Saturday 10 December 2016

Christian Grey - in his own words. And yes, he's still a creep

'Fifty Shades of Grey' author EL James has published her famously raunchy tale from Christian's point of view. But what's it like? Our reviewer is not impressed

Published 20/06/2015 | 02:30

Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan in '50 Shades of Grey', the movie.
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan in '50 Shades of Grey', the movie.
The woman who started it all, EL James.
The over of the new book, "Grey," the fourth novel in E L James' multimillion-selling "Fifty Shades of Grey" erotic series.

This week, a novel landed that caused frenzy throughout the land. No, it's not Harper Lee's highly anticipated Go Set A Watchman (the sequel to literary classic To Kill A Mockingbird is due on shelves in July).

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It's another tome in the Fifty Shades of Grey saga, simply titled Grey, a re-telling of the first novel from the titular Christian Grey's point of view.

Never one to shy away from a pop culture phenomenon (or a dirty book), I bought Fifty Shades of Grey in 2012 when buzz started to build around it, but was heartily disappointed when it turned out to be both badly written and, worryingly, anti-feminist.

For those who haven't had, er, the pleasure, the book tells the story of college student and virgin Anastasia Steele, and her interactions with reclusive, kinky billionaire Christan Grey.

I call them 'interactions' because you can't really call it a relationship; that would imply that Ana has a say in most of her dealings with Grey when, in reality, she's undeniably pursued and manipulated.

Look, I'm quite the opposite of a culture snob. I have a distinct memory of defending the novel PS I Love You to a snide literature class in my Trinity days, and I still re-read the Judy Blume books I grew up with.

I even enjoyed the Twilight saga, the very thing that inspired author EL James to write the raunchy fan fiction that would eventually become Fifty Shades .

But the book became popular because, let's face it, it's littered with explicit sex scenes. I don't think the audience were rooting for Christian and Ana to live happily ever after, but they happily consumed the raunchy BDSM (bondage, dominance and sado-masochism) activities that Christian introduces his pure protegee too.

Many discovered their own penchant for punishment through the books, and the very fact that it got women of all ages talking about sex and erotica in the mainstream was of course a positive thing.

However, there is a very dark side to the narrative. Like many, I pondered while reading it that if you took away Christian's money and good looks, the story becomes a lot more sinister.

He's controlling, petulant and dominant outside the bedroom as well as in, and while Ana is thrilled, she's also sort of terrified. He delights in having her experience pain, but - a big but - only as much as she can take, apparently. Tell that to her bruised bum.

Christian is so damaged as a person that he explains he needs to hurt Ana, but if he tells her the reason why, she will run away.

Not exactly romantic or sexy to me, but ho-hum. It's also a flagrant misrepresentation of what BDSM really is - something done between equally consenting adults that doesn't necessarily carry on outside the bedroom (or pleasure chamber).

Even through Ana's eyes, the experience of Christian Grey is undoubtedly messed up. You could never say that this was a romance between equals, light as it is on both romance and equality.

Instead, Grey has been interpreted by many as deeply troubled, borderline psychotic, a stalker, a misogynist and at best, a man who can't take no for an answer.

So the question is, why would we want to re-read a novel from the point of view of a guy who's perhaps even more disturbing than he is sexy? Is it a chance for the character to redeem himself? For author EL James to humanise the enigmatic billionaire and make him a little more palatable? To encourage men to get involved with the book, movie adaptation and its forthcoming sequel instead of being something that's just for the girls?

Or is it just an opportunity to give the hordes of screaming fans a little more of what they want in a tight time frame?

Because the fans are screaming for more, bafflingly.

"We're expecting this to be one of the biggest books of the year," says Eason's book buyer Stephen Boylan. "Grey has given us our largest online pre-order figure ever, and we even opened our O'Connell Street store early yesterday morning to keep up with the demand in anticipation of its release."

"It's clear that the phenomenal demand that was there in 2012 is still here three years on."

James has said that she wrote this new book because the fans have been absolutely begging for it, and Boylan thinks it's a wise move.

