EL James’s erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey has become the fastest-selling paperback in history, leaving the likes of The Da Vinci Code and Harry Potter in its post-coital dust. South African distributors have said they cannot keep pace with the demand. REBECCA DAVIS stepped bravely into the fray to see what all the fuss is about.
The long-haired bookseller in Exclusive Books looked at me conspiratorially as I handed him a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey to ring up. “I believe that’s a bit of a rowwe one,” he said.
“I’m reading it for work,” I snapped defensively.
He smiled knowingly. “We had some American women in the other day and one of them said she would only read it on her iPad so nobody could tell,” he said.
The shop’s card machine was broken, so I had to leave the copy lying incriminatingly on the counter while I went across the mall to draw money. When I returned, a customer had picked it up and was quizzing the bookseller about it. “But is it any good?” she asked as I resumed my place in the queue.
“Supposedly,” he shrugged, handing it to me.
I went home to read it safely out of the judging eyes of the public.
“Discover the book that everyone’s talking about…” reads a lurid pink sticker on the front of my copy. Those coy ellipses are presumably intended to hint at its risqué content, but actually I cannot imagine having a conversation about the book which would not focus immediately on its stand-out feature: how astonishingly boring it is possible for a book to turn out, even when it is loaded with vivid and varied descriptions of sex.
Fifty Shades of Grey is the work of English mother-of-two Erika Mitchell, 49, and started its life as a piece of Twilight-inspired fan fiction, which is hardly a trustworthy pedigree. Since Mitchell – who writes under the pen name EL James – is a Brit, it’s hard to know why she decided to set the novel in the States, especially as most of the protagonists spend a great deal of their time conversing in the stilted manner of characters trapped in an English “novel of manners”.
“I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage,” says the heroine, Anastasia Steele, when meeting her lover’s housekeeper and finding the staff already know her name. But don’t all 21 year-old college students from Washington State talk like that? Earlier, she professes herself utterly shocked by her housemate’s advice on how to prepare for a date: “Under Kate’s tireless and frankly intrusive instruction, my legs and underarms are shaved to perfection, my eyebrows plucked, and I am buffed all over. It has been a most unpleasant experience. But she assures me that this is what men expect these days.” Why yes, Jane Austen, I’m afraid they do.
Unless the naming of Anastasia Steele is a rare note of humorous irony, it is not apt. The woman is a wreck. She’s 21 years old and barely been kissed. She has never been drunk. She is like a time-traveller in her own culture. And yet we are expected to believe that, despite this, she is willing to jump into a sado-masochistic sexual relationship with a mysterious older man. How about some heavy petting in the cinema first?
But Steele simply cannot help herself, because the man in question, Christian Grey, is just so devilishly good looking. Grey – who is described in the publicity material as a “tormented entrepreneur”, a phrase which seems somehow oxymoronic – is handsome on a scale that, we are repeatedly told, you just have to see to believe. He is “so young  – and attractive, very attractive”. She stews about her strange desire for him. “Why does he have such an unnerving effect on me? His overwhelming good looks maybe?” That must be it. “He really is beautiful. No one should be this good looking.” We get it, Anastasia, we get it. The man’s an oil painting. A Californian sunset.
Actually, he is even more good looking than that. In fact, “he’s not merely goodlooking – he’s the epitome of male beauty, breathtaking”. The book reaches its zenith of absurdity in this regard when she witnesses him fresh out the shower and is forced to conclude, having exhausted all other appropriate analogies, that “Michelangelo’s David has nothing on him”.
The thing is that the more you are told how attractive a character is, the less convincing it seems. By the end of the novel, the author essentially seems to be pleading : “Just take it from me, okay? I have this guy in my head and he is super hot. Promise.”
Even though Steele has figured out, with Poirot-style deductive powers, that Grey’s good looks have an impact on her, she still needs to interrogate her attraction further. “No man has ever affected me the way Christian Grey has, and I cannot fathom why,” she agonises.
Frankly, looks aside, it’s hard for the reader to fathom either, because Grey seems like a bit of a wanker. He is prone to erotic sound bites like: “I think it was Harvey Firestone who said, ‘The growth and development of people is the highest calling of leadership'". Describing his music tastes to Steele, he says: “My taste is eclectic, Anastasia, everything from (16th century British choral composer) Thomas Tallis to the Kings of Leon.”
At one point Steele gets vomit-drunk for the first time in her life, on the occasion of having completed her final university exams. Grey is not impressed. “I’m all for pushing limits, but really this is beyond the pale,” he chides her, like a disappointed headmaster. “Do you make a habit of this kind of behaviour?” Oh, lighten up, Mr Buzzkill, you’re only 27.
There is, however, the fact that he is very wealthy, and extraordinarily cosmopolitan. When he orders gin and tonics, he says “Hendricks if you have it, or Bombay Sapphire. Cucumber with the Hendricks, lime with the Bombay.” He is Patrick Bateman crossed with some priapic satyr, and Steele simply cannot get enough of him.
Of course, he also has hidden depths and torments, because he falls squarely within a tradition of dark and brooding leading men which stretches back at least to the Brontes. This is Heathcliff with a BDSM chamber; Darcy with a fondness for spanking. He won’t talk about his past, which drives her crazy. I see that at one point I have written in the margins of my copy: “These people need to go to therapy urgently.”
In this regard he is the perfect foil to Anastasia, who is confused, emotional, needy, questioning – as all women are - while he is busy being brooding, inscrutable, unknowable, impenetrable, like Joseph Conrad’s Africa. He is yin, she is yang. He is dark, she is light. Every time their fingers touch, Anastasia gasps involuntarily, like an ageing asthmatic.
He causes more currents to course through her than an electric chair. She is lit up like a Christmas tree the whole time she’s with him, which the author describes using similes even more laboured than the ones I’ve just trotted out. Sample: “I feel the colour rising in my cheeks again. I must be the colour of The Communist Manifesto.”
You may well argue that this is all sort of besides the point. The reason this book is selling like hotcakes, and the reason it has pioneered a whole new sub-genre they’re calling “Mummy Porn”, is because of the sex. And indeed, it is plentiful. The plot is just a hangar on which to drape the sex scenes, so nobody need fear that the book does not contain enough. In fact, as insatiable as your appetites in this regard may be, you will likely find yourself as limp and exhausted by the novel’s close as the two protagonists after one of their characteristic day-long coitus sessions.
This is not going to be the last you will hear of Fifty Shades of Grey. As is compulsory for marketable reads these days, it is the first of a trilogy, though I am utterly at a loss to understand how the protagonists will make it through two further books without having quite literally physically destroyed each other. Perhaps the final instalment is set in some sex hospice where the two can nurse their wounded genitals and have a nice cup of Earl Grey tea. There is also a movie on its way. American Psycho author Bret Easton Ellis has already voiced his enthusiasm about the prospect of adapting a screenplay, saying that Grey and Steele would make “great cinematic characters”. That is undoubtedly true, but perhaps not for the kind of film you’d normally see at Ster-Kinekor.
Even more excitingly, however, the Mummy Porn genre is only getting started. Diarise August, for that month will see the publication of Jane Eyre Laid Bare, an erotic re-write of Charlotte Bronte’s classic. Pan Macmillan publishing director Wayne Brookes was quoted as describing the idea as “genius”. No doubt Jane Austen is next in line for a pimping – Sex and Sexuality, anyone?
By the end of 50 Shades of Grey – which concludes, as a marketing necessity, on a cliffhanger – our heroine Anastasia complains: “I did follow my heart, and I have a sore ass and an anguished, broken spirit to show for it.” You and me both, lady.