Tuesday, May 13, 2014

50 Shades Shadier: Chapter 12 part 2

Ana goes back to her apartment and Leila is there with a gun. 

The other day, I took a call at work and helped someone make a tour reservation. Pretty often people inquiring about tours will describe their party like this: "x adults and y children," perhaps presuming that the children will receive a discount. They will not! Because that would encourage more of them to attend, and perhaps create the false impression that the tour is aimed at children, and it isn't.

The reason I bring this up is as follows: I let the caller know that the tour is recommended only for children ages seven an older, but that that was a recommendation and not a rule. But in the midst of a busy day, hurrying through this explanation, I now realize that rather than using the perfectly good word "rule" I used the 50 Shades nonsense phrase "hard limit" and I find this deeply embarrassing. Fortunately, there's still some chance that the caller hadn't read the book, and even if she had, there's that chance that she might've given me the benefit of the doubt and thought to herself, "Oh, there's no way that this nice man answering the phones at a chocolate factory sees any connection between this simple phrase and Ana Steele, Seattle's most famous fictional resident."

Fingers crossed! is all I'm saying.

So. We're nearly halfway through this book, and, by extension, halfway through the trilogy. We're going to get a bit of movement in one of our subplots at the end of this chapter, but let's be real: Leila is a subplot. She didn't even appear in the first book, except for in the form of a few words in a hushed phone conversation in the final chapter. The resolution we seek is between Ana and Christian--we want them to either break up, or we want CG to stop being such a dick. Halfway through this mess, he's ceased to be a dick all the time but is still a real dick lots of the time, and I see no evidence that he'll ever totally change his dickish ways.

But whatever--I bring this up because even when EL does some things that feel like plot, it's not really plot, because it has nothing to do with the Ana's character, and she's the protagonist. It's just some stuff that happens while she happens to be in the neighborhood. Plot, if it's any good at all, has to have a specific relationship to our protagonist. The best plots resonate with the weaknesses of a protagonist and give the protagonist an opportunity to grow in order to overcome those weaknesses. Ana has so many weaknesses that I think she might just be a lost cause. Oh well!

So where were we?

Our story thus far:

Ana is a naive college student who dated a billionaire for a couple weeks but broke things off with him because he spanked her too hard.
  1. Ana starts her new job at a publishing company and agrees to let Christian give her a ride to José’s art show. It turns out they both miss each other or whatever.
  2. Ana and Christian eat steaks at a restaurant. They rekindle their “romance” and Christian says that they won’t have to have rules anymore and he won’t punish Ana. They drive back to Seattle and Christian gives Ana back the expensive gifts that she'd returned to him when they broke up, along with a new iPad.
  3. Ana goes to work. She is confronted by one of Christian's ex lovers on her way out for drinks with her coworkers. Christian picks up Ana from the bar, and then they venture to a grocery store so that they can cook dinner at Ana's house. But then they get too horny to cook so they have sex.
  4. Ana and Christian eat dinner and then have ice cream sex and then in the middle of the night Ana has a dream about Christian's ex lover Leila, which worries Christian. Later, Ana and Christian fight about money, eat breakfast, and then go to a hair salon where the woman who introduced Christian to BDSM works.
  5. Ana is upset by the sight of Christian's ex-lover, Elena, and storms out of the salon. Christian insists that Ana come to his house because his other ex-lover Leila may be armed. Christian picks up Ana bodily when she disagrees with him. Ana and Christian retire to Christian's house and Christian allows Ana to draw on him with lipstick so that she knows which parts of his body he is comfortable having touched and which parts are off limits. 
  6. Ana and Christian have sex and get ready for a fancy charity auction at Christian's parents' house. Then they go to the fancy charity auction, and Ana bids $24,000 on a weekend getaway at Christian's Aspen condo. 
  7. Ana gets auctioned off to Christian for the first dance of the evening, but before the dance, the couple retreat to Christian's childhood room for sex. Christian's ex, Elena, threatens to hurt Ana if she mistreats Christian. After the party, Ana and Christian drive home, where they are informed by Christian's security staff that someone, most likely Leila, has vandalized Ana's car and may have broken into the apartment.
  8. Christian's security goons conclude that Leila is not in the apartment, but soon she sneaks into Ana's room while she sleeps so Christian and Ana go to a hotel because Leila may be dangerous. Ana has another of her famous Sunday morning home appointments with her gynecologist. 
  9. Ana and Christian buy a car and ride on a boat. 
  10. Ana and Christian eat dinner and play pool.
  11. Ana returns to work and Christian follows every little thing she does from afar.
  12. Elena stops by and later Ana and Christian have sex on a piano. 

