Sunday, May 19, 2013

A duo of dispatches. Of Questionable Class.

Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James

E.L. James with her book
I had heard mostly derisive stuff about Fifty Shades of Grey. I picked it up at a whim, from the boy at the Haji Ali crossing in Mumbai, the one who sells glossies and photocopied novels wrapped in cellophane, the same one who had the Ken Starr report out even before we could drive to work, log on to Reuters, and drink in the salacious shenanigans of a beleaguered American President.

Fifty Shades of Grey has few literary pretensions, but I did not expect it to be so poorly written. The heroine of the Mills and Boon variety of romance novels, is transplanted into the twenty first century between the pages of this book. But whereas Anne Mather et al, wrote dreamily of hopelessly helpless damsels landing Mr. Right, the protagonists were depicted as coherent, even articulate in their expression. Whereas the 50 shades heroine mucking around in the potentially dangerous world of BDSM is trite as trite. She is supposedly interested in literary fiction but her inner monologue cannot get past “Holy cow! He is so hot!” and ‘Holy shit! He was coming for her now.’ However she has the usual identifying features of the romance novel heroine, including above average but unspectacular looks, lack of poise, a tendency to blush, virginity and importantly, a go with the flow attitude. Our damsel is chased by her hero Mr. Grey, and the graphic action takes off from here, for Mr. Grey is no Mr. Right but deals in Bondage and Dominance.

It gets racier but the writing does not get any better. I could give you meme theories and marketing success stories, but you have to hand it, no product, no readership. My points in favor of the book—

It is graphic but less so than mainstream pulp writers like Irving Wallace and the later day Harold Robbins—am I dated and located by my reading?—E.L James has kept the content from tipping over the abysmal edge. There are no ad-nauseum descriptions of a woman’s anatomy. Or for that matter a man’s. If you don’t count, “He is so hot.”

Once you reconcile yourself to her irritating holy cows, and get past the distressing fact that a BDSM Non-Disclosure Agreement does not freak her out, (and temptation is a mitigating factor here,) the heroine is actually credible.

In terms of the politics of the book, the heroine is weaker, poorer, less regarded by the world, than her weird boyfriend. She does not wish to submit, but her hormones, her compassion, her curiosity, her gushing mates, her approving parents, her otherwise powerless, lonely condition, are all pushing her under his thumb. Will she or won’t she stand up for herself? Will it or won’t it work out? These are universal themes; to negotiate unequal power relationships is not a theoretical exercise for women the world over.  

Women have been much too repressed. There is a dearth of graphic literature that works well for women.

Why is Grey the way he is?  Women have a biological interest in nurture, in seeing how children shape up. E.L. James has handled the suspense well, and she has ammunition in the form of back stories to last her a sequel or two. Will I pick them up? Umm, no. Too many books to read, too little time.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

A good looking couple, uprooted from New York City living in the Midwest.  There is something strange going on between the two when the novel opens and soon, the girl is gone. That is, we are in Part one proper of the book—Boy loses Girl. Part two follows—Boy Meets Girl. The concluding part is the reassuringly titled— Boy Gets Girl Back (and vice versa).  It seems a rather neat way to describe Gone Girl, and all credit should go to Gillian Flynn, the author of this year’s runaway bestseller sensation.

The book is in the form of real time accounts of the ‘boy’—the thirtysomething Nick Dunne who has been accused of 'disappearing' his wife Amy. Interspersed with his account is Amy’s version of events. So, the book is not only a first class thriller but also, because of its narrative structure, a peek into a modern marriage.  We are Aunt Abby as Nick and Amy take turns crying on our shoulder, giving us their viewpoints and their excuses. And like most people who try to make peace between warring couples, we realize soon enough that we are the fools dancing to the tunes of two unreliable narrators. But just like in real life, this too adds to our fascination, this desire to apportion blame, making the suspense in the story—who is the baddie?—that much more unbearable. We may have taken sides, and although Flynn manages a few surprises, at some point, it becomes not so much of a mystery as a thriller—we want our side to prevail. That keeps us turning the pages although like most thrillers, Gone Girl deteriorates as it moves closer to the end, relying on over the top climactic events to rescue the plot from the corner it has been painted into.  It is all tied up neatly in the last chapters though not everyone will be satisfied —I was not— but hey, isn’t this the era of the sequel? Will I read it? I might.

And the reason is that Gillian Flynn is a writer of enormous talent, with a gimlet eye for the ridiculous and everything else. Take this, from Nick Dunne: ‘We named the bar The Bar. “People will think we are ironic instead of creatively bankrupt”, my sister reasoned.  Yes, we thought we were being clever New Yorkers, that the name was a joke no one would get like we did. Not meta-get. We pictured the locals scrunching their noses: Why’d you name it The Bar? But our first customer, a gray haired woman in bifocals and a pink jogging suit, said, “I like the name. Like in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Audrey Hepburn’s cat was named Cat.”’

Give me a writer who can weave something like that into a regular thriller; along with observations of a town going bust, of homeless people living in deserted malls, of tamed husbands shown off as trophies, of the media circus that crime reportage has become. Gone Girl has all this and more and if Gillian Flynn channeled her social satirist more and her latent Hadley Chase or Ruth Rendell less, I would have been happier, but we cannot ask for everything.

Read it on the beach, in a plane. Do not pick it up when you have stuff to do. 

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