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The International Writers Magazine: Review

50 Shades of Grey
• James Morford Review
As I read E.L. James’ novel it seemed vaguely familiar. It wasn’t the genre, erotica. Nothing vague about that. Just about everyone has read erotica one time or the other. In the exuberant press coverage of this fastest selling paperback in history, the media even heralded it as something new: “Mummy Porn.”

50 Shades

I guess “Mummy Porn” means mothers discuss the novel during coffee clutches or at the Laundromat. Anyway, it is a novel where big beautiful people do incredible things to each other while living in an idealized nature of things. I was reminded of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged,” which offered erotica mixed with Adam Smith, Cash McCall, Superman and Wonder Woman. Everyone in Ayn Rand’s opus is bigger than life and, if not so, to hell with life!

“Fifty Shades of Grey” encompasses this fantasy, as it is supposed to do. But to those who don’t often read Erotica or Romance novels, the genre can be a bit overwhelming. Regardless, it wasn’t Ayn Rand’s writings that awoke my memory.

Then I remembered years ago reading a novel that dealt with BDSM themes, “The Story of O, written, supposedly to enchant her boyfriend, by a French lady, Anne Desclos. In l955 “O” won the French Literature Prize, Des Deux Magots. The novel created a controversial sensation, journalist Francois Chalais accused the author of ‘Bringing the Gestapo into the Boudoir.” Back then such was the fate of bondage and sadomasochistic entertainment. That things have changed need not be stressed.

My memory was intrigued by comparison between Lord Stephen, a character in the Desclos “O,” and the male lover interest in “Fifty Shades of Grey,” Christian Grey. Christian is totally unreal, not to mention a strange fellow. He is kinky and a control freak. He not only spanks his lover, heroine and virgin Anastasia Steele, but makes love to her while she gazes up at a ceiling pulley-apparatus heralding suspension soon to enter her life. In another scene, to Anastasia’s surprised delight, Christian shoves little wire balls up her vagina. Oddly, hedonist Grey himself hates to be touched by a woman with anything other than her sex organs, a restriction that includes his latest “submissive,” Anastasia Steel.

Christian Grey is extremely rich. He builds and sells things and has an interest in farm technology.  He owns a helicopter, a jet air plane, four or five expensive automobiles, is a billionaire many times over, and all at the age of 27! The man would puzzle anyone. How can someone so perverted, Anastasia muses, be at times so tender, then switch back to perverted, and all the time be so successful? More importantly, why is Anastasia so attracted to him? Well, the gifts he bestows have something to do with it (Twenty-two year old Miss Steele, before meeting Christian rides around in a VW Beetle named “Wanda,” that Christian immediately replaces with an Audi A4. He likes Audi’s, he has two other big ones) and he is handsome (like any Romance novel hero his appearance is so dazzling it transcends: Hips svelte, fingers long and muscular, teeth white and even, chest hair curling and inviting. But damnit! She can’t touch them. What hell! Why is he so strange?) His explanations as to his own psychology don’t help Anastasia, or the reader. He answers the following query about his weirdness: “Because I’m fifty shades of fucked up, Anastasia.” When questioned about his need to spank, he can be more direct: “I’d never beat you black and blue. I aim for pink.”

There are many things technically wrong with the novel, endless boring e-mails that illustrate Christian’s studied formality and lack of everydayness, a quality that nearly drives Anastasia Steele to hang herself by her pigtails  (Yes, she wears pigtails. They are, you see, symbolic of little girls, and therefore submissive to Daddy Christian, etc.)

It is Anastasia’s efforts to understand her love-life conundrum that even on a superficial level, limit the writing. One reason is the author’s odd diction. Throughout the tale she weaves into her heroine’s stream of consciousness what she labels "sub-conscious” thoughts, sometimes called “inner goodness.” She means “moral sense” “super-ego” or her “conscience,” I suppose, but “sub-conscious” is not usually used in such a disquieting way. It must be said, however, that the author has Miss Steele not heeding her "sub-conscious,” or moral options, so this does not detract much from the narrative.

There are other stylistic faults which the novel can’t wiggle free: numerous repetitive phrases that lead to hilarious results. In the first sex scene (the novel is a parade of sex scenes which, in aggregate, are the novel’s purpose) she has Miss Steele spying an aroused Christian Grey’s penis springing from his boxer-shorts, and commenting: “Holy Cow!” Perhaps this exclamation comes to the mind of an author used to shopping packaged meat in London supermarkets, but she should have journeyed to a cattle pasture at least once.

Some repetitive phrases are simply banal, irritatingly so: “way down there, holy shit, holy fuck, holy Moses, that’s the understatement of the year, carnal knowledge,” are sprinkled throughout, slowing the narrative just as did all those boring e-mails.

Worse, however, are the words “blush, and “flush,” used with maddening redundancy. Just about everything makes Anastasia Steele blush or flush. Mister Grey notices and doesn’t really care, although when she bites her lip, which Anastasia does all the time, he pays attention. The bites turn him on as well as generate anger. He explains by telling her that he and only he should bite her lip. Anastasia’s habitual biting is an insult to his dominance. From this you gain insight as to the in-depth psychology of the novel.

The biggest question regarding the novel, to my mind, is whether or not it is a put-on. My guess is that a high percentage of those laboring over erotica creation can be so accused. Hard to imagine anyone taking this stuff seriously, so it must be a comedy created for fame and profit, and therein a partial key to its appeal. Yes, it is funny, and at the same time wildly erotic (sans the e-mails and repetitive phrases, anyway). As the lady readers at the coffee clutch or Laundromat giggle they are at the same time freed from the “slice of life” sexual boredom found in realistic novels and films, not to mention life itself. There are no stains on the sheets here. No faked or non-existent orgasms. No body odor or bad breath. No ugly scabs in obscene body places or embarrassing bruises created by someone other than the current partner. “Fifty Shades of Grey” may be inside a weird place, but it is an inviting and sanitized place.

So exit the mundane world and enter the fantasy of Mister Grey and Miss Steele. Sure, each of us must keep our fantasy in a separate place, making sure invidious comparisons don’t corrupt the actual world, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have fun reading about them in a novel or watching them on a screen. The novel describes sex like nobody, except in solipsistic fantasy, experience. If people, not even named Christian and Anastasia, purchase Miss James’ book they can be vicariously lucky enough to own a flying sex pulley. So “Mummy Porns,” dream, fly and enjoy!  
Hear 50 Shades Being Read with Passion

© james morford 13.09.12



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