We rejoin our heroes the morning after some piano sex. Buckle in because it's about to get super-pointless! Ooh I can do better than that. Get our your butter, because the rest of this chapter is like a butter knife: pointless! Huh. No, that's actually worse. Anyway. They wake up is all I'm saying.

Then they eat breakfast and I don't even know why I'm reading any of this. It's terrible. We're back to the constant flushing, which is super terrible and I just can't handle it. They're talking about the piano, and how the lid, which was closed last night when they were having sex on top of it, is now open and this is the kind of thing you talk about when you're the most boring people in the world.

I glance behind me at the piano, savoring the memory of last night. “You put the lid of the piano back up.” 
“I closed it last night so as not to disturb you. Guess it didn’t work, but I’m glad it didn’t.” Christian’s lips twitch into a lascivious smile as he takes a bite of omelet. I go crimson and smirk back at him. 
Oh yes . . . fun times on the piano. 
Mrs. Jones leans over and places a paper bag containing my lunch in front of me, mak- ing me flush guiltily. 

You look at a section like this, and, if you're like me, your basic thought is this: what is even happening here? Look: they had sex like one page ago, and the piano sex was three pages ago. Three pages only. So it's not like they have to remind me.

So what does that italicized part even mean? Oh yes . . . fun times on the piano. What is the purpose? That's probably the easiest way of judging good writing from bad. Good writers do things for reasons whereas this shit just seems to happen. Hence we get all these bits that don't make any sense.

But the real reason I included this bit was because Ana goes "crimson" I guess remembering the piano sex. I guess it's like this: I have a relatively new computer. It has something that it calls a "fusion drive" which means that it's powered by attaching atoms together. Just kidding. It's a combination of a traditional spinning disk hard drive and a solid state hard drive like phones have. The solid state part is way faster, so in theory, everything that I use often gets put on the solid state part and the other stuff gets crammed somewhere on the spinning disk part. Ana's brain has only the spinning disk part, and so even shit that happened to her last night just gets dumped somewhere on the disk and it takes her brain a long time to find the right chunk. That works, right? That's basically plausible, right?

So she remembers the sex she just had, and blushes, but then CG's housekeeper hands her a sack lunch and then Ana's reaction is to "flush guiltily." I mean, yeah, it's kinda embarrassing for somebody to pack a lunch for you when you're an adult. But what I really want to know is this: what is going on with this poor woman's face? Is it getting darker? Is it switching back and forth super fast? What is the deal?

Next Ana jumps back into interrogation mode and all I can think of is how often, in the first book, Ana accused Kate of asking too many questions. Ana must be one of those people who denies her own faults and sees them expressed in all the people around her, because she really won't shut up with questions. And she always makes a big deal out of them. This time, she stars with, "Can I ask you something?" It's never just natural with her. It's always a whole undertaking. It always grinds the conversation to a halt.

And Ana's question is one she's already effectively asked: "Why do you get so mad when I ask about her?" "Her" being Elena. CG basically answered this last night, by saying, “Because all of that shit is over!” Which wasn't really an answer. But it did make it pretty clear that he was sick of Ana asking about Elena all the time. 

Here's a problem EL has right now: a lack of tactics. Let's go bigger: Ana has no strategy so she has no reason to adjust tactics. Strategy is an overall plan to achieve an objective, and tactics are the tools used to carry out the strategy. So Ana has this tactic of asking CG the same questions all the time, but her only purpose is a sort of vague "get to know him better." I got a haircut the other day and I'm really bad at getting my haircut in the sense that I am really bad and awkward at the kinds of conversations that people cutting hair try to start. There's no purpose for the conversation other than to kind of fill the air a little bit until I'm ready to leave, and that's exactly how Ana's conversations with CG feel. What's she trying to accomplish? Dunno.

