Fifty Shades of Grey
By E.L. James
(Vintage, 528 pages, $15.95)
Fifty Shades of Grey, the flagship novel of a trilogy that has sold 40 million books worldwide, has sex appeal in a Lilith Fair kind of way — that is, it appeals exclusively to women. As far as stoking erotic fires, Fifty Shades of Grey is fifty shades of boring.
The BDSM-themed romance novel is certainly racy. It just isn’t very sexy. The trysts between the domineering mogul Christian Grey and the innocent coed Anastasia Steele generally aren’t spontaneous. Consent decrees and condoms pass for foreplay.
Encounters are often legalistic, reminiscent of the late Antioch College’s infamous “May I kiss you here? May I poke you there?” Sexual Offense Prevention Policy. And too-conspicuous condoms kill the mood. “‘Naughty, sweet girl,’ he whispers, and then reaches over to the bedside table for a foil packet” (p. 120); “‘Here, put this on.’ He hands me a foil packet” (p. 266); “‘You want it, you got it, baby,’ he mutters, producing a foil packet from his pants pocket while he unzips his pants” (p. 371). It goes on joylessly like that for 500 pages. If fiction has the power to make the son of a “crack whore” a twentysomething billionaire, then surely it can forgo the rubber without dooming the lead characters to deterioration in an AIDS hospice.
Elsewhere, the unromantic romance novel reads like any of the lesser-known volumes in the genre. A staple of the trade is the sexual euphemism, which the pseudonymous E.L. James employs to describe “the junction of my thighs” and “the entrance of my sex.” Signs abound that writing it required only slightly longer than reading it does. During the couple’s first sex session, Steele finds herself “shattering into a thousand pieces.” During their second one, she notices herself “splintering into a million pieces.” She discovers in her beau’s sex dungeon “ornately carved poles,” a table’s “intricately carved legs,” and an “ornately carved” bed frame with “intricately carved posts.” The verbiage is often ornate but never intricate.
Can a book at once appeal to women and antagonize feminists? “I can do this,” protagonist Anastasia Steele assures herself. “I can f— him with my mouth.” Grrrl Power?
Alas, the literary phenomenon may be more about men than women.
Christian Grey is everything that modern feminism says, in some instances quite sensibly, that women do not want in a man. He hovers over his love interest at the dinner table, commanding that she clean her plate. He puts a track on her cell phone. He unnervingly shows up unexpectedly wherever she goes. He beats her, albeit in a consenting-adults sort of way. He is a restraining order waiting to happen, but yet the women in his life order, nay beg, him to put them in restraints.
The leading man is a leading man. He is assertive, aggressive, all alpha-male. Christian Grey is a strikingly handsome 27-year-old self-made tycoon with abs. We know he drives an Audi, drinks Hendrick’s gin, listens to Kings of Leon, and loves sadism. Other than that, we don’t know much. He is all caricature, no character — an ubermensch hero cut out of an Ayn Rand novel. We meet Christian Greys rarely elsewhere in literature and never in life.
Christian Grey might be interpreted as the result of the failure of feminism. But he is really a comment on the crisis of American masculinity. When Steele asks, “You want to play on your Xbox”? Grey laughs, “No, Anastasia, no Xbox, no Playstation. Come.” He’s not like the other loser suitors that Steele, or the female readers projecting themselves upon Steele, encounter. When the dating world offers guys addicted to role-playing video games, imaginary internet sex, and delusion-inducing chemicals, the romance genre can’t help but again romanticize the silver-back billionaire — even one who believes choke chains, rather than diamonds, are a girl’s best friend. He’s an exaggerated male in a world of weakling males.
This juxtaposition, more than anything else, explains the book’s popularity. Women certainly aren’t reading it for the English author’s Dickensian character development or Shakespearean wit.
“I did follow my heart,” Miss Steele reflects near book’s end, “and I have a sore ass and an anguished, broken spirit to show for it. I have to go.” I did follow the crowd in reading Fifty Shades of Grey, and I have a sore head and an anguished, though not quite broken, spirit to show for it. I have to go, too: far away from the sequels, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed.
Sex is better experienced than described.