Fifty shades of cliche
If you’re a guy, you have to get a special permit from the Chick Lit Review Board to read “Fifty Shades of Grey,” the pulp novel by E.L. James which is doing to the fiction bestselling lists what Godzilla did to downtown Tokyo. Mine finally came through last week and I sat down with a new copy of “Grey” feeling like a 14-year-old swiping the Victoria’s Secret catalogue from the neighbor’s mailbox.
The comparison is apt, given that “Grey” is undisguised, unashamed “erotica,” which is girl talk for porn. With all the hype, I expected the thing to be most hot-and-bothered book since “The Help” – hey, who are you to judge me?
And, my testosterone-fueled review?
Seriously, I have never read a sharper, more brilliantly realized parody of romance fiction in all my born days. And whoever this “E.L. James” person is, I’m betting that he/she is on the writing staff of “The Colbert Report.” Check the end credits next time and see if I’m wrong.
This is Swiftian level lampoonery, folks. Twain himself couldn’t have done better. Bad fiction has never suffered such a withering take-down.
Imagine if you could load every contemporary cliché onto your iPod, then hit Shuffle. That’s what reading this book is like. And, on every other page, mouths “drop open” in shock to cue us readers in on what to be scandalized by. If you took a drink every time you read the phrase “mouth drops open,” you’d have to finish the book at the Betty Ford Center.
The first-person heroine of “Grey” is named Anastasia Steele – I know, right? Go ahead and try to make up a more ridiculously contrived name. The best I could come up with is “Raven Velvetswan” and that just doesn’t have the subtle distilled hokiness of “Anastasia Steele.”
We learn early on that Anastasia is both smokin’ hot and a virgin – non-religious variety – and yet apparently old enough to purchase an adult beverage. The last time an actual person of that description was sighted in the wild was 1987.
Her world is changed forever when she meets Christian Grey – again, with the names; maybe “Dirk Buffington” was already copyrighted.
OK – you’re going to love this – this Grey guy is unfathomably rich, male-model gorgeous, sculpted like a marble statue, irresistibly charming and mysterious and … well, let’s quote our dear Anastasia here: “If this guy is over thirty, then I’m a monkey’s uncle.” (Yep, 500 pages of that kind of scintillating prose.) Next time your wife/girlfriend rolls her eyes at bikini models in beer ads, counter with Christian Grey. Same deal, am I right, fellas?
As it turns out, Grey has got a big-time secret. He’s one seriously kinky, freaked-out dude. His seduction of Ana involves flying her around in his private helicopter between Portland and Seattle – what, did you expect Milwaukee? – and showing her his Red Room of Pain, a S&M fetishist’s catalogue come to life.
Poor Ana is conflicted about all this. She’s a feisty, spirited girl who would generally never submit to such a thing, but gradually the idea of playing Submissive to Grey’s Dominant begins to appeal to her. Of course, give Grey a paunch and a middle-class salary and I’m betting the charm of being thrown over the knee and spanked evaporates pretty quickly, no?
So, is it erotic? As a dude, allow me to pass along one little factoid about “Fifty Shades of Grey” that should answer that question for all my fellow knuckle-draggers. It has 514 pages and not one of them has a picture on it. Nuff said.
What’s amazing about this book is not its contents, but its popularity. “Grey” has not only dominated the top spot on the fiction paperback best-selling lists, it has dominated the top three spots. After “Grey” at number one comes two sequels “Fifty Shades Darker” and “Fifty Shades Freed.”
Who thought the audience of satire was so vast?
What this means is that you can expect a cascade of clichéd erotica to come pouring out of publishing houses in the next year or two … or five, much of it based on this “Story of O” model: rich, mysterious stranger seduces young beautiful ingenue to become his sado-masochistic plaything. Please, God, don’t let this be a metaphor for the future of the one-percenter American economy.
But if this keeps up – somewhere around the publication of the 17th sequel “Fifty Shades of C’mon, I’m Writing As Fast As I Can” – we’re all going to have to have that conversation that is likely to give all good feminists a severe case of acid reflux: Is this really what men and women want from each other?
Good thing it’s all one big parody. Otherwise, we might have to take it seriously.