What we want to see is a hero with a strategy, who tries various tactics to carry out her strategy. But Ana is all stuck on this one tactic--annoying questions--with no particular purpose. And it is so, so not pleasant to read. Fortunately for us, CG dodges Ana's inquiry and instead they talk in their "clever" way about sex for a while and CG bosses Ana about eating breakfast. 

Next, our heroes are all driving to their various jobs. Very interesting! Kate's brother Ethan is arriving back in town after spending a couple weeks being the third wheel with Kate and Christian's brother. Fascinating! He's going to stay at Ana and Kate's place. Riveting! Ana will have to go to the apartment to let him in. INTRIGUE!

Oh and Sawyer will be following Ana around the whole time. Yay. 

BUT WAIT! Here's something super-spicy! CG takes a phone call: 

“You’re kidding . . . For a scene . . . When did he tell you this?” Christian chuckles, almost reluctantly. “No, don’t worry. You don’t have to apologize. I’m glad there’s a logical explanation. It did seem a ridiculously low amount of money . . . I have no doubt you’ve something evil and creative planned for your revenge. Poor Isaac.” He smiles. “Good . . .
Good-bye.” He snaps the phone shut and glances at me. His eyes are suddenly wary, but oddly, he looks relieved, too. 
“Who was that?” I ask. 
“You really want to know?” he asks quietly. And, I know. I shake my head and stare out my window at the gray Seattle day, feeling forlorn. Why can’t she leave him alone?

Get it? So that whole ransom-thing with Elena in the previous chapter was just a fantasy sex thing cooked up by her boy-toy, Isaac. I sometimes feel like EL just straight-up traps herself with bad ideas, realizes that they are bad, and then chooses to abandon them without deleting them. So maybe she had Elena show up at CG's place because she thought that would be dramatic or whatever. And then she's writing along and realizes, "Oh snap! I have no idea why Elena should be here. Better make up something fast!" And then she made up the thing about the ransom note. And then a couple days later, she's writing the next chapter, and realizes that that ransom note part was pointless, but her chapter of fan-fiction has already been uploaded to the internets, and there's no way of changing it now! So she just neutralizes a bad decision, without erasing it. Good theory, right? Pretty good.

Ana arrives at work. Here's a little taste of her workday. WARNING: EL is so good at capturing the modern workplace that as you read this cutting, you may feel that you are yourself actually at work and might get bummed out. Unless you're actually at work. In which case, don't worry!

“Good morning, Jack.” 
I set about ordering a messenger to take his brochure to the printers. He pops his head around his office door. 
“Could I have a coffee, please, Ana?” 
“Sure.” I wander into the kitchen and bump into Claire from reception, who is also
fixing coffee. 
“Hey, Ana,” she says cheerfully. 
“Hi, Claire.” 
We chat briefly about her extended-family gathering over the weekend, which she en-
joyed immensely, and I tell her about sailing with Christian. 
“Your boyfriend is so dreamy, Ana,” she says, her eyes glazing over. 
I am tempted to roll my eyes at her. 
“He’s not bad-looking,” I smile and we both start laughing.

“You took your time!” Jack snaps when I bring in his coffee. 
Oh! “I’m sorry.” I flush then frown. I took the usual amount of time. What’s his prob-
lem? Perhaps he’s nervous about something. 
He shakes his head. “Sorry, Ana. I didn’t mean to bark at you, honey.” 
“There’s something going on at senior management level, and I don’t know what it is.
Keep your ear to the ground, okay? If you hear anything—I know how you girls talk.” He
grins at me, and I feel slightly sick. He has no idea how we “girls” talk. Besides, I know what’s happening. 
 “You’ll let me know, right?”
“Sure,” I mutter. “I’ve sent the brochure to the printers. It will be back by two o’clock.” 

