Oh, how I missed Christian Grey. His stoic intensity, his impeccable suit collection, his way with small words. His twisted cliche of a past and complacent cliche of a future. His contempt for normal relationships and yet powerlessness in the face of the most boring woman on earth. His playroom. His NDA. His overtly metaphorical hatred of being touched.
If there’s anything we’ve learned about E.L. James in the four years since the runaway success of Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed—125 million sold and counting!—it’s that there is zero shame in her game. At one point in 2012, James was reportedly making $1.34 million a week from the series, and rumors of her aggressive presence on the set of the Fifty Shades of Grey movie suggest she’s come a long way from the bemused passivity that typified those early days after FSOG took off. James is the repressed housewife’s J.K. Rowling, living proof that in the age of the blockbuster—movie, album, even book—a rising tide lifts all boats. Like, any boat.
Given Fifty Shades’ ascendancy, it’s little surprise that James has revived the now well-worn tale of elusive sadist millionaire Christian Grey and his (spoiler) semi-submissive-turned-wife, Anastasia Steele. That revival comes in the form of Grey, a retelling of the inaugural FSOG from Christian’s perspective (the original, for those of you with better things to do, was from Anastasia’s). In so many ways, Grey was inevitable—as inevitable as Rowling’s The Tales of Beetle the Bard—because when something clicks with the public, we beat it to death with adoration and replication until it becomes banal in the vast landscape of doppelgangers we’ve created. After all, we are the species that created eight Fast & Furious movies.
Still, I have long been a defender of James, primarily because I find it silly to hate on the prosaic abilities of a woman who self-published Twilight fan fiction (to belabor the point, that’s fiction inspired by Twilight). Which isn’t to say that I think James is a good writer, or that it’s somehow politically incorrect to mock the fact that she isn’t. Just that I always found the Fifty Shades books to be intellectually in sync with what they are: mindless erotica. The characters are wax-paper thin, the dialogue stilted and the cliches abundant. The only scenes into which James seems to have put any effort are the sex scenes, which are nevertheless cringe-worthy. But to expect anything of the Fifty Shades books beyond what they provide is to be fundamentally at odds with what one was signing up for, sort of like listening to Ke$ha and expecting Bach…watching Cops and expecting The Wire…eating Hot Pockets and expecting filet mignon.
Still, it would be fair to suggest that James has had time to catch up. She couldn’t become the next Updike or Miller or Roth, but she could certainly have used her success to elevate her own ability. WELP. Sadly, though perhaps forgivably, Grey is evidence that there has been no such elevation. While James was admittedly hamstrung by the amateur ministrations of her 2011 first novel, including its painful dialogue, no one could accuse her of having used the intervening years to learn how to write.
Oh, but to be inside Christian’s mind! The bulk of the first three books was so oppressively devoted to Anastasia’s inner monologue that it’s difficult not to associate the very concept of Fifty Shades with her demure and irritatingly vacuous personality, her lip-biting coquettishness and faux feminism, her whole gee-golly what’s a butt-plug persona. (I mean honestly honey, sound it out.)
And yet one has to assume James meant us to take some positive message from Anastasia’s tiresome perspective, whether that’s as highbrow as “love works in mysterious ways” or as lowbrow as “get your freak on.” Perhaps she wants us to assume that Ana has unseen—or in this case, undisclosed inside her own head—substance. Or perhaps the message is that no matter your personality flaws—shit, even if you don’t have a personality—there might still be an affecting and (benignly) sexually troubled millionaire out there just waiting to fall in love with you. In Grey, we discover it may be simpler than all that. The truth is that two bland people happened to meet and start a relationship with all the emotional depth of Barbie and Ken’s.
Not that Grey lacks anatomy (heh). Rather, one of the most overt differences between FSOG/FSD/FSF and James’s latest is the overwhelming presence of Christian’s penis. In Grey, Christian and his penis are engaged in constant conversation, the latter reminding the former of his attractions, or concurring with his fantasies, or surprising him with its steadfast resolve in the face of—gasp—vanilla sex. Together, Christian and his penis are a veritable True Detective Season 3, a dynamic best illustrated by the moment in which Christian makes formal introductions:
“Lifting my hips, I grab my cock. ‘I want you to become well acquainted, on first-name terms, if you will, with my favorite and most cherished part of my body. I’m very attached to this.'”
The unveiling of Christian’s personality, much like that of his member, is also rather grating at first. What comes across in Fifty Shades of Grey as a mysterious aloofness reveals itself in Grey to be sometimes aggressive sexism, and not just in the boudoir. Christian is contemptuous of most people, and dismissive of most women—with the exception, in fairness, of his No. 2 at work, Ros—and a solid 75% of his thoughts for the first half of Grey have to do with Anastasia’s T or A, or with daydreams of some way in which he would change her given the chance.
But of course this early Christian is only meant to cast the later one in relief, and as the book progresses we do discover Christian’s softer, or at least deeper, side—in jerky amateurish revelations like: “In the bathroom I take a deep breath, strip, and climb into the shower. I’m half tempted to jerk off, but the familiar fear of discovery and disclosure, from an earlier time in my life, stops me.” We see Christian experience himself falling for Anastasia, which is mostly romantic thoughts followed by What the hell, Grey? or Get a grip, Grey. (Indeed, one can’t help but feel that Christian’s conscience manifests as neither a devil or angel, but rather as a certain cherished appendage.) And we also see Christian’s side of the original book’s many sex scenes, which are narrated with lines like “I pay homage to each of her nipples” and “I continue my lascivious assault.” Grey is ultimately to FSOG what Christian is to Anastasia—a soul mate in insipidity.
Whatever E.L. James does from here, Fifty Shades will always be a curse for her—an extremely financially rewarding curse. James is these books; they are her, and it’s entirely likely that she will only ever be known for having penned something hugely popular and universally pitied—sort of like William Hung singing She Bangs on American Idol. (Hung, incidentally, now works as an administrative assistant at LA’s Department of Public Health.) Which is all to say that James is doing exactly what she should be: milking this cow for as long as possible—FSD is likely to get the rewrite treatment next—and exerting maximum control over all things Grey. For better or worse, Fifty Shades will now and forever be James’s thing, her brand, the monster she created all those years ago writing Twilight-inspired softcore under the pen name “Snowqueen’s Icedragon.” The monster we fed, the monster that has now created offspring. Really, we brought this on ourselves.
AUTHOR: E.L. James
PAGES: 559 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker, Fifty Shades Freed
SORTA LIKE: Patrick Bateman falls in love
FIRST LINE: “I have three cars.”