You can't rape the willing and what's the fun in that'
He’s baaaaa-aaack. Just when you thought the dismal performance of the film adaptation of “Fifty Shades of Grey” meant you’d never have to hear the name “Christian Grey” again, E.L. James has dropped a “surprise” novel on the world: Grey, a rewrite of the first book of her bestselling pseudo-pornographic trilogy, this time told from Mr. Grey’s point of view.
As much ink has been spilled about how terrible the “50 Shades” series is, both from a literary and moral point of view, the criticism seems not to have impacted sales. The rewrite jumped to number one on Amazon’s bestseller list the day it was available for preorder on June 5, and has remained there ever since. On Thursday, it was finally released to the public (there were no advance copies made available to the press, probably because the publisher knew it would be savaged by critics) – all 576 pages of it.
Why so lengthy? Well, Grey is a literal stream-of-consciousness live feed from the twisted mind of the book’s titular character, and it turns out Christian Grey’s inner monologue is wordier than an emo ninth-grade girl’s Tumblr account:
“As I stare out the window at the Seattle skyline, the familiar ennui seeps unwelcome into my consciousness,” he narrates, in the book’s early pages. “My mood is as flat and gray as the weather. My days are blending together with no distinction, and I need some kind of diversion.”
Funny, that’s exactly how I felt while reading this book.
But as easy as it is to make fun of James’ purple prose, total ineptitude with American English (the author hails from England, and as a result, both the narrative and dialogue are littered with British-isms and British phrasing), and just plain WTF-ery (see some of these other articles for a taste of the graphic* and absurd content, if you must – *I repeat:WARNING, GRAPHIC CONTENT), the fact remains that the novel is a bestseller. It seems people just can’t get enough of Christian Grey – in fact, Grey is dedicated to “those readers who asked … and asked … and asked … and asked for this,” this apparently being the version of the book where we find out what was going on in Christian Grey’s “fifty shades of f*cked up” head while he
wooed preyed on the object of his obsession, Miss Anastasia Steele.
When the book was announced earlier this month, many assumed James was taking the opportunity not just to further capitalize on the success of her franchise, but to redeem Mr. Grey himself, who took quite a beating from the pens of critics, feminists, domestic violence awareness advocates and even the film adaptation’s stars upon the movie’s release in February. Grey’s behavior toward Anastasia, it was pointed out, was not just unromantic, but creepy, stalkerish, and flat-out illegal … and that was the way he acted outside his dungeon of sexual torture.
But if James did indeed intend to humanize Grey by publishing an entire rewrite narrated from the inside of his head, she utterly failed. It’s bad enough that Grey’s thoughts read like the disjointed ravings of an un-medicated schizophrenic. They also reveal him, at his core, as a rapist.
All those platitudes about the “contract” and Ana’s “consent” to the BDSM “lifestyle”? Grey’s narrative puts the lie to those. They are nothing but pretty window dressing, meant to assuage his withered conscience as he plots Ana’s rape and abuse. The scenes where James writes him as emotionally conflicted about what he wants to do to her come off as obligatory, scripted, and not fitting of the character. The only scenes where the prose actually feels authentic are the ones where he (and his manhood, which apparently has opinions all its own, which are described at length throughout the book) react in the moment to something Ana or someone else has done.
If Ana expresses an independent thought that differs from Grey’s take on things? He imagines himself shutting her up by gagging her with his genitals. If Ana goes somewhere Grey doesn’t approve? He imagines beating her until welts form. Even twitchy Ana’s tendency to fidget makes Grey think of ways to punish her – preferably in the most violent and sexual way possible.
What’s especially telling, though, is the manner in which Grey forms his obsession with Ana in the first place. The old saying that we always want what we can’t have perfectly sums up Grey’s early infatuation with Ana. Grey, however, takes this to an unnatural extreme. Wanting Ana is one thing, but his constant reactions of revulsion and anger toward every other beautiful woman who looks his way with interest are both abnormal and deeply disturbing. Sure, James inserts some expository backstory about past submissives who were “willing” targets, but it all rings flimsy and hollow – even Grey seems bored as he recalls most of these relationships.
No, the real Christian Grey is the one who isn’t just annoyed with his beautiful secretary Olivia, but absolutely despises her for “always mooning over him.” He’s the one who doesn’t even try to veil his disgust for the armies of attractive women who rather understandably bat their eyelashes at his “pretty face” (which also happens to be worth billions) – invariably glaring at them with unvarnished hatred and dismissing them as mindless morons.
It’s not that he’s wrong – you’d have to be a moron to fall for this sociopath – but it’s an awfully harsh judgment to make about a stranger who isn’t remotely aware of the depths of Grey’s dysfunction. (Ana, on the other hand? By the time she falls for Christian, she’s well schooled. Who’s the moron now, Grey?)
One assumes that at least a few of these flirtatious background characters would be more than willing to serve as one of Grey’s “submissives” in exchange for being lavished with material gifts, which typically include a room in his palatial condo and an Audi, to start with. And let’s face it, most 20-something billionaire playboys would be thrilled to soak up the carnal attentions of hordes of attractive gold-diggers, even if only to love ‘em and leave ‘em, and even if it eventually felt empty after a while.
Sure, a man like that might have a longer-term, more serious prospect in mind, but that’s probably not going to stop him from taking what’s on offer. But Christian Grey emphatically does not want what’s on offer, not even as a diversion. He’s not interested in mutually beneficial transactions. He is a hostile takeover in human form, interested only in possessing the one woman he thinks may not want to be possessed by him. What’s worse, the only touch he’s interested in is the one that causes pain, and he wants – no, demands – to be the one inflicting it.
In Grey we see a man so consumed with self-loathing that he turns himself into a monster. He rejects the advances of those who might enjoy him just the way he is, “fifty shades” and all, instead setting out to “thoroughly debase,” as he puts it, in so many words, an innocent girl who committed the cardinal sin of not immediately broadcasting her sexual availability.
Shorter Grey? However accidentally, E.L. James has written a pretty convincing treatise on why rape is all about control, all while outing her main male character as a deeply disturbed rapist.
In the end, the success of the 50 Shades juggernaut has never been about the sex, but with Grey, James may have tipped her hand too far. Once you’ve been inside the mind of Christian Grey, it’s no longer possible to see this series as a romance. It’s really more of a case study. If (God forbid) James writes a fifth installment for this wretched franchise, I hope it’s the one where Grey fires his useless therapist Dr. Flynn and gets some real help, because he (along with anyone who liked this book) desperately needs it.