Oh geez.

Somehow this publishing company in Seattle in the 21st century is just some full-on Madmen type shit, right? One of the many moments in which I feel very little sympathy for Ana getting called "honey" because it's just such a contrivance. I mean, that'd be a shitty thing to happen, sure, but Jack's chauvinism just feels so calculated, like he's not a character so much as a vehicle for chauvinism and I just feel unconvinced. And again, he's only the second-creepiest character in the book at this point. Yawn. But it's silly as hell that Ana notes that it's crazy for Jack to call her "honey" but she doesn't react in the slightest to the fact that he's making her get coffee and then yelling at her when she takes an extra thirty seconds or whatever? Gross. 

Also: a messenger to send a brochure to a printshop? C'mon. Really? Really? I went to a comedy show last week where a comedian said--and I'm paraphrasing--that the two main "looks" for men in Seattle were bicycle messenger and juggalo without makeup, which I think is totally fair. I guess Seattle is crawling with people who do indeed look like bike messengers, so hey maybe I'm wrong and EL is right! Maybe that's way, way better for your brochures! Maybe handing a physical copy to a bike messenger gives your brochure a warm, analog tone that can't be replicated via a PDF. 

You'll remember that Claire is one of this book's few characters of color broad racial stereotypes, so of course Claire spent the weekend with her extended family. It's embarrassing and gross when white writers just write about a world populated exclusively with other white people, but it's worse seeing a book like this one, in which the author falls back on these dumb, lazy stereotypes in order to remind us that not everyone is white. So we have Claire and her huge black family, probably with some old matriarch dispensing wisdom or whatever, and José who buys people margaritas and is the first one in his family to graduate college. I see what you're doing here, EL! And also, I hate it.

The other thing that annoys me about the little chat with Claire is how pointless it is. I mean this whole thing is pointless, but EL made us read a few extra pointless paragraphs just to give Jack some context to snap at Ana. He doesn't need any context because he's a weird creep. If you want him to snap, just have him snap, and let us move on.

Also, the chat between Ana and Claire is another of those weird parts where Ana's presence drops away almost completely. When she wants to roll her eyes at Claire, what does she mean? Is she saying that Claire is exaggerating CG's hotness? Or is she rolling her eyes for the same reason I am--because she's tired of this dumb cliché where literally every woman who sees CG becomes dangerously horny? On the one hand, we're stuck in Ana's boring head, but on the other hand, we're frequently cut off from her thoughts.

Oh and the last part is my favorite: Jack says, "I know how you girls talk" and Ana takes issue with it because it's sexist and gross. But also? Ana and Claire have just had the most clichéd bit of girl-talk. I've mentioned already that this book totes fails the Bechdel test--never do two women characters have a conversation with each other about something other than a man.

And again, let me reiterate that there are two kinds of clichés--those based on boring truths and those that are just made-up stupidity. It's cliché to set something in a Seattle café on a rainy day but the typical resident of Seattle spends upwards of 1/3 of her leisure time in cafés on rainy days so the cliché makes sense but is lazy and tired. Women don't actually spend all their time talking about men. It's just that all of our collective understanding of storytelling is blunted by the sexist assumption that only men matter, and therefore two women alone should talk about a man because we have to get a man into the scene somehow because otherwise it's just pointless. I mean who wants to listen to two women talk about a thing?

Oh and look at the end. When, exactly, did Ana send the brochure to the printer? Don't even worry about it, because it doesn't matter, and nothing matters.

Look up at that scene again. One last little bit about Ana and Claire: it's delightfully stupid to me how part of the dialogue that EL chooses to include is just "Hey Ana" and "Hi Claire." So, so pointless. It's like something out of The Room. 

You know what would be the absolute mutterblushing best? If they just made a 50 Shades movie starring the cast of The Room. I am legit sad that this is a thing that I'll never get to see.

