Saturday, November 23, 2013

50 Shades of Smartass: Chapter 3

Last week, New York Erratic and I talked a bit in the comments about reading a book written from the point of view of the neurotic. I've been thinking about what it is that makes me hate Anastasia Steele so much. Shouldn't I at least be a little sympathetic? After all, we seem to share a lot of the same anxiety disorders. And it's not like there haven't been great novels with narcissistic narrators before (The Catcher in the Rye's a big one). What is it about this particular narrator that grates on me so?

I think it's down to EL James' writing. She's no JD Salinger. When I first read Catcher in high school, I spent the first several chapters thinking, okay, I can identify with a lot of this guy's frustration with society and phonies and the world in general. It drew me into his way of thinking before it became apparent that his frustrations were something more, something that prevented him from functioning normally in the real world. It was brilliant; I know lots of people have different views of the novel, but for me it was about a spoiled brat who was confused when his sense of entitlement hit a brick wall against a world who didn't take him at his word that he was special because it had no reason to. He couldn't deal with it. But by getting to know him and understand him as a person before really catching on to his neurosis, the book had made me care about a person I would otherwise choose not to spend time with. In its way, American Psycho did that. So did The Bell Jar.

The problem with Ana is that there's nothing else to her but her neuroses. That's why I keep saying it's like reading some college girl's Tumblr, because I used to see a lot of it on Tumblr until I stopped following those people. It's hard to feel sympathy for people who are constantly telling you everything that's wrong with them. I'm not saying people can't complain. But when you don't know anything about a person beyond "I like anime" and "Here's everything that's wrong with me," it's hard to take them seriously as people, because they're so caught up in themselves that you wonder why you're even in the conversation. It's the awkwardness which is a serious problem for some people, but which is right now being so overly-romanticized. It's not romantic to be a lonely shut-in; it's not a choice you've made. It's because you're so wrapped up in your fear of others or of social situations or of the world at large or even of just being afraid; it twists you around and around so you really feel you can't go outside. I know. I've got it. I fight it every day, and some days I fail at it spectacularly. It can ruin your life. But that's not romantic. That's a tragedy.

But in Ana there's this annoying, self-serving dichotomy of a girl telling you how boring and uninteresting she is, and then consistently being fascinated with herself and only herself, and going on and on about her reactions to everything without giving them any context or connection. She's always in the moment, alternately whining about herself or talking about the sensations she's experiencing without analyzing them in any way. So... I just have a hard time being in the mind of this character who is always reacting to something without really attempting to understand it (or help us understand why we should care).

Everything else about Ana is just extraneous details that don't matter to the story. You're not automatically deep because you like Jane Austen novels or "thumping indie rock" or because you drive a VW bug. Tell us how those things make you feel. Show us that they have personal significance and aren't just trappings. Everything about Ana is [college student stereotype] + [only child stereotype] + OMG HOLY CRAP CRAPPIN' DOUBLE CRAP I'M SO AWKWARD AND DID I MENTION I'M A VIRGIN HARD TO BELIEVE AMIRITE / 1920s slang.

There's no there there.

Christian Grey: also a stereotype. But he's not the one we're supposed to be rooting for. He's just vague authority and vague business speak and basically he could be a vampire or an alien or her stepdad and it would be the same story, because she's basically just describing Michael Fassbender over and over again, but as a cool, confident man who's really a troubled little boy underneath, because another thing pop culture needs to stop doing is romanticizing vain, maniacal assholes as troubled just because they're cute. (See anything that any fangirl has ever written about Loki without also mentioning that he's petty, spoiled, selfish, and technically a mass murderer, but omg cute hair and eyes.)

Gosh... I always hope the next thing installment is going to be shorter....

Do you make notes when you're reading something critically? I do.

There is so much extraneous detail and bits of narrative that could be chopped off wholesale and never missed. I don't care how many cars you had to take so you and Kate and Jose and Jose's gofer (not "gopher," as James styles it) could go to the hotel to shoot Christian Grey. (With a camera, unfortunately.) I don't care about what kind of music you were listening to. I don't care what roads you took to get there. None of this matters. You are not weaving a rich tapestry, you are padding your word count.

The first part of the chapter is just Ana at work gushing to Kate over the phone about how Christian came to see her and he's going to do the photos and how hot he is, etc. Even Kate tells her that it's not a coincidence, but Ana insists that it is, because of course she does. Here's another example of a problem I have with Ana as narrator--it's obvious to anyone whose spinal cord is connected to their brain that Christian came here just to see her, but she keeps insisting that it's a coincidence because of her low self-esteem and whatever. I get that, sure. It's realistic to someone with this kind of personality disorder. But then she keeps on in her insistence long past the point where it's necessary to the narrative, so instead of just looking insecure, she looks incredibly stupid. We can all see him sizing you up, figuring out the easiest way to seduce and dominate you, but you keep crying "coincidence" and "I'm not good enough," and it just makes you look dumb because you're denying what's apparent.

