Several shades of paradox

James isn’t a particularly good writer, but her novel is undeniably a page-turner.

BEIRUT: If, as a first-time novelist, E L James abided by the oft-dispensed advice of “write what you know,” then she has had one hell of a sex life.

It must be the unrelenting sex and multiple orgasms in “Fifty Shades of Grey” that have sent it flying off the shelves the world over, Lebanon included – allowing it to surpass the stalwart Harry Potter series as the fastest selling paperback of all time.

Yet it can’t just be the sex, as protagonist Anastasia Steele is a naive 21-year-old who, being a virgin, has had no sexual or romantic experience. She hasn’t even tried masturbation, and is virtually innocent of computers, email or the Internet. Though “Fifty Shades” is set in 2011, Steele sounds more like a character in one of the class-conscious British novels she so loves to read.

In the first novel of James’ trilogy, Ana is a university student in Vancouver, Washington. Her world falls apart as soon as she lays eyes on Christian Grey, “the most beautiful man on the planet,” who she’s been tasked with interviewing for her university’s student magazine. She finds an obscenely rich entrepreneur who owns half of Seattle, at the age of 27, a piano virtuoso and a fully trained pilot who is adamant on feeding the world’s poor.

Ana and Grey instantly feel a heady mutual attraction and for a few days he coincidentally “pops up” in Vancouver as he “finds it impossible to stay away” from her, despite his warnings that she should have nothing to do with him. Meanwhile, she cannot believe that this perfect specimen of a human being should be interested in her.

Et voila! The two embark on a too-fast-too-furious relationship, even after Grey shows Ana his “red room of pain” – a haven for engaging in BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism) with shackles, whips, floggers, chains, canes and so on.

“I want you to willingly surrender yourself to me, in all things ... for my pleasure,” Grey tells her, making it very clear that this is the only type of relationship he is interested in. Remarkably, naïf-like Anastasia Steele doesn’t run for the hills.

There is a contract, a list of rules and hard limits, which she finds off-putting, but it doesn’t stop her from allowing Christian to pop her cherry moments later. As James writes, Ana magnificently “explodes around him,” many times over.

This is the point where your infatuation with “Fifty Shades” begins to nosedive. Though the novel’s appeal lies in its graphic depictions of robust sex, it would make a more interesting read if Ana and Grey weren’t having mind-blowing orgasms every couple of pages.

When the heroine orgasms at the drop of a hat – or more specifically, whenever Grey commands her to “Come for me, baby” – it’s surprising to learn that “Fifty Shades” was written by a middle-aged woman.

It is a worth a mention though that, for most of the novel, the scenes with BDSM are few and quite tame. Basically Ana seems to enjoy being tied up and spanked.

Yet after a while all the fantastical, perfect, no-mess sex (made all the more bizarre by James’ odd euphemisms for genitals – “my sex” or “down there,” “his length” or “erection”) just gets tedious.

It’s not only the depictions of sex that make “Fifty Shades” monotonous. Ana’s facial expressions are limited to flushing, gasping, eye-rolling, scowling and smiling shyly. She pulls each of these faces dozens of times over. Worse, the vast majority of Grey and Ana’s conversations seem to be whispered or murmured. What’s wrong with talking?

James isn’t a particularly good writer, and the repetitive tropes and poor characterization hamper the novel’s credibility. “Fifty Shades” is also full of distracting Britishisms that these American characters would never utter. It’s understandable, as James is English, but still inexcusable: If you can’t write American dialect, just set the novel in England.

Given its shortcomings as a piece of literature, you wonder why the novel is selling like hotcakes internationally.

The book is a paradox. While James should find herself a new editor and maybe join some writing courses, her book is undeniably a page-turner.

Ana and Grey’s dialogues are sometimes amusing, especially when they email each other – full transcripts of their exchanges are included in the book – which makes you wonder whether Ana and Grey’s relationship wouldn’t be more dynamic (more interesting to read about, anyway) if they didn’t spend so much time grappling physically.

The nonstop action – much of it in the bedroom – does keep the reader going, partly to find out if Ana will pursue this BDSM-filled relationship.

The depictions of sex in “Fifty Shades” are far from revolutionary, but because the sex has become the book’s selling point, readers can no longer claim they’ve picked it up for its love story.

The main incentive to keep reading “Fifty Shades” may be to unravel the enigma of Christian Grey.

While the reader becomes familiar with Ana’s every waking thought, Grey’s secrets and the story behind his fetishes, feelings of unworthiness and refusal to be touched (emotionally or physically, at least above the waist) may be what makes readers curious.

Hints of a traumatizing childhood begin to explain why he is so dark and mysterious but not quite. Evidently James must leave something of substance for the following two parts of the series.

For most readers (for this writer, at any rate) it will be sheer curiosity about the hype around “Fifty Shades” that compels you to pick up this novel. And that is quite fitting as a beach read.

E L James’ “Fifty Shades of Grey,” 514 pages, is published by Arrow Press and available at Beirut bookshops.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 23, 2012, on page 16.




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