"It gives James the chance to re-engage with the elements that made the books such a huge success in the first place. It's what fans already love, but with a new spin." I no more wanted to glimpse inside Grey's mind than give him the time of day, but clearly, many do. Thus, I gave him a chance in the hope that this book would be less painful on all levels than its predecessor. Is the writing any better?

No. I had forgotten how poor the prose was in the original, and it manages to shock me here. Never mind the over-alliteration, the unnecessary detail, the overuse of adjectives and the lack of cadence and pace, the actual narrative is so unbelievable that it makes me wonder - is it supposed to be bad?

Were the publishers hoping for this breathless, amateur, fan-fiction tone? Is it meant to be so ridiculous that it's sublime? If so, I don't get it. It's just awful. The completely unrealistic dialogue is the worst part, a lot of it obviously lifted from the original novel when it comes to exchanges between Ana and Christian. Yes, fan favourite "I'm 50 shades of f**ked up" made it.

Will I learn anything new from it?

You will learn that Christian is actually even creepier than you thought. Part of the attraction to the character in the original novel was the fact that he's so mysterious. Seeing him through Ana's eyes, blinded by lust, it's possible to presume that she exaggerated his most-affected mannerisms, or perhaps imagined certain implausible exchanges.

But no. The first chapter alone tells us that Grey is the snide egomaniac we fear him to be, and manages to make the character even more unlikable. When Ana thinks that this guy is arrogant and purposely deriding her, she is completely correct.

Inside his brain is even more frightening - he mocks her appearance, clothes and general decorum within seconds of meeting her, and despite her obvious failings, he instantly has the hots for her.

Christian then continues to be baffled by his all-consuming attraction to this girl who dares to wear jeans. He tuts at her behaviour (getting drunk, once) and deigns to teach her about the finer things in life, like putting ice in Chardonnay to make it more bearable.

He is aware of his own failings though - he constantly worries about how monstrous and messed up he is, so it's not just an act to lure Ana in. Christian is truly troubled by his desires to corrupt her innocence and inflict pain, but equally by his very human reactions to her distress, and his need to comfort her.

He can't reconcile the fact that his euphoria and her distress are intertwined, that Ana's responses are unpredictable and uncontrollable. Is there anything that makes him more sympathetic?

The book opens with a dream sequence centred around Christian's mother, and his nightmares about his troubled childhood continue throughout. It appears to be a move by James to make us pity him, and perhaps even to explain his longing to control and dominate women.

Chapters often start as he wakes from a bad dream and shakes it off.

His sleep patterns (or lack thereof) are given an incredible amount of space in this novel, as are his charitable endeavours.

His philanthropic work in Darfur is mentioned often, and to remind us that he's a busy businessman, work comes in to the storyline - mostly to explain why poor Christian is so stressed out, and also to attempt to rationalise his billions. It doesn't.

James does little to explain Grey's darkness other than let us know how aware of it he is, and how much of his mind is consumed by repressed rage and suffering. The reader must just accept that Ana makes him feel better in a way that Christian doesn't even understand.

Is Ana any less irritating?

One of the many negatives cited about the original novel was that Ana is perhaps the most annoying heroine ever written.

With Grey, thankfully we're not in her head so we don't have to hear about her inner goddess dancing, or her commentary on her medulla oblongata. While she has her oddly assertive moments, and you do feel a bit sorry for her now and then, she's still a total pain (no pun intended).

Does he even like her?

This was something I wondered when reading the original. I know Christian wants Ana, and he leads her to believe he has deep feelings for her, but does he really, or is it all part of the dominance?

Grey reveals that yes, he does enjoy Ana's company. She makes him "chuckle". When he goes too far and hurts and humiliates her, he's genuinely perturbed. But at the same time, he's happiest when she's hurt and upset.

Take this line from the third to last chapter, after Ana has conceded to Christian punishing her with a belt, whipping her six times.

"Her face is blotchy and smeared with tears, her nose is running and her hair is a dark, tangled mess, but she has never looked so magnificent... or so angry."

The romance is staggering.

Irish Independent

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