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. 

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