Matt Forney
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fifty shades

The Annotated Fifty Shades of Grey: Journey to the Center of the Female Id

For the uninitiated, Fifty Shades of Grey is the romance novel that’s taking the publishing world by storm. It’s a hackneyed, unreadable piece of shit, but it’s one of the best-selling books of all time.

And every woman in America is flicking her bean to it.

Your girlfriend? She’s reading it when you’re not around. That fat bitch in HR who threatened to have you fired for cracking rape jokes? She’s reading it during her lunch break. Your sister, who got a purity ring when she was 15 and talks about how she’s saving herself for marriage? She’s reading it in her dorm room between giving blow-jays to every hunk who grunts at her (because if it’s not vaginal sex, it doesn’t count). And your mother, who wiped your ass and baked you cookies and kissed you goodnight when you were a kid? She’s reading it before bed every night while your dad pinches off a loaf in front of the family computer.

Why is this important? Fifty Shades of Grey ain’t some cutesy, innocent Jane Austen fantasy. It’s one perverted priest shy of being a lost Sade manuscript. It’s about a naive college girl who gets choked, spanked, whipped and completely dominated by an apex alpha male. If there was a male equivalent of this book, feminists would shriek for it to be banned because it might encourage rape or violence against women. Hell, they’re already calling for the book to be banned because of that.

This isn’t chick lit: it’s chick porn.

A couple weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to acquire a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey that fell off the back of a Barnes & Noble truck. Because I’m constantly seeking out new ways to torture myself, I decided to read it for the sole purpose of tearing it apart on the blog. The things I do for lulz.

Here’s how this’ll work. I’ll try and write a new installment in this series every week depending on how much I can read; given how wretched the writing in this book is, that’s something of a challenge. My edition of the book is something like 350 pages, so I have plenty of material to work with well into the fall. Hell, I’ll probably get to Portland before I finish anal-yzing (spelled that way for a reason) this steaming turd.

And in case you’re wondering, I’m not doing the book’s sequels. Even I have my limits.

Chapter One

When I say Fifty Shades of Grey is unreadable, it’s not just hyperbole: this book is freshman GenEd English flunkout level bad. Here’s the very first paragraph if you don’t believe me:

I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror. Damn my hair – it just won’t behave, and damn Katherine Kavanagh for being ill and subjecting me to this ordeal. I should be studying for my final exams, which are next week, yet here I am trying to brush my hair into submission. I must not sleep with it wet. I must not sleep with it wet. Reciting this mantra several times, I attempt, once more, to bring it under control with the brush. I roll my eyes in exasperation and gaze at the pale, brown-haired girl with blue eyes too big for her face staring back at me, and give up. My only option is to restrain my wayward hair in a ponytail and hope that I look semi presentable.

Oh wow, how stimulating! It really feels like I’m in the mind of a 21-year old girl and not a 45-year old English hausfrau trapped in a failing marriage! If you tried to play a drinking game with this book (every time you spot a routine writing screwup, take a shot), you’d be dead of alcohol poisoning before the first chapter was up. Let’s run down the reasons why this passage is horrible:

  1. Run-on sentences. Every line packs an obnoxious, unwieldy amount of detail, making them feel clunkier than a car with square wheels. “[D]amn Katherine Kavanagh for being ill?” Who recites their best friends’ full names while thinking? And the line about Ana’s exams should be written “I should be studying for next week’s final exams.” Conveys the same amount of information in fewer words.
  2. Uninspired adjective use. “[P]ale, brown-haired girl with blue eyes” has got to be the blandest description I’ve ever read in a work of fiction. Has E.L. James never used a thesaurus? Has she ever read any book above a fourth-grade level? Here, let me take a stab at an improved description of Ana: “alabaster-skinned brunette with saucer-like eyes the color of the ocean.” A bit purplish, but it’s damn better than the original.
  3. Inappropriate voice. Does this sound like a college girl to you? Even if James is removed from the experience of being an undergrad, she could have at least done a little research to make the character believable.

But if I spend all my time ripping apart the book’s inept prose, I’ll be anal-yzing the first chapter all the way into winter, so let’s move on.

Anyway, the story so far is that our intrepid heroine Anastasia Steele (funny name, that) has been drafted into heading to Seattle to cover an assignment for her college roommate Kate, who’s down with the flu. We know she’s got the flu because she has a “rasping, sore throat voice.” The assignment in question is interviewing Christian Grey, the CEO of Grey Enterprises Holdings Inc. and one of the college’s major benefactors—in other words, a Very Important Person—for the school paper.

This is all despite the fact that a) Ana doesn’t work for the school paper, b) has no journalistic experience and c) Kate is the paper’s editor and could have drafted any one of her flunkies for the job. It’s also plainly obvious that Ana has no interest in the assignment, going by her mutterings of “damn her.” Uh Kate, maybe you should get someone a little more qualified to handle what is an incredibly important story?

And if you thought that above excerpt was riveting, watch and marvel at how well James captures the idiom of American college girls:

“Of course I’ll go Kate. You should get back to bed. Would you like some Nyquil or Tylenol?”

“Nyquil, please. Here are the questions and my mini-disc recorder. Just press record here. Make notes, I’ll transcribe it all.”

“I know nothing about him,” I murmur, trying and failing to suppress my rising panic.

“The questions will see you through. Go. It’s a long drive. I don’t want you to be late.”

“Okay, I’m going. Get back to bed. I made you some soup to heat up later.” I stare at her fondly. Only for you, Kate, would I do this.

“I will. Good luck. And thanks Ana – as usual, you’re my lifesaver.”

Try and imagine two flesh-and-blood, non-autistic humans having a conversation this stilted and awkward. Actually, given Ana’s incredible social retardation (read on), she probably is autistic.

