It would be really easy to dismiss Sheila Heti's "novel…
These days you can barely swing anal beads without hitting a conversation about the S&M e-sensation, the novel Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James. What started as Twilight fan fiction got name changes and a shopping spree through the hardware store. It has become a frequent download for e-readers and has made its way to actual paper. And the ladies love it, at least according to my Facebook news feed.
The author took a slightly-older and blonder, though equally clumsy heroine Anastasia Steele, tied her up and probed her in ways that would really make Edward Cullen’s fangs grow fangs. The virgin Anastasia is about to graduate. When her college roomie Kate gets sick, Ana does her a solid by cruising to Seattle to interview the young billionaire Christian Grey who will be speaking at graduation. The story was a bugger to get and hard-hitting journalist Kate Kavanaugh is banking on it for the university’s magazine.
Ana spins into an unprecedented tizzy the second she and Christian press the flesh. And when she leaves the interview, she is shaken, but not yet stirred. They have another not-so-chance chance meeting at the hardware store where she works and then they start meeting on purpose. Christian Grey’s mysterious mouth is telling her “Stay away, I’m bad news,” but the sizzles from his eyes are saying “Have you ever heard of a safe word?”
While dear Anastasia is looking for hearts and flowers and montages set to Damian Grey, Christian is slipping her a Non-Disclosure Agreement that makes what happens in the Red Room of Pain stay in the Red Room of Pain.
There are Twilight tells, things that point to the story having its genesis in the world’s most stupefying guilty pleasure. Our heroine is on the Bella Swan scale of clumsiness (though her inner goddess, as we’ll see later, is quite the athlete). The first time she meets Christian Grey she’s face-first in the marble floor of his office. During their next meeting, he yanks her from the path of a manic cyclist going the wrong way down a one way street. At every opportunity she notes her lack of athleticism. Meanwhile, he is quiet, moody and has fantastic hair. He is possessive.
And where Stephenie Meyer had 101 ways to describe Edward Cullen’s eye color, EL James has 101 ways to describe Anastasia Steele’s inner goddess.
TIME OUT FOR: WHAT ANASTASIA STEELE’S INNER GODDESS IS UP TO NOW:
My very small inner goddess sways in a gentle victorious samba;
My inner goddess glares at me, tapping her foot impatiently;
My inner goddess is thrilled (twice)
My inner goddess is doing the merengue with some salsa moves;
My inner goddess has stopped dancing and is staring, too, mouth open and drooling slightly;
My inner goddess sits in the lotus position looking serene except for the sly, self-congratulatory smile on her face;
My inner goddess nods in silent Zen-like agreement with her;
My inner goddess is jumping up and down, clapping her hands like a five-year-old;
My inner goddess stops jumping and smiles serenely;
My inner goddess shakes her head at me;
My inner goddess glows so bright she could light up Portland;
My inner goddess … make a very vulgar and unattractive gesture at him with her fingers;
My inner goddess frowns at me;
My inner goddess jumps up and down with cheerleading pom-poms shouting yes at me;
My inner goddess is not pleased;
My inner goddess is doing back flips in a routine worthy of a Russian Olympic gymnast;
My inner goddess smacks her lips together glowing with pride;
My inner goddess bounces up and down like a small child waiting for ice cream;
My inner goddess is panting.
My inner goddess roars, and from somewhere born of frustration, need, and sheer Steele bravery, I push him onto the bed;
My inner goddess is going to explode;
My inner goddess looks like someone snatched her ice cream;
My inner goddess has woken and is paying attention;
My inner goddess pleads with me;
My inner goddess is prostrate;
My inner goddess is staring open-mouthed;
My inner goddess is … eating grapes and taping her fingers, waiting not so patiently for Sunday;
My inner goddess is beside herself, hopping from foot to foot;
My inner goddess has her pom-poms in hand — she’s in cheerleading mode;
My inner goddess is spinning like a world-class ballerina, pirouette after pirouette;
My inner goddess has a ‘do not disturb’ sign on the outside of her room;
My inner goddess grins at me;
My inner goddess sighs with relief;
My inner goddess is smoldering and not in a good way;
My inner goodness nods in agreement, a satisfied grin over her face;
My inner goddess pops her head above the parapet;
My inner goddess pouts at me;
My inner goddess is doing the dance of seven veils;
My inner goddess glares at me in desperation;
My inner goddess scowls at me, not to beautiful for me;
My inner goddess is still basking in a remnant of post-coital glow;
My inner goddess leaps up cheering from her chaise longue;
My inner goddess gazes at him in quiet, surprised speculation;
My subconscious and inner goddess glances nervously at one another;
My inner goddess pole vaults over the fifteen-foot bar;
My inner goddess is standing on the podium awaiting her gold medal;
My inner goddess has backflipped off the podium and is doing cartwheels around the stadium;
My inner goddess — she’s under a blanket behind the couch;
My inner goddess swoons;
My inner goddess is hopeful for one type of mode;
My inner goddess is swaying and writhing to some primal carnal rhythm;
My inner goddess closes her eyes, feveling in the feel of his lips on me;
My inner goddess is endeavoring to look brave;
My inner goddess is nowhere to be seen.
At times I wondered if this wasn’t pure comedy. Or at least some sort of hoax. E.L. James as you or me, cackling at her readers. Working the basic math to determine the formula that has made her vampire series so successful and reworking it into a new brew and then spoon-feeding it to women who want to drop into a faint and be carried to bed by a man who is ruled by the primal tug of his rock hard. And really you can’t blame someone for seeing a place to make a buck — sexcapades for the Team Edward sect in a post-Breaking Dawn world — and diving in with her crop whip at attention. That’s the only answer I can come up with for this snort-worthy moment where Grey responds to Anastasia’s request that he make love to her:
“Firstly, I don’t make love. I fuck . . . hard.”
The author also has the wherewithal to eliminate some of the details that make Twilight such an ooky read: While there is an abusiveness and obsessive nature to Edward Cullen’s relationship with Bella Swan, the under-aged factor that exists in the first book, his stalking, the dangerous notion that at any moment he might kill her, this one about abuse with consent. There is paperwork. Anastasia, though a virgin, is 21.
Side note: Did anyone else spend a lot of time worried about the health of Anastasia’s urinary tract through all of this?
One of the most distracting elements in this novel is Anastasia’s level of incompetence with common technology. This story is set in 2011, and when it opens she is inches from college graduation, yet shows a lack of familiarity with computers. When Christian Grey offers her the use of a Mac Book Pro, the delivery man sets it up for her and when he tells her she has an email address, she acts like she has been crowned Homecoming Queen. An email address? For moi? (Yet she already has an iPod).
True to the tradition of pornography — their word, not mine — this is light on plot and heavy on penetration. Where some might find conflict a necessity in creating a piece of fiction, the conflict here is more like “conflict.” It is simply: Should Anastasia agree to be the sexual submissive to Christian’s dom? She wants him bad and this seems to be the only way to have him. Should she suffer the spankings for the cause, opt for handcuffs when she really wants hand holding, or should she deny herself the only man who has ever yanked on her heart — not to mention her tampon string? (True story). Or is there middle ground?
Obviously this doesn’t really make for a 500-plus page quandary. It’s more like a 30 page quandary stuffed in between a whole Boy Scout manual filled with ways to tie a knot in between helicopter rides and expensive gifts.
Whatever. Fifty Shades of Grey is exactly what it is supposed to be and it’s doing exactly what it is supposed to do: Get people’s rocks off. Will it get yours off? Probably. But that doesn’t mean it’s good.