty Shades of Grey' novels, and don't pretend you've never heard of them, you know wine plays a large part in the book. For one thing, the characters are always drinking it."

Wine plays a pretty trivial role in this book. Or, maybe I just drink so much trying to get through this that I no longer can tell what's a normal amount of wine to drink? This is possible. The only particular wine thing I can think of is that one part where Christian spits wine into Ana's mouth and now I kind of think that anyone who drinks this stuff should have to have it spat into their mouth. 

Oh but I'll write a thorough review if you send me a bottle. Also now I'm amusing myself by imagining someone ordering it at a restaurant. "Now I don't see it on the wine list here, but, um, might you have a bottle of 2009 Fifty Shades of Grey Red Satin?" he murmured dryly. 

That "2009" part was not a typo. The red is advertised as having been vinted in 2009, two years before Ana and Christian met. What foresight! The website for the wine almost makes it sound like they want me to think that EL had something to do with this other than cashing a check. "I’ve always had a penchant for good wine, so combining two of my passions to blend Red Satin and White Silk was a natural extension of the Fifty Shades trilogy." 

You see? This is totally natural! In fact it's weird that it took this long for this bad idea to finally happen. But seriously--by advertising this stuff as a 2009, they're at least showing some decency. I would've assumed that this wine was some undrinkable garbage found in an abandoned tank somewhere (what my winemaking father would refer to as "otter water" which is a hilarious thing to call bad wine!) but by letting me know that this was made in 2009, I now know that this wine is some undrinkable garbage found in an abandoned tank somewhere. 

(Editor's note: EL, if you send us a bottle, we'll put up a post with the title "Just Kidding!" and the body of the post will just be, "This book is great! This blog is elaborate satire!" What I'm saying, EL, is that writing this blog is driving us steadily toward insanity / alcoholism, and so we're constantly desperate for drinks so hook us up!)

Well. That's enough procrastination! On to Chapter 21!