I'm no prude, as my browser history can attest, but the best-selling pop-erotica novel Fifty Shades of Grey has seared a scarlet letter into my brain.
Up until a few month ago, I was only vaguely aware of the book's popularity, pegging it as a passing fad. Then I learned that my sweet, gentle Grandma Mimi had purchased a copy. Suddenly, all the late-night skits and monologues spoofing the obscene amount of sex that takes place amidst the supple pages came flooding back to me. What sort of filth was about to corrupt my Mimi? It was then I decided to take an active interest in the literature of E.L. James. It was time for a man's take on this so-called "mommy porn."
For $10 I was able to buy it as an e-book -- a discreet transaction that would keep it camouflaged in my Kindle. For two weeks I snuck in pages whenever I could: In my cubicle between bites of PB&J, while in bed watching The Daily Show or while my girlfriend took her time in the J. Crew fitting room. With eyes open and sphincter clenched, I plunged into literary lasciviousness.
The story itself is a trope as old as time: the sadomasochist with a heart of gold.
What's that? Struggling to remember the scene in Jane Eyre where Rochester flogs Jane with a cat o' nine tails? Then perhaps it's the novelty of James' naughty novel that's driving women to the bookshelves. Allow me to provide an abridged abstract of this hardcore softcover -- just 15 shades instead of the full 50.
Chance circumstance lands Young Virgin an interview with Mysterious Millionaire for the college newspaper. Young Virgin describes Mysterious Millionaire as looking "yummy," and for the first time in her 22 years, she wants "to go to bed with a man." Skipping over some dull drivel, Mysterious Millionaire asks Young Virgin on a date in which he presents her with a non-binding contract to be his "Submissive" (sex slave). Fast forward 12 hours. Young Virgin is no longer a young virgin, but hasn't signed the contract either. In a nutshell, the rest of the book is just very graphic descriptions of the couple having sex in beds, on floors, on desks, in showers, in bathtubs, using ties, belts, leather bindings, yada yada yada, culminating with the former Young Virgin realizing that she needs to mean more to the Mysterious Millionaire than simply another body he binds to his bed frame. Can she melt the layer of patent leather coating his heart? Read the book to find out.
I refuse to recommend this novel. Not because I think the writing is poor (it is). Sample: "We are balanced on the delicate seesaw that is our strange arrangement -- at different ends, vacillating, and it tips and sways between us."
Not because the dialogue is stilted (it is). Sample: When the Young Virgin asks the Millionaire what he does for fun, he responds, "I sail, I fly, I indulge in various physical pursuits. I'm a very wealthy man... and I have expensive and absorbing hobbies."
And not because the ending is a nongratifying cliffhanger devised to force you into the second book (though to say you read Fifty Shades of Grey for the plot is the equivalent of a man saying he watched Chiddy Chiddy Gang Bang for the cinematography).
It's because I couldn't handle the sex scenes.
What I didn't count on was the vivid detail in which they would be documented. The choreography of the book is a waltz, in which the Young Virgin blushes and bites her lip, the Mysterious Billionaire penetrates her with his gaze, they have sex for twenty pages, they talk for ten pages, then she blushes again and we start all over (Numbers of note: The word "blush" appears 37 times, the word "lip" appears 78 times).
To my surprise, I was profoundly uncomfortable absorbing such intimate moments through written word. From entry to orgasm, I was inside this girl's head, and quite honestly, I wanted out. That's when I began to realize why men don't, and should continue not to, read this book.
Watching sex in a movie or on the computer is voyeuristic, and therefore inherently detached. To watch porn stars copulate is about the visceral act itself, minus the thoughts or emotions involved. Once the deed is done, you wash your hands of the material both literally and figuratively. Fifty Shades of Grey, on the other hand, stays with you. It's much more intrusive. Maybe too intrusive. We're invited to experience the thoughts and feelings behind the Young Virgin's every groan and whimper, and I'm not sure I'm cool with that. While in most other literature sex is a fanciful footnote, in Fifty Shades, it's in these supercharged scenes that the real story unfolds.
And that, I realized, is what makes this book more sophisticated than a Playboy centerfold. And why, despite the fact that it's delightfully dense in debauchery, more men can't indulge. We cannot endure sitting in this woman's psyche for almost 400 pages and hearing her connect on a deeply emotional level during these intensely intimate moments. By the end of the book, I found myself skipping over the sex because the scenes were too real for me to handle.
I won't be reading the sequels. The damage is done. It's too late for me -- the first book has already left its mark. But, my fellow man, let me be your martyr. Heed my advice: You're better off waiting for the movie.