Books

New 'Fifty Shades' book seems dubious in a post-Weinstein world

EL James's latest book 'Darker: Fifty Shades Darker as Told by Christian' has just hit shelve - and the timing couldn't be worse

03 December 2017 - 00:00 By ANTHONY CUMMINS
A protestor from the S&M community showed up to voice their opposition to the portrayal of S&M in the film version of 'Fifty Shades of Grey'.
A protestor from the S&M community showed up to voice their opposition to the portrayal of S&M in the film version of 'Fifty Shades of Grey'.

There's a new Fifty Shades novel out, and the timing doesn't seem good. While turgid prose and flimsy characterisation haven't prevented the existing four books in this inexplicably lucrative kinkathon shifting 150 million copies to date, the recent Harvey Weinstein allegations might seem to muddy the already questionable appeal of a "sensuous romance" built around the magnetism of a predatory tycoon who uses ex-FBI spies to keep tabs on the object of his desire.

The story, in case you forgot, centres on a sexually sadistic CEO who introduces a shy student seven years his junior to the joys of nipple clamps and butt plugs. The original novel, published in 2011, was always disconcerting, but re-reading it amid the ongoing flood of testimony to the abuse of male power makes one's mind boggle that there was ever a good time for this unsavoury hymn to workplace harassment.

It starts when literature undergraduate Anastasia is sent by her student newspaper to interview the secretive entrepreneur Christian Grey. Here's what happens when they share a lift:

"'Oh, fuck the paperwork,' he growls. He lunges at me, pushing me against the wall of the elevator. Before I know it, he's got both of my hands in one of his in a vicelike grip above my head, and he's pinning me to the wall using his hips ...

'You. Are. So. Sweet,' he murmurs, each word a staccato."

Christian doesn't mention the episode afterwards; Anastasia wonders if she "imagined it" (the "paperwork", by the way, turns out to be a nondisclosure agreement he makes all his prospective "submissives" sign).

But this isn't meant to be creepy - it's simply the start of a stormy but ultimately happy-ever-after romance. Any hint that James thinks it's sinister - such as when Anastasia learns Christian uses a phone-tracking device to monitor her movements (she teases him for listening to the "stalker anthem" Every Breath You Take) - serves only to make her Prince Charming interesting rather than dangerous.

By the time of the new novel - a blow-by-blow rehash of the 2012 sequel Fifty Shades Darker, now told from Christian's point of view - Anastasia is a publisher's assistant in Seattle. Vexed by her plan to accompany her boss to a conference in New York ("That man wants to get into your panties!" ), Christian, who makes "$100,000 an hour", buys the firm and puts an instant ban on travel spending.

The novel excuses this controlling behaviour by letting us know that Anastasia's boss has a track record of sexual harassment

In the same way that his growling lunge in the lift seems to be licensed by his six-pack and nice face, the novel excuses this controlling behaviour by letting us know that Anastasia's boss has a track record of sexual harassment.

Among the dubious selling points of Darker are various flashbacks elaborating on the reasons for his need to dominate.

"I like to whip little brown-haired girls like you because you all look like the crack whore," Christian says, referring to his biological mother, who committed suicide when he was four, and whose own abusive partner burned his body with cigarettes. Hence Christian's supposedly humanising fear of being touched - although given that what Anastasia once called his "Grey-flavoured popsicle" has never been off-limits, his troubled childhood seems merely yet another device for control.

James's enterprise can have the air of a colossal joke: when Anastasia demurs from his suggestion that she wax and shave "everywhere", Christian wonders plaintively: "How will I ever convince her that penetrative sex will be more pleasurable for her without the hair?" As a character he's never convincing. One minute he's in raptures about his favourite massage oil - "infused with cedarwood, argan, and sage, it's body-safe, and its fragrance reminds me of a crisp, fall day after the rain"- the next he's bragging how the condom he's just tossed into a bin will give the housekeeper "something to think about".

'Fifty Shades of Grey' is still a really popular read.
'Fifty Shades of Grey' is still a really popular read.
Image: Supplied

As for the sex, which involves billiards, Ben and Jerry's and hollandaise-dipped asparagus, it isn't exactly thrilling:

"She. Feels. Fuck. She. Feels. So. Good ... 'You feel so good.' Up. Down. Up. Down. Up. Down ... 'Oh, baby,' I grunt, and I'm spent."

Why is James so successful? Perhaps the headline plot about how Anastasia can reconcile herself to Christian's need to inflict pain is only a particularly lurid metaphor for the more mundane compromises of any relationship.

These novels are less about spanking and sex toys than about the unspoken pacts women find themselves making with possessive partners. As an explanation, it isn't exactly more reassuring than thinking her fans enjoy the prose. - The Daily Telegraph


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