Saturday, November 16, 2013

50 Shades of Smartass: Chapter 2

Here's the biggest problem I have so far with this novel: I cannot respect Anastasia Steele.

I just don't respect her. At all. I think she's a fool and an idiot, and the novel is so poorly written that after the first chapter, all I know about her is that she's awkward, has no confidence, is dissatisfied with her social life (those damn "friends" and their "obligations" and "favors"), drives a VW bug, like British literature, falls down a lot, is overbearingly judgmental, and is almost embarrassingly unable to hold in her attraction to Christian Grey. This is not someone I'm rooting for. This isn't even someone I want to have a casual conversation with. I'm beginning to think the only reason she's so attracted to Christian--despite his being as warm as a robot and as friendly as an extraterrestrial--is that he's the first thing she's ever been preoccupied with that wasn't herself.

The second chapter picks up right off, with Ana rushing to the parking lot and her friend's car, so overwhelmed by her attraction to Christian that she has to force herself to do things like walk, stand, and breathe correctly. It takes her a while to calm down again. It's... it's not a pleasure to read. I don't know why. Again, I hope I'm not having a sexist reaction to her, but jeez, you met a guy and he's hot, keep it together. These "Oh, I'm so attracted to him--yet I can't admit it to myself yet--that I can't even stand because of the loud thumping of my heart and all of the oxygen leaving my brain" histrionics are just absolutely grating. I'm trying not to grind my teeth here. But... well, why am I supposed to root for this idiot, again?

Then, after she calms down enough to get in the car... she continues to calm herself down and try to figure out why she's acting this way and panicking about how embarrassed she feels about her crappy interview. Honey, it's okay: he made you horny. You don't have to be so fascinated over it. But as far as I can tell, Ana never had a feeling or an idea or a greasy fart that she wasn't completely fascinated and taken with. She sure does love to think deep thoughts about herself. Before running from them in panicked embarrassment, I mean.

"Again, I'm irritated that Kate didn't give me a brief biography." It's called a basic Google search, you dolt. But no, no, blame your friend for this. After all, you're just such a good friend that you had to fill in for Kate, but that didn't mean you had to, like, do it well, right? You have no one to blame but yourself for being underprepared. Ask your professors if you don't believe me, college girl, they'll tell you the same thing.

Ana then heads down Interstate 5 listening to "thumping indie rock music." It still puzzles me how EL James will get so specifically detailed about some things, and then just shrug and put something generic in elsewhere. It's like she's just waiting to fill in the information later. "Just write 'thumping indie rock music' for now, and then when you think of one, plug it in during the second draft." (I am convinced there was no second draft. I know this started out as Twilight fanfiction--which is hilarious, because compared to this, Twilight reads like Anna Karenina--but after just plugging in new names and writing 'generic business stuff,' it seems like no one made a second pass at this book, ever.)

So, Ana's driving in [car] and heading back to [school] on [road] and listening to [thumping indie rock music] and trying to tell herself she's not as horny as a 14 year-old boy who just discovered the scrambled cable porn, but she totally is.

(Hey, I grew up in the eighties, I know it's a dated reference.)

(Aside: Ana tells us "I pay peanuts for rent." "I pay peanuts for rent"? "I'm a monkey's uncle"? Why does she talk like it's 1927? I keep waiting for her to tell us that that big cheese Christian Grey is the bee's knees. And how! Not that this Dumb Dora's figured out just how ducky she finds that Dapper Dan. She keeps getting the heebie jeebies at the thought of that kisser. Too bad there's nobody home upstairs, or she might realize that swell is a drugstore cowboy in an egg's glad rags who's feeding her lines to get at her chassis. But that would require the two of them to be on the level and have a real bull session about wanting to neck. This whole story don't know from nothing, I tells ya. It's applesauce. Applesauce!

Alright, alright, I'll dry up and get a wiggle on.)

