Last year, I was introduced to Grey, of the Fifty Shades of Grey fame, when I was down with winter blues. While I cuddled myself inside a quilt, a friend of mine told me all about the erotic best seller that left women in a tizzy. Rubbishing its bland prose while picking its central characters apart, my friend tossed the book aside telling me how she wanted to see it burn in flames of collective feminist rage. Despite such clear warnings and disclaimers, one fine afternoon, I downloaded the book and began reading it. Soon, I was telling another friend about Grey and she, another; in a few days, half of my friend circle was singing ‘Grey’.
It wasn’t that any of them thought the book was gold. It wasn’t. Neither were its successors- Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed-any better. But it worked for me and the rest of us as a book that one could read, discuss and even get off on. What would have remained hush-hush was now a topic of interest for the rest of us. “It was motivational and enabled me to break a few taboos. I have never read such books before,” a friend of mine confided to me after chancing upon the book’s extensive graphic descriptions of a bdsm relationship. In other words, EL James had succeeded in leading us through a road that we might not have taken otherwise. Granted, that the ma-baap of erotica- Mills and Boon, VC Andrew’s haunting incest-gothic saga Flowers in the Attic or Megan Hart’s angst ridden erotica novels were better reads. But here was a set of books that was accessible, available and readable in all formats — kindle, android, hard and soft paperback and was also nudging the timidest among us to exchange notes on their kinky fantasies. Read it, discuss it, enjoy it and forget everything else about it, said we. This remained and continued to be the USP behind the story of Christian Grey and Anastasia Steel, the protagonists of the Fifty shades series, until three days back, when EL James retold the same story from Grey’s perspective.
A sprawling read of 559 pages, Grey: Fifty Shades of Grey as told by Christian is role reversal at its worst. After speaking from the vantage point of Anastasia Steele, the ‘sub’ (submissive partner) in the prequels, James in her recent outing, opens the hidden recesses of the mind of a ‘dom’ (dominant partner); Christian grey.
Inside the head of Grey, the ‘tormented rich man’, readers like us (who might have found the earlier parts readable and titillating) cannot stand the ‘heat’ of his ‘honest’ thoughts. Suddenly, the relationship steeped in fantasy that the reader developed earlier is falling apart. There is an audible change in the scenario and the reader, who was once looking for exciting distraction in the novel, is now tapping into the mind of a stalker, an abuser and ‘a control freak’ as Anastasia puts it. The reader also has to partake in Grey’s unsavoury ‘deliberations’ like: ‘I can tell, baby, right now I don’t give a damn because I can’t take my eyes off your mouth’, ‘Control is my middle name, sweetheart’ and worse still, ‘Oh yes baby, feel this’.
Of course, we were warned of all this earlier. We were aware of what was coming for us when we picked up this piece of erotica. Yet it was a shock finding a ‘sex book’ turn into a thriller overnight, in favour of a psychopath. Be it the background check that Grey orders on Anastasia, his insistent questions on her past, the way he narrates the terms of the dominantsubmissive agreement–everything about Grey, that once seemed intriguing, is now creepy. No longer a faceless man to have sex with, Grey’s overbearing presence looms big. On second thoughts, we end up asking: Did the iridescent blue eye on the book cover mean a smouldering gaze at all or was it always a representation of a fixating cold stare?
Even if such bits that scream abuse are set aside, the unintentional humour in the language of the narrative is unavoidable. Akin to sour milk, the poetry, the romance and the passion of Mr Grey often borders on hilarity. Sample this: “Who would have thought that under the shy exterior she has the soul of a siren?” And this: “Her sharp intake of breath is music to my dick. (???)”
Despite such shortcomings, the book will work with its reading audience and it already is, if one goes by the million mark. Panned by critics unanimously, the fourth part of the Fifty Shades series is on its way to sharing a similar destiny as the Chetan Bhagat series. To the average Indian reader, Bhagat’s iitiim based romances are official guides to understanding relationships. This is deeply troubling especially when Bhagat doles out sentences like ‘Dena hei to de warna kat le’(if you want to have sex, have sex, or else leave), to promote his male protagonist’s sexist stance. Yet one cannot turn a blind eye to his burgeoning popularity. Something clicked once and whatever be the reason, it is now helping the likes of Bhagat and James earn truckloads of money.
Meanwhile, I am reminded of Laurie Penny’s Fifty Shades of Socialist Feminism, arguably the best twisted take on the Fifty Shades series. In which Penny writes and I quote, “Christian gives in and shows me around his creepy home dungeon. It’s all decked out with douche bag sex-toys, every one of which costs more than my flat. I’ve been to more interesting parties in Brixton. ‘My desires are…unconventional,’ he admits. ‘So are mine,’ I say. “I want to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex.”
How I wish EL James had met Laurie Penny.