Kate's clunky reaction to Christian giving Ana his cell phone number: "The richest, most elusive, most enigmatic bachelor in Washington State just gave you his cell phone number?"

Say what you will about EL James as a writer, but she's sure got an ear for the way people really talk. I know that I always like to spell out exactly what the situation is at convenient moments, in case someone is trying to follow the narrative arc of my afternoon.

I want to hit somebody for this one, though: "I hug myself with quiet glee, rocking from side to side, entertaining the possibility that he might like me." Oh, man. Do you think he likes you or like likes you? Ugh. I just rolled my eyes so hard they locked for ten seconds. Ana seems to think she's in a young adult book for 8 year-olds. Honey, your first orgasm is going to be so confusing. You are not well-adjusted.

Also, when Kate says she has a "relationship" with Christian Grey, Ana's response is: "'Relationship?' I squeak at her, my voice rising several octaves."


Maybe I'm just old before my time, but ugh.

To me, the most shocking moment happens when she hangs up the phone and the boss's brother, Paul, asks her out, as he apparently always does when he's home from school. She plays it off by telling us that she thinks it's a bad idea to date the boss's brother, but also says "Paul is cute in a wholesome all-American boy-next-door kind of way, but he's no literary hero, not by any stretch of the imagination."

See, Ana is just like Bella Swan, in that she's constantly telling us how awkward she is, but then everyone falls all over themselves to be around her. Her friend Jose, the boss's brother Paul, Christian Grey the Richest Most Elusive Most Enigmatic Bachelor in Washington State... men just can't get enough of even just being around her because she's so fucking fascinating to people, even though she's awkward and ugly and clumsy and all the other things she keeps reminding us are wrong with her.

But here, for one second--and I have to assume it's either an accident or something the narcissism of both character and author didn't notice--it's like Ana is admitting that she's just waiting for the one person to come along who is just as amazingly, supernaturally special as she considers herself to be. She's not going to give herself to just some guy who's cute and nice to her and has a real interest in her. No, no. It's got to be Edward Cullen Dracula the Doctor Loki Christian Grey.

(Which, of course, is why it's so grating that she keeps downplaying his interest in her as not real, because it's so clearly what she wants.)

(Side note: I hate it when people use the phrase "not by any stretch of the imagination." It sounds unnecessarily insulting.)

She can't even talk on the phone to set up the meeting without gushing and forgetting how to breathe and falling under his spell. It's like he's got that ring Ming the Merciless had that made Melody Anderson all horny. It's so cartoony. Can we just move along, please? And then she has the temerity to get all mad at Kate for making her call and making her go to the photo session, because Kate just made it possible for you to do the one thing you want which is see Christian again OH MY GOD WHAT A BITCH.

(This is the same child who keeps reminding us what a great, self-sacrificing friend she reluctantly is.)

(She also, at the hotel, gets snippy with Kate for being so domineering, which is really only there to let us know that Miss Princess likes to be bossed around.)

At the hotel -- "The rooms are elegant, understated, and opulently furnished" she mentions blandly with her usual shrug for the generic--Ana can barely keep it together upon seeing Christian. "Holy crap! He's wearing a white shirt, open at the collar, and gray flannel pants that hang from his hips. His unruly hair is still damp from a shower. My mouth goes dry looking at him...he's so freaking hot." Virginia Woolf must be glad that she doesn't have to compete with this eloquence.

(For those counting out of irritation, like me, she only says "crap" six times in this chapter, so maybe she's bought a thesaurus.)

So, Christian doesn't like Jose--he clearly doesn't like any potential young man who could get between him and his prey, Anastasia Rose Steele (because of course that's her name)--but they get through their little picture session, and then Christian asks Ana to have coffee. Kate doesn't like this. Yes, Kate, who has been pushing them together and trying to get Ana interested in someone other than herself for once, is suddenly full of warnings about how Christian is dangerous for "someone like you." Someone like her? "An innocent like you, Ana." It's so arch and painful. This horrible warning, full of implications, delivered like Kate's supposed to be a witch in a bad B-movie about British history. Look, you can't be genteel with Ana, you have to spell it out. "Girl, he's trying to fuck you, and you're too stupid to figure it out, so guard your panties" would have been much easier for her to decipher.

Ana's all like, guh, it's just coffee, come on, which is what a thousand girls say before they end up with their pants around their ankles. Not that I care, really, because this is (ostensibly) a grown woman making her own stupid choices, so why not just go for it instead of having to attach Big Themes and Deep Meanings to it? Quit letting him manipulate you emotionally into his bed and just get some dick and get fucking over yourself.

Sorry, this is really getting to me.

People: it's just sex. Calm. Down.