Speaking of language, something else that annoys me: James uses a lot of hack writer arch sentence structure, like "He doesn't talk like a man of twentysomething" or "She arches a perfect eyebrow at me" or "We talk no more of Christian Grey that evening," and then peppers it with other phrases like "He's pretty damn bright" or "Damn, he's handsome." It's like someone learning English for the first time, completely unsure if they're getting it right, so it's overly formal but also throws in a lot of colloquialisms. It's really unintentionally funny.

Also--sorry, I know I keep stopping the flow of the, er, story, but there's so much here that just gets to me. So, also, I don't find it believable that Christian Grey is 27. Just don't. It's like EL James wanted to write something "naughty" about an older, remote, asexual man and a younger, awkward, narcissistic woman that would have lots of naughty sex in it, but some kind of parochialism stopped her from making him any more than just a few years older than her. Dude, no one cares if you're in your senior year of college and you start dating a guy who's probably like five years older than you. It's not forbidden, or something. Not in your twenties. James wants to make this guy seem like an authority figure to her, so she makes him a businessman despite knowing nothing about business or industry or money, which is a total miscalculation because she can't make Christian's dialogue seem realistic. She couldn't have just made him a literature professor or something? Then at least they'd have something to talk about. Was she too worried that there might be an actual chance of Christian respecting her thoughts on something?

Anyway. Anyway. Let's move on with this story.

Lots of skippable stuff, honestly. There are a few paragraphs devoted to her telling us about her job (clerk at Clayton's, the largest independent hardware store in Portland, because now's suddenly the time to get specific, when it adds absolutely nothing to the narrative) and going in to work and saying hi to someone. Literally no impact at all on the book. Then she seriously panics because Kate keeps asking her questions about what Christian Grey was like and whether she found him attractive and... why? I mean, if you're attracted to an attractive guy and you tell your friend, it's not like you get stoned in the town square or something. Jesus, take a course on meditation or something. Ana seriously needs therapy.

Then there are a couple of pages that could be skipped. You would literally miss nothing if you didn't hear Ana go on and on about how she's doing a paper on Tess of the d'Urbervilles ("Damn, that woman was in the wrong place at the wrong time in the wrong century" is what passes for cogent analysis on that one), or she sleeps in a white iron bed with her mother's quilt, or how she calls her mother and her stepdad to say hello, or how her mother makes candles and is on her fourth "much older" husband. None of this has anything to do with anything (although it's worth pointing out she probably has daddy issues), because James never bothers to make any connections with how Ana's feeling or how these things in her life inform her experience of life. They're just there, in a little list of stuff that exists.

Then we meet her friend Jose, who stops by to tell her and Kate that a gallery is exhibiting some of his photos. This scene only exists to set up what I assume will be an obvious development in chapter 3. Also, we're told in painful detail how Jose is just a good friend, and how Ana's never been in love. "Katherine often teases me that I'm missing the need-a-boyfriend gene, but the truth is I just haven't met anyone who... well, whom I'm attracted to, even though part of me longs for the fabled trembling knees, heart-in-my-mouth, butterflies-in-my-belly moments." While ignoring the fact that these are things that happened to her and that she literally described just a couple of pages ago after interviewing Christian Grey when she was practically creaming her jeans in the parking lot.

Oh, don't worry, Ana! These kind of books only exist to justify your social awkwardness! It's not something wrong with you, you just haven't met anyone extraordinary enough to be your magical boyfriend yet, because the mundane men you meet in your life aren't good enough for someone as special as you! That's why you're so fucking awkward! So that you don't seem totally arrogant about how special you are, because you don't even know you're special yet, because the right man hasn't made you understand you are! I have to go vomit now!

(By the way, do you see how terribly this book is written. This is the prose of EL James. A moment of your pity, please.)

"Perhaps I've spent too long in the company of my literary romantic heroes, and consequently my ideals and expectations are far too high."

Guys, seriously. I'm an English teacher. This is murdering my brain and my appreciation of the English language.

The way she talks about Jose in this little bit... is he going to die or something? She talks about him the same way you talk about the last time you remember your dog before he got really sick.