Something about Christian Grey being part in shadow and part in the light or whatever.
Ana worries that Jack will be upset when he finds out that her boyf has bought the publishing company and of course Jack will be upset. Probably so upset that he'll turn into a violent murderer or whatever! I don't actually know what Jack is going to do but he's going to be another one of our villains. This book is kind of like one of those dumb, bloated superhero-movie sequels where they try to raise the stakes by including a million different villains who nobody cares about. Elena! Jack! Leila! Omigod who cares.

Ugh look at this shit that Ana gets sent from CG:

From: Christian Grey 
Subject: Sunrise
Date: June 14, 2011 09:23 
To: Anastasia Steele
I love waking up to you in the morning.
Christian Grey
Completely & Utterly Smitten CEO, Grey Enterprises Holdings Inc. 

Oh my god! This mutterblushing book! Ok so let's count characters. The actual body of the email is 38 characters! Not even 1/3 of the length of an SMS text. And then CG is changing around his email signature for this shit? Christ. He does that in like the next several emails and it's dumb and the worst. But wait-- what if CG doesn't actually know how to set an email signature? What if he actually types that shit out in every email rather than letting it attach automatically? Now I'm scared that maybe that's his thing. He types it in at the end of every email in case he wants to include this kind of "cute" joke or whatever.

There are some more emails, and then Jack sends Ana out to buy lunch again because it's 1962 I guess. We get a pointless call between Ana and CG RE: stepping outside for lunch and then Sawyer walks Ana to the deli and back to work and it's very interesting I assure you!

Next Jack keeps pestering Ana to go out for a drink and even though Ana has carefully established that she's not interested, he continues, and he always kind of talks about it as though Ana probably wants to get a drink with him but needs permission from her boyfriend. Ugh. “Would he object to you coming out for a quick drink tonight? To celebrate all your hard work?” Moronic. Hey here's an idea: maybe ask Ana if she'd like to get a drink? Since for all you know she's her own person or whatever and doesn't have to do whatever her boyfriend says all the time? I mean she does do whatever her boyfriend says all the time but Jack doesn't know that!

Whatever. After that, Ethan calls Ana. Ana doesn't know his number but he knows hers, somehow, which is weird but whatever. Maybe he got it from Kate. I don't know or care. It's a pointless scene. All we establish is that Ethan is going to come and get Ana's keys so he can get into Ana and Kate's apartment. This is the sort of thing that could easily be dealt with in a sentence. There's no drama in the conversation about their plans for later in the evening. It's just a fact we need to know. A writer would do well to think about fiction as having two parts: 1) drama and 2) stuff the reader just needs to know. So slow down the drama and make it big and exciting, and speed up the stuff we need to know and get it to us as quickly as possible so we can get to the drama. EL forgot to include any drama, though, so she can't really take my advice. Oh well. 

Then Ethan shows up to get his keys and he and Ana have a wildly pointless conversation. They both say that the other is good looking or whatever and it would maybe be interesting if Ana were to become interested in Ethan, but because I think that would be interesting, I'm confident that it won't happen. 

At the end of said wildly pointless conversation, Ana notices Jack being all creepy. "What to do? I have no idea. I’ll have to wait until Kate is back. She’s bound to come up with a plan." I have some other ideas. Like, maybe just talk to your HR person? I mean, we know that SIP has an HR person because we met her in the previous book. So maybe tell your HR person that your boss is making you get lunch and coffee and keeps pressuring you to get drinks after work. And yeah: I understand that when a person is being harassed, doing the "obvious" thing is not necessarily that easy. But in this particular case, the person being harassed is dating the dude who owns the place, so the only thing standing between Ana and reporting Jack to HR is probably just the fact that EL probably never had a regular job. SIP doubtless has a harassment policy and it was doubtless included in a document given to Ana on her first day of work, but whatever. I understand that fiction differs from real-life in selected ways so that fiction can be more interesting than real-life, but this book is more boring than real life so it's just not working out.