Anyway, Ana “set[s] off from Vancouver, WA toward Portland and the I-5” to Seattle. If you don’t understand the problem with that sentence, it’s because you don’t know that Portland is directly south of Vancouver and Seattle is north of both cities. So James went to the trouble of researching the name of the highway that connects Portland and Seattle but couldn’t be bothered to learn where the actual cities are located on a map? Maybe Ana’s just got a really bad sense of direction.

So after doing a u-ey and “floor[ing] the pedal to the metal” (actual quote), Ana makes it to Seattle and the world capital of Grey Enterprises. After marveling at the “glass, steel, and white sandstone lobby,” she gets whisked away to Grey’s office. While waiting in the lobby, Ana muses about how she “know[s] nothing about this man I’m about to interview,” apparently unaware of this massive informational resource called “Google” that can be accessed with any computer or cell phone with Internet access.

Then Grey invites her in and the real fun begins.

Actually, it’s more accurate to say Ana almost kills herself trying to walk through the door, and Grey rides to her rescue:

Double crap – me and my two left feet! I am on my hands and knees in the doorway to Mr. Grey’s office, and gentle hands are around me helping me to stand. I am so embarrassed, damn my clumsiness. I have to steel myself to glance up. Holy cow – he’s so young.

Jesus Christ, can’t this woman pick one dialect and stick with it? In the span of one paragraph, she’s gone from talking like a regular American twentysomething (“double crap”) to talking like a BBC soap opera star (“damn my clumsiness”) to talking like a caricature of what foreigners think Americans sound like (“Holy cow”). Next she’ll start mixing in a Texan drawl cribbed from old John Wayne westerns: “Howdy, Mr. Grey. Damn my blushing cheeks.”

And did I mention that Grey has grey eyes? “[I]ntense, bright gray eyes,” to be specific. No punchline.

Moving on, we learn that Christian Grey is not even thirty years old, yet he’s somehow managed to work his way up from poverty to being the CEO of his own multi-billion dollar enterprise. In the real world, the only self-made billionaires that young are Internet moguls. But since the female id is a land where logic dares not tread, James figured that Mark Zuckerberg wasn’t sexy enough and made Grey into an industrialist. In the year 2012. Stifle your laughter as Grey explains the secret of his success:

“Business is all about people, Miss Steele, and I’m very good at judging people. I know how they tick, what makes them flourish, what doesn’t, what inspires them, and how to incentivize them. I employ an exceptional team, and I reward them well.” He pauses and fixes me with his gray stare. “My belief is to achieve success in any scheme one has to make oneself master of that scheme, know it inside and out, know every detail. I work hard, very hard to do that. I make decisions based on logic and facts. I have a natural gut instinct that can spot and nurture a good solid idea and good people. The bottom line is, it’s always down to good people.”

Move over Hank Rearden, we’ve got a new impossibly talented ubermensch strutting around town!

Throughout the entire interview, Ana finds herself improbably turned on by Grey’s aloof, arrogant attitude, though she doesn’t define it as such. Say what?

“Oh, I exercise control in all things, Miss Steele,” he says without a trace of humor in his smile. I look at him, and he holds my gaze steadily, impassive. My heartbeat quickens, and my face flushes again.

Why does he have such an unnerving effect on me? His overwhelming good-looks maybe? The way his eyes blaze at me? The way he strokes his index finger against his lower lip? I wish he’d stop doing that.

“After the interview ended, I was walking back to my car when I noticed my panties felt damp. Fearful that I had peed myself yet again, I surreptitiously ducked into a bathroom, locked myself in a stall and thrust my hand down my skirt. I sniffed the clear fluid on my fingers; it didn’t smell like urine, but had a faint fishy scent. ‘I didn’t eat any fish today,’ I remarked to myself. ‘Oh God, I’m getting sick! I’m dying!’ I immediately zipped up and ran back to my car without washing my hands so I could schedule an appointment with my gynecologist.”

Naturally, this “unnerving effect” causes Ana to make an ass of herself, despite the fact that she’s reading questions off a script. At one point, she even asks Grey if he’s gay:

“Are you gay, Mr. Grey?”

He inhales sharply, and I cringe, mortified. Crap. Why didn’t I employ some kind of filter before I read this straight out? How can I tell him I’m just reading the questions? Damn Kate and her curiosity!

“No Anastasia, I’m not.” He raises his eyebrows, a cool gleam in his eyes. He does not look pleased.

Yes, the editor of a college newspaper thought that was an appropriate question to ask an interview subject. But instead of throwing Ana out, telling her to come back when she graduates junior high, he takes a liking to her and starts asking her questions. After she fails to recognize his obvious flirting, he sends her off:

“Until we meet again, Miss Steele.” And it sounds like a challenge, or a threat, I’m not sure which. I frown. When will we ever meet again? I shake his hand once more, astounded that that odd current between us is still there. It must be my nerves.

“Mr. Grey.” I nod at him. Moving with lithe athletic grace to the door, he opens it wide.

“Just ensuring you make it through the door, Miss Steele.” He gives me a small smile. Obviously, he’s referring to my earlier less-than-elegant entry into his office. I flush.

“That’s very considerate, Mr. Grey,” I snap, and his smile widens. I’m glad you find me entertaining, I glower inwardly, walking into the foyer. I’m surprised when he follows me out. Andrea and Olivia both look up, equally surprised.

He wants to fuck you, you stupid bitch! How dense are you!

This ends the first chapter, as far as I got before my Kindle mysteriously rebooted and threatened to delete all my notes. I’m sure someone like Heartiste could do an analysis of Grey’s tight game (remaining aloof, giving non-answers to Ana’s question, negging her as she walked out the door), but I only care about the comically bad writing.

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