New, unsexy Fifty Shades tale presents a Grey perspective
Poor writing is not the most offensive thing about EL James' latest offering
Grey, the fourth book from EL James, is about as sexy as a misery memoir and as arousing as the diary of a sex offender. It is Fifty Shades from the point of view of its leading man, a sort of XXXXXXXXXXX-rated version of the book that has launched a thousand floggers and sold a trillion copies.
In Fifty Shades - narrated by Anastasia Steele, the young virgin who finds herself entering Christian Grey's Red Room of Pain - the billionaire businessman comes off as enigmatic and mysterious, with a hint of damage under his expensively pressed suits.
But here, the look is that of a desperate sexual predator. Within moments of meeting Miss Steele, Grey has decided he needs to "fetter, f--- and flog" her; he then imagines what it would be like to shove some peeled ginger root up her behind. This, then, is the best the 21st century can come up with in terms of romantic literary heroes - a cut-price Mr Darcy in nipple clamps.
James has dedicated this book to her fans, who have asked her again and again to tell them more about Christian Grey. But will they like what they read? This is a man who thinks condoms are "wretched" and who, by the end of the book, has worked out that his lover reminds him of his dead mother - the "crack whore" as he repeatedly refers to her, in a charming reference to the fact she overdosed in front of him when he was a young boy.
Throughout, James seeks to enlighten us as to why Grey has turned out to have a room full of whips, chains and suspension units - before he was adopted, he was beaten by the crack whore's boyfriend - and soon it becomes painfully obvious that the abused has turned in to an abuser.
The message here is clear: we are supposed to pity him. And yet, the only person I pitied was poor old Anastasia, who, having had her opportunity to tell her side of the story in the Fifty Shades trilogy, has been written, in this book, with all the personality of a blow-up doll.
It's almost revolting, actually. Critics of the originals have always pointed out their abusive undertones, despite claims by some that the books were somehow emancipating for women who suddenly had a way to express their sexuality - as if pre-Fifty Shades, a woman had never had an orgasm. I can't say I ever took the books seriously; they were always a bit of frivolous fun, and 125 million copies later, it seemed everyone else thought so, too. But in this, the joke is taken too far, and the title might as well be: 'How to Groom a Girl the Grey Way'.
It's hard to work out what Ms Steele sees in him - even if you try to imagine him as Jamie Dornan, it's Jamie Dornan as the serial killer in The Fall. Seeing the object of his affections drunk on a night out, Grey wonders if he should look in to detox centres for her. Without any apparent irony, he orders a background check on a male friend of hers who has tried to kiss her on said night out: is he a man who preys on drunk women, wonders Grey? This from someone who has used illegal means to find her at the bar, before taking her back to his hotel unconscious, undressing her, and ordering his assistant to buy her new underwear - he estimates that her bra size is a 34C. Creepy doesn't even begin to cover it.
In the morning, he has to stop himself from telling her she doesn't have permission to leave the breakfast table. He becomes irritated by the fact she seems to have a brain, but calms himself with the thought that he'll eventually have sex with her, "with her smart mouth gagged!"
Again and again, the fact that Anastasia dares to talk back is a source of amazement to him - she is the first woman not to have suspended herself naked from the ceiling upon meeting him. She is a "sassy wench" who makes him laugh - a member of the opposite sex has never done this before ("I make women cry - it's what I do," we learn at one point). When she emails to tell him the whole dominant/submissive thing isn't for her, his immediate response is to shove a load of condoms in his pocket and go straight round to her house. He is furious when she kicks him out for suggesting she might want to discuss his sexual peccadilloes with one of his former "submissives". In his own words, he really is a "grey-eyed prick".
Throughout, Grey believes that Ana is the one with all the power because she is making him feel things in places other than his genitals. But this has the ring of sinister manipulation to it - it's a bit like an abusive husband telling his wife that every bruise is a kiss.
Granted, he does get a lot nicer as the book drags on - the man behaves like a true gent when he agrees not to make her try out the ceiling suspension unit - but by the time she leaves him after a flogging too far, he is still stalking her, still treating her like a sex toy whom he can buy with roses and trips on his private jet.
Not surprisingly, the writing is bad throughout. How often do Ana's cheeks flush pink? How many times does she make him feel 10-feet tall? And he really should go and see someone about all that prickling his scalp does.
But the writing is not the offensive thing about this book. It's the sense that, like Ana with Christian, the reader is being duped in to a manipulative relationship with it.
In the last chapters, James layers on the sympathy for Grey in a way that feels horribly calculated. His childhood has left him suicidal, with PTSD; he hates himself and thinks he is a monster. Perhaps James thinks this flash of self-awareness from her "hero" will make everything okay. But it doesn't, really it doesn't.