The rest of the chapter takes place at Clayton's, which is a nightmare on Saturday night, apparently, and who is suddenly standing in front of Anastasia but Christian Grey, "looking all outdoorsy with his tousled hair and in his cream, chunky-knit sweater, jeans, and walking boots" because EL James apparently only knows men through images in the 1987 JC Penny catalog. Rather than tease him for being a rich poser in cliched outdoorsman drag, she immediately gets all flustered and starts coming apart at the seams. It's just... it's always so embarrassing to read. Stop taking us inside it so much, because the uncomfortable embarrassment of it just makes me really, truly hate spending any time with this girl.

Christian, for his part, is a major asshole. He's not just coming out and saying he wants to get it on, either. He's perfectly aware of the effect he's having on her, and he's reveling in it, always with a look of smug bemusement on his face, because he's a condescending prick.

"His voice is warm and husky like dark melted chocolate fudge caramel... or something." At least commit to your silly metaphor instead of playing it off to apologize for it in case it's silly. Have a point of view and stop apologizing for yourself, bunkie!

He's clearly there to see her and heat her up some more, despite some half-intelligible business reason for being in town on business for the purposes of businessing. Ana even realizes right away that he's only in the store to see her, but then puts that out of her mind because she's so unworthy of attention or whatever her psychosis is. But he makes her lead him around the store, finding seemingly random items that... oh.

Oh oh oh.

And that's all I could say was oh.

I just realized it.

He's getting cable ties. And masking tape. And filament rope.

This is supposed to be S&M stuff, isn't it? This is a ham-fisted attempt at foreshadowing, as well as a ham-fisted attempt at flirting.

The flirting is awful. It's the kind of stuff that sexually immature people recommend while saying idiotic things like "this is how you get out of the friend zone and into the bone zone." So, any issue of Maxim at random, really. (Apt comparison, since this novel, like Maxim, is for sexually regressive people too scared to buy actual porn.) First, he intimidates her. Then, he puts himself in the position to see her on her home turf, but without easing off the intimidation, thus commanding her where she should be comfortable and at ease, so she doesn't feel safe and understands he's more powerful than her. Next, he's condescendingly amused by her attempts to be smart with him, and indulges her like a child. Then he takes a genuine, though remote, interest in her, drops a little bit of manly info about himself (his supposed interest in DIY), and then flusters her completely by saying something that makes her picture him naked. She almost doesn't recover from that. Somewhere, a frustrated 29 year-old virgin is gasping "Compliment her hair! She'll blow you right there in the aisle!" and climaxing into a tube sock. Jesus wept.

It's just sad.

Like, it actually makes me feel bad reading this novel.

As so many others have pointed out, this is not an interested man falling in love with an interested woman. This is a sexual predator sizing up and priming his prey. It's a mind game leading to a bigger mind game. And that it's so obviously working is disheartening and disgusting.

The next step, of course, is to arrange a function where he's in control and with the possibility of removing oneself from it and becoming intimate, so when she openly wonders if he could maybe do a photo shoot for Kate's newspaper profile of him, he agrees to it, because it's more of a chance to get his icky vibe in her hair. (This is the clumsy foreshadowing, because Ana wonders where she'll ever find a photographer, despite her just having told us that her best male friend is a photographer.) This is all turning out great for Christian. She's such easy prey, he could have set up a duck blind in her living room and she'd never have noticed it was there until it was too late.

Seriously, how am I supposed to care about what happens to these self-absorbed fuckwits?

Then, this stupid thing happens where the brother of the store owner gets all overly familiar with Ana, and Christian is just standing there, staring at him "like a hawk, his eyes hooded and speculative, his mouth a hard, impassive line." He's all business after that, and then, after he's made his purchase and is about to leave, turns and tells our heroine "I'm glad Miss Kavanagh couldn't do the interview."

This moment of apparent jealousy followed by a hint of vulnerability is what finally gets Ana to admit to herself that she likes Christian and is excited to see him again. Of course, it's just a lost cause (right) and it was "just a coincidence" that he came into her store (uh-huh), but she likes him.