But, of course, it's a little dream date for her. There's a couple making out in the elevator, he holds her hand all the way to the coffee shop, she gets her precious English breakfast tea because she hates coffee because there's no cliche on the list of Giddy Virgin on Her First Trip to London characteristics she's not gonna check off, and then they have a deep, meaningful discussion where he tries to get to know her and she's totally confused by that.

This conversation is so stupid. She's so unnerved by his personal probing, when he's just observant and interested. Well, not "just." There's a point to every question, as there always is with sexual predators.

He asks her about whether she has a boyfriend, then tells her "You seem nervous around men." She answers this by blushing and gasping. Then he praises her for not being intimidated by him, corrects her posture, then flatters her by calling her a mystery and observing that she's "self-contained," which is an odd way to mispronounce "self-centered." To crown that one, she asks why he hasn't asked her to call him by his first name--acknowledging that she feels she needs permission to--and he says "The only people who use my given name are my family and a few close friends" before changing the subject.

And as usual, she just doesn't see the way he's manipulating her. He makes a personal, penetrative observation ("You seem nervous around men.") to make her self-conscious and vulnerable, but then he builds her up, casually asserts his power over her (telling her to straighten up and look at him), then throws in some flattery to make her question herself, and then once again sets her up to desire his approval and acceptance. What she really appears to be hearing is "I--and only I--think you're fascinating, but I'm not going to put myself on the same level with you until you prove yourself worthy of it."

She plays it off as his being a control freak, which she thinks is some deep, psychological insight, because she's the kind of person who latches on to one personality trait and thinks she has a person all figured out. You simp: he's dominating you, and you're playing into it. He's abusing you, and you're eating it up, and you are absolutely fooling yourself if you think you're in control of this situation. (Or that he has any respect for you.)

So now he starts asking her questions about her parents. She's an only child, her dad died when she was a baby, and her mom remarried three times. His stomach must be all tingly with glee at how many daddy issues she must have. That'll make it easier for him to get her to do whatever he wants. Oh, I'm sorry, did you think he was asking about her parents because he's interested in her as a person?

For some reason, they make a big deal about how mom moved to Texas to live with unnamed Husband Number Three, and then when she came back, she was divorced, and now she never ever talks about Husband Number Three. A perverse part of me who just wants Christian to be as evil as possible because I am starting to hate everyone who ever thought this was a sexy romance novel hopes that Christian is actually Husband Number Three and this is some really sick game he's playing. Hell, if there's one thing Tumblr has taught me, it's that no fictional character can ever be considered abusive or evil as long as he has long, messy hair and bedroom eyes.

Anyway, this interminable conversation cavalcade of cliches and uninteresting personal details finally ends with him casually insulting her clothing ("Do you always wear jeans?"--you watch, she'll be in a dress the next time she meets him), telling her "I don't do the girlfriend thing" (ooh, maybe she'll beg for his acceptance some more; come on, Ana, I'm sure you can be the one to change this supernatural creature), and the clumsy, clunky, artless foreshadowing of "I feel like I've been interviewed for a job, but I'm not sure what for."

And then, just to seal the deal, when she's out on the street with him... she trips! Because of course she does! Because that's apparently endearing! He catches her, and then they're pressed together and breathing and staring into one another's eyes and he's touching her lip and it's like they're going to fuck right there on the street in front of everyone because a clumsy girl is like an aphrodisiac. (Imagine if she'd broken a bone and it became exposed, he'd probably blow his load right there, because hot chicks falling down is sexy according to every romantic comedy ever. Oh, how I wish I could find a girl with vertigo and an inner ear defect!)

Then he's getting closer, and closer, and "For the first time in twenty-one years, I want to be kissed."

Which I guess is supposed to be revelatory and not sad?

I do know one thing for sure: whether he kisses her or not, she's going to be obsessed over what happened, but not actually make an effort to understand her feelings, because that's not as important as getting histrionic over them. Way to be avoidant, Ana.


New York Erratic said...

Maybe the author wants the reader to hate Ana?

I know from your quotes that it isn't the best written book in the world, but someone can be very psychologically adept and not write fiction particularly well. I learned that reading BF Skinner's "Walden II." Skinner was a brilliant psychologist but in many ways he was not very articulate.

It would make a vague sort of sense. Maybe you're supposed to feel more on Christian's side, like she's "getting what she deserves" later in the novel.

Jez In Dallas said...

This is largely irrelevant but my high school best friends name was the same as Anastasia's, except her first name is Andrea (same middle and last, which the last even being spelled the same.)

I thought that was amusing. I'm glad you're doing this because I always heard/suspected these books were terrible and now I have it on good authority!

Autumn said...

It's kind of awful and amusing at the same time to realize that I thought these books were just terrible, you are pointing out how these books are a guide to picking up abusive men.

SamuraiFrog said...

They could also be marketed as guides for manipulating women. It's skeevy.