Then we get another tiny scene in which CG calls up Ana and tells her that he's waiting outside and Ana says goodbye to Jack. Here's a quick editorial trick! Say you're editing a work of fiction. Just go ahead and delete any scene that's less than a page. And then thank me for it, because I just saved you a lot of trouble. You can cut lots of scenes that are longer than one page, too, but these mini-scenes aren't doing anything at all, and you should definitely cut them. Each mini-scene can be either deleted without change, or summarize with a quick sentence that catches us up to speed, which then becomes the first line of the next scene. "I get a text from Christian letting me know that he's outside, so I grab my things and say a quick goodbye to Jack." That's all you need! Also I changed the call from CG to a text from CG because it makes sense. Let's be real: the majority of the texts we all send are just one word: "Outside." Right? I mean what else does a person ever need to text? Anything? Mostly not.

Here's one of those bits that EL probably just keeps in her clipboard so as to paste it in a couple times every chapter: 

The Audi is parked at the curb, and Christian climbs out as I approach. He’s taken off his jacket, and he’s wearing his gray pants, my favorite ones that hang from his hips—in that
way. How can this Greek god be meant for me? I find myself grinning like a loon in answer to his own idiotic grin. 
Again: nobody understands how these pants look because it makes no sense. It's like EL has never seen anyone wear pants before. Also: the "Greek god" is a pretty tired line, used over and over in this series, plus Ana's continued weird lack of self esteem. How is it that you and he ended up together? Well, you're super naive and terrible at life, whereas he's pretty much a sociopath. Really, you're the only sort of person who could end up with him, because anyone more worldly would've jumped ship long, long ago. And then last, their dumb smiles. Whatever. 

They drive toward Ana's apartment to meet Ethan. CG gives Ana a list of times when she might meet with his kickboxing instructor, which is a very interesting development! 

CG takes another "important" "business" phone call the moment they arrive at Ana's place. Ana buzzes up to her own apartment, which makes me say, "Huh. She didn't have a spare key to give to Ethan? I mean, the story was that he was going to live there with them, so wouldn't they get him his own key? Or also, why didn't he just borrow his sister's key, since she's still on vacation and not using it?" I mention these things just to pad my general thesis: there is something stupid in every single paragraph of this book. 

I'm just going to paste in the last few sentences of the chapter for you so that we can enjoy read them together: 

Ethan has kindly left the front door open. I step into the apartment, and I don’t know why, but I freeze instinctively as soon as I step inside. I take a moment to realize it’s because the pale, wan figure standing by the kitchen island, holding a small revolver is Leila, and she’s gazing impassively at me. 
Well. Let's just start at the beginning, shall we? "Ethan has kindly left the door open." That's not a thing that happens. "Oh, someone will need to use this door later! Might as well just leave it wide open!" 

But it keeps getting worse, is the thing. The dumbest part is the way that Ana gets scared, and then is like, "Let me survey the situation to figure out why I'm scared." Right? That's just nonsense. EL has absolutely butchered the tension by dumping all the pertinent information in the strangest order. Here are the details: paleness, standing in the kitchen, gun, Leila, gazing. What part do you think should go at the end? The gun! Of course the gun!

Here's another of my patented, one-minute rewrites:

I find the door of the apartment ajar. Surprising--Ethan is usually so careful. I step into the apartment and freeze instinctively as soon as I step inside. Gazing at me impassively from the kitchen is Leila, and she's holding a small revolver. 

Sometimes, you read EL's prose and you see what she's trying to accomplish, but then you see that she's going at it in the absolute most difficult and weird way. In this case, she's trying to build up tension by separating the moment that we read about Ana's fear from the moment we understand the purpose for her fear. But the sensible way to do that is not to separate the two ideas in Ana's mind--just separate the way that they are expressed. Don't make Ana look like an idiot who doesn't understand her own feelings. Just tell us that she's scared, and take an extra moment to explain why.

And put the gun last! That's the scariest part! The scariest part is the gun so you put it last! Ugh. Do I have to do everything myself around here? I guess so!

That's the end of the chapter. On the one hand, this is the biggest cliffhanger than EL has managed thus far in this series, but of course Ana isn't going to get shot. Of course CG is going to save the day like one page later. But savor this while you can. Savor the notion that something will actually  happen in this book, because it is not a feeling that we will get to experience often.

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