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Fifty Shades of Grey

E L James

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Mar 11, 2012
Category: Fiction

“Fifty Shades of Grey” — the E L James novel about a virginal 21-year-old college senior and the 27-year-old billionaire who tells her what to eat, what to wear, what kind of contraception to use and, of course, what kind of rough sex comes next — has sold 110 million copies.

What’s going on here?

1) It’s “mommy porn,” racy enough for suburban readers but not hardcore S&M like The Story of O: “Women feel like it’s O.K. to read it… It’s taboo for women to admit that they watch pornography, but for some reason it’s O.K. to admit that they’re reading this book.”

2) It strengthens marriage: “Because of this book my husband and I have had some good times.”

3) It’s Easy Reading: “The first book I’ve read in 9 years,” a woman proudly announced on “Today.

4) It reminds women of “Twilight,” a book many of them have read. Says romance author and blogger Sarah Wendell: “The themes of ‘Twilight’ are very much repeated: innocent heroine, dark, emotionally unavailable hero with a secret, isolation of the heroine from the rest of the world while with the hero, and the hero’s overwhelming ability to care for and provide for the heroine with limitless wealth. It’s a wealth fantasy as well as an erotic fantasy.”

5) It really does speak to women. “The most common female fantasy is a submission fantasy,” says sexologist Laura Berman, who has advised her readers, “As far as sexual fantasies go, getting spanked is among the tamest and most common desires out there.”

You’ll notice the absence of #6, which would be something like: “It’s a well-written page turner.” That’s because, as a reading experience, “Fifty Shades or Grey” is a sad joke, puny of plot, padded with conversations that are repeated five or six times and e-mail exchanges that are neither romantic nor witty. And as for the sex… let’s be honest: that’s the reason you’ve read this far, right? If so, you really don’t want the 380-page paperback that Amazon sells for $17.99. You want the $9.99 Kindle edition, because you don’t want anyone you respect to see what you’re reading and ask you about it, and, more to the point, you want those screens to fly by until you reach the “good parts.”]

Like E L James, I’m going to make you wait for the sex.

First let’s meet the characters.

Anastasia Steele is a senior at Washington State University who has majored in “British” literature. Although she’s graduating in two weeks, she hasn’t applied for a single job — she’s focused only on her final exams. But that’s not the most amazing fact about her. Try this: She’s not only a virgin, she’s never even masturbated.

Her roommate — a vivacious hottie, as the fiction manuals dictate — is supposed to interview mega-rich Christian Grey for the graduation issue of some campus publication, but she’s sick, so she sends Anastasia to ask him a page of neatly typed questions.

Do I need to say that Christian Grey is like a god? That he has the sex appeal of Bradley Cooper, the chiseled diction of Pierce Brosnan and the prostate of Ashton Kutcher? That his office is spectacular? No, I don’t. But I bet you didn’t see this coming: Ana, intimidated, stumbles and falls flat on her face as she enters the great man’s sanctum. (I think that’s supposed to be a metaphor.)

After the interview, Ana’s goony: “No man has ever affected me the way Christian Grey has, and I cannot fathom why.” Even more remarkable is that Grey finds mousy, badly dressed, socially inept Ana absolutely fascinating. He promptly turns up at the hardware store where she works after classes and has her help him find some items he and his team of flunkies apparently could not have procured anywhere else in the state of Washington: masking tape and rope.

Grey warns Ana to “steer clear of me,” but that’s boilerplate. By Chapter 7, they’re beyond flirting, and he’s revealing a little about himself — that is, he shows Ana his bondage room. You might flee. This virgin who has never masturbated sticks around: “I fall apart in his hands, my body convulsing and shattering into a thousand pieces. He kisses me, deeply, his tongue in my mouth absorbing my cries.”

As Ana likes to say, whenever she’s wowed, “Holy crap.”

But we’re getting to the Good Stuff now.

Like this: “His erection springs free. Holy cow…”

Like this: “I scream. It feels so good to scream.”

And then, of course, like this: “He has needs that I cannot fulfill. I realize that now.”  (Five minutes later, Grey has Ana on her stomach and they’re doing it again. )

There’s quit a lot of chat about a “contract” Grey wants her to sign. (In case you forget the details, it appears three times in the book). As they discuss the terms, the conversation turns torrid:

“No fisting.”
“Anything else you object to?”
“Anal intercourse doesn’t exactly float my boat.”
“I’ll agree to the fisting, but I’d really like to claim your ass, Anastasia…. Besides, it’s not something we can dive into. Your ass will need training.”

It takes till Chapter 14 for Ana to be naked, shackled, spread-eagled on the bed as Grey commands her to suck on the tip of a plaited leather riding crop. Rapture follows fast: “He flicks the crop and it hits my sweet spot with a sharp slap. I come gloriously, shouting my release.”

Oops. Sorry. That was a dream. Then she tells him about it, and…

But there’s so much more here than sex. There are ideas, big ones, about power and control. Grey quotes Andrew Carnegie: “A man who acquires the ability to take full possession of his own mind may take possession of anything else to which he is justly entitled.” And he spins the kind of philosophy you’d expect from a guy who can only have a relationship with a woman he beats: “There’s a fine line between pleasure and pain. They are two sides of the same coin, one not existing without the other.”

Is there anything that can be said for Christian Grey? Yes, he has great taste in music. This is hard to imagine in a novel that only could get four stars from readers who also loved Snooki’s book, but he actually listens to “Spem In Alium,” by Thomas Tallis. [To read more about Tallis and his piece, click here.]

Let’s listen to it, the better to forget the drivel that is “Fifty Shades of Grey” — or as it’s known in my house, “S&M for Dummies.”