No, no, no, Anastasia Steele. Let me tell you, as a man and as a guy who has had conversations with men and as a teacher who has heard boys talk about girls, what actually happened.

You threw his seduction off track by getting overly familiar to the point of near-handsiness with another man, which made Christian a little angry, because he doesn't want a scavenger getting between this Alpha Male and his chosen prey. Then he got remote and short because he wanted to punish you and to make you feel like you'd done something wrong by taking your attention off of him so you know not to do it again. And then he threw in a moment of appreciation to re-establish the personal connection and let you know that, yes, you did something wrong, but there's still a chance to gain his approval.

And that's the seed he planted back at the interview: by condescending to you and pointing out how you don't have a career plan and how lazy and clumsy you are--and being openly amused by it--he's set up in you the need for his approval, and the only way he's going to let you have it is if you pay for it with your body. That's why you're so obsessed and so in denial; because you want to be good enough for him. Every "I'm glad Miss Kavanagh couldn't do the interview" is a little rush, and you want more, because you thought this guy was so arrogant and controlling that there would never be any way he could notice you. But he did. And it makes you feel warm "somewhere dark and unexpected, deep in my belly."

He's manipulating you, and you're falling for it and calling it romance.

50 Shades of Dysfunction.

6 comments:

SamuraiFrog said...

Dumbass comment deleted for being dumbassed.

New York Erratic said...

Really thanks for taking one for the team.

I know several women who were really, really into 50 Shades of Grey. Your review is eye-opening. This is apparently not Venus in Furs.

However, at the same time, I've ready several good books from the POV of neurotics, including Bridget Jones and Ishiguro's Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go.

I'd be curious to know if you've read anything else written from the POV of a neurotic.

SamuraiFrog said...

Writing the neurotic viewpoint really takes finesse, because neuroses can become embarrassing or whiny to the point where you don't want to deal with them. It's the reason I think Woody Allen is a genius and my Mom finds him irritating.

The Remains of the Day is an excellent novel. American Psycho was fascinatingly constructed, but it was very hard to get through. Steve Martin's The Pleasure of My Company was also hard, but ultimately rewarding. I suppose The Catcher in the Rye would be a big one, too. John Fowles' The Collector is a chilling book, and one that I can't stop thinking about to this day. Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar is probably my favorite book written from the perspective of someone with mental illness, mostly because so much of it is so familiar to my mental illness.

New York Erratic said...

Did not originally think of American Psycho as a neurotic POV, but you're right, it definitely is. That is a great book.

I have the The Collector, but I haven't read it yet.

The Remains of the Day, however, is the height of a really neurotic POV. He spends a lot of time focused on trivialities. If you like that, you'd love Never Let Me Go, which is very much the same style.

Neuroticism can make a character more empathetic if done well. That's apparently not the case in with Ana in 50 Shades.

I don't know if you've read the latest GoT, but Cersei's nutty neurotic POV made her a much more empathetic character. Once you look inside her head and realize she's actually nuts it's harder to hate her (imho).

SamuraiFrog said...

The real problem with Ana in 50 Shades is that she's so wrapped up in her neuroses right off that it becomes basically all we know about her. It's hard to sympathize because I have no idea yet (if I ever will) how other people experience her/what they like about her/what she even wants out of life. There's no character. It's like reading someone's Tumblr blog where all they talk about is how omg awkward they are without ever once mentioning anything they like or what they want out of life.

I did empathize more with Cersei as we went further inside her mind. I can see now the external forces that made her the way she is. It doesn't make what she does any less cruel, but it adds that bit of tragedy because you can see how she's often motivated by desperation.

New York Erratic said...

I seriously enjoy these and hope you keep doing them. For a variety of reasons, I really can't bring myself to read 50 Shades, but I generally make an effort to at least try books that are influential on popular culture. I read The Godfather for that reason (and loved it!)

To me, Cersei came off as really nuts. She's constantly trying to extrapolate what others are thinking on too little information. Furthermore, she's always chewing on past wrongs. I think her brand of nuts is particularly scary because we all do those things at some level.