I’m bummed, you guys. I’ve been agonizingly making my way through Fifty Shades of Grey, the erotic BDSM romance novel that’s been taking the book market by inexplicable storm in the past few months, grimacing at every new sentence’s poor construction and rolling my eyes exaggeratedly, snorting derisively, and drumming my fingers impatiently through its way-too-many pages while reading it in public to show that I’m not reading this drivel for pleasure… All while quietly relishing the joy I would eventually take in ripping it limb from limb, page by page, word by shittily-penned word. I was really looking forward to sinking my teeth into its squishy underbelly of abysmal construction, dreadfully underdeveloped characters, and nails-on-a-chalkboard dialogue. I couldn’t wait to ream it for its Twilight fan-fic origins, question how bad the Twilight saga itself must be to inspire such insipid drivel (having, proudly, never opened a Stephanie Meyers novel, thankyouverymuch, I wouldn’t know). I was positively drooling with anticipation at recounting some of the worst lines, finding a PDF and getting a count of how many times the lead character (I hesitate to use the word “heroine” here, because that seems to imply some sort of, well, heroism, which our poor, simple Anastasia Steele is clearly lacking) uses the word “jeez.” No, I’m not kidding. “Jeez” appears, I’d say, an average of twice on every page, and seems to be a stand-in for the development of a real speech pattern that might belie a real character. I was getting all moist thinking about how I’d rip Fifty Shades of Grey a new asshole for its unrepentant reliance on gender stereotypes in a totally irresponsible way. I was reading it out of sheer excitement to rip the whole thing to shreds.
I was so ready to do all this because the book was so terrible that I didn’t care how many times it’s already been taken apart syllable by screechingly awful syllable in review after review. I was even going to link to Fifty Shades of Suck, the Tumblr blog that has kept me company on several agonizing nights of reading (and which, incidentally, does some of the work I was going to do by posting the most redolently repulsive lines from the book and mercilessly taking them to task). I was so ready for this!
Because the whole point was that, at the end, I was going to bring it back around to point out that, despite the fact that it breaks my poor, tender, English Lit–major heart that millions of human brains are being subjected to such dreadfully-written slop… those millions of brains are also being exposed to the idea that BDSM relationships aren’t totally fucked-up. That people who play with kink, submission, domination, bondage, and the like, aren’t all freaks. Despite the fact that Fifty Shades of Stupid, as far as mechanics and vocabulary are concerned, could have been written by a sixth-grader with a Thesaurus in the next room for (very) occasional reference (and an advanced knowledge of flogging technique), it’s educating people on the dynamics of BDSM relationships and introducing them to ideas that are presented in an easy-to-digest, if not exactly palatably prepared, fashion. And though the characters themselves are something more akin to the incredibly vapid shadows of real human beings, they’re understandable. They’re approachable. They’re easy to understand for any soccer mom (apparently the main demographic devouring this book—if the state of chain restaurants in middle America says anything about their palates, this makes a lot of sense) or office drone. And as much as I want to sneer at the idea of soccer moms and office drones exploring kink on the recommendations of the borderline-moronic narrator Anastasia Steele, it kind of warms my heart. It makes me want to hug everybody and go, “See? Kink isn’t bad! It’s awesome, and it works for a lot of people. And that’s ok! Let’s all join hands and sing ‘Kumbayah’! I love you guys!”
So really, in the end, though I’d stop short of recommending this book to anyone with anything like taste in literature (even smutty literature — I like me a good romance novel as much as the next pervert), I was going to champion its leveling of the playing field for kinksters and squares alike. Because that sure as shit seemed to be where the predictable plot was going.
But it pulled a 180 on me, dude. It took the rug out from under me. See, here’s the thing: the story is about a totally naïve and possibly idiotic college-grad virgin, Anastasia Steele, falling for and being fallen for by an impossibly wealthy and ridiculously attractive slightly-older CEO who has a thing for domination in the bedroom. He wants her to be his sub. He draws up a contract. They negotiate over it, and in the process they fall in love. She is a total dumbass about it and refuses to believe that he has real feelings for her, because she’s freaked out by his “Red Room of Pain” and worried that he’s a damaged, formerly sexually abused, unreachably fucked-up freak. But she’s in love with him, and falling harder every time he — get this — makes a compromise with her about his usual relationship model. He’s willing to sleep in a bed with her, kiss her, caress her, take it easy on her the few-and-far-between Dom/sub scenes they act out. He likes her. But she’s kind of stupid and it’s taking them forever to just come to some kind of agreement whereby she gets to be more than just his sub and he gets to experience a more nuanced kind of emotional exchange than his BDSM lifestyle has given him hitherto.
See where this is going? Obvi. If you’re an incurable optimist like me, and you love kinksters and sex-positivity, you assume they’re going to end up happily mated in a compromise that might hint at how relationships are complicated but beautiful things worth working for, and that people who like whips and chains aren’t totally beyond the reach of love. Right?
Wrong. The book may be drivel. It may be hopelessly horrible. It may be so bad that even during the sex scenes we get lines like, “Oh boy, I think my heart is going to jump out of my chest, and I’m melting from the inside out, desire coursing through me. Could I be any more excited?” (Seriously. Page 487. Look it up. And yes. The motherfucking book is over five hundred pages long. And I read all of it. For you.) But it sure didn’t follow the script. It surprised me at the end. Because for all of its seeming understanding of the beauty that alternative relationship models can offer… for all the hope I had for it to slay misconceptions about how fucked up D/s people must be to engage in that type of behavior… It totally cut me off. It totally ended with Anastasia leaving her poor, bereft, just-wanting-to-be-loved-but-not-sure-how-to-do-it paramour. It totally ends with heartbreak.
Now I do understand that this the first in a trilogy. I have no doubt in my mind that the next two books go on to at least somewhat make up for the fact that this book seems to reinforce every fucked-up notion about how fucked up people in the kink lifestyle are, and how far away from “normal” people they are, and how relationships between vanillas and kinksters are doomed. I’m sure that’s what’s going to happen in books two and three… At least I have some hope that it will. But if E. L. James, or anyone else, thinks I’m going to sit through two more books full of that willful maiming of the English language, waste hours more of my goddamn precious fucking time to find out what happens… They are motherfucking wrong.
Good day, sir! I said good day!
This review was first published on WHACK! Magazine.