In Pursuit of Happiness, #2: Parody, Comedy, and Sisterhood

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, and Monday saw me dashing through the rain from one job to the other with no time in between for anything but a granola bar – a thankfully rare occurrence – which means this week’s dose of happy is a day late.

I’ll have to work on sticking to my self-imposed writing schedules in the new year.

 

1. Yelping with Cormac: After two years of having The Road by Cormac McCarthy recommended to me by a friend, I finally bought it a few months ago. A few weeks ago, I finally got around to reading it. The recommendation came with a disclaimer – “Don’t read it if you’re even just remotely moody; it’s so bleak and you’ll be depressed” – that went largely ignored when I sat down with a cup of tea to read it.

This friend will tell you that my catchphrase is, “Trust me, I know things,” and I would have probably listened to his disclaimer if he had quoted me at the end of it. And yes, this is me trying to shift the blame a bit because it’s rare that I’m challenged so much by the atmosphere of a novel that I can’t read it in a straightforward and timely manner.

About halfway through The Road, I stumbled upon an unexpected trove of humor that made getting through the second half of the novel so much easier: Yelping with Cormac.

Those of you who are familiar with any of McCarthy’s works will know that “hilarious” and “light” are not adjectives found anywhere near this writer’s name, but as a spoof-homage to him Yelping with Cormac is a hilarious and light parody of Cormac McCarthy’s distinctive style. It’s a fantastically accurate mirror of his particular way with words, and yet when the Cormac Touch is applied to a review of Urban Outfitters or the Apple Store it becomes a new kind of magic altogether.

Don’t believe me? Check it out for yourself.

2. Brooklyn Nine-Nine: I’m really picky with my television shows, especially when it comes to comedy, and I don’t own a television – which is why I’m always rather late to the party for any show that started its run in the last five years. However, thanks to Netflix, I’m fully on board (and caught up) with Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

I pay close attention to the credits that roll over the opening scenes of an episode, and when I saw Phil Lord and Christopher Miller right there in the pilot I knew I would enjoy Brooklyn Nine-Nine. They’re the guys behind Clone High and The Lego Movie, to name my two particular favourite Lord Miller projects.

But it’s not just the Lord Miller touch that makes this series highly enjoyable. In a knee-deep morass of New York cop shows that are heavy on the dark drama of big city crimes, Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a much-needed step up onto the dry ground of fresh perspective and new storytelling. If you were to find a Venn diagram of cop shows, ensemble comedies, and real-world farce, you’d see Brooklyn Nine-Nine right at the middle where all the best bits of each genre come together.

3. The Following Quote and My Oldest Sister:

“From the earliest times, the custom of breaking bread together has been symbolic of sharing and accepting and loving one another. A ‘companion’ is one with whom we eat bead…to eat together is to love. The Noche Buena feast, after going to Midnight Mass, ought to be one of the most beautiful Christmas symbols. We pray together and then we eat together…because we love each other.”
– Father Galdon, SJ

Of course there’s a story here. Because of my work schedule and company policies regarding vacation time during peak periods, I’m actually stuck in Montreal until Christmas morning. It was rather upsetting at first because this will be the first Christmas in many years that most of my family will be under one roof for the holidays, and I was faced with the prospect of spending a very quiet and very lonely Christmas Eve on my own.

With our mother away since American Thanksgiving and our schedules taking us all over the place in the weeks leading up to Christmas, my oldest sister and I haven’t had the opportunity this year to decorate the family nest or even come together over our beloved Advent wreath once a week. Add that to the fact that Montreal is still waiting for a proper holiday snowfall, and you can probably see why Christmas Eve this year was starting to look like a scene out of The Road.

That is, until my favourite oldest sister told me she would fly out with me on Christmas morning.

So, while I might not get the magic of Christmas Eve with my nephew and the rest of my family, I won’t be alone during Christmas Mass and I won’t be sipping a lonely cup of hot instant coco in a strange hotel room at the airport. I’ll be welcoming the Holy Child at Mass and then sitting down at our old, worn dining table to toast His arrival with my sister.

The 15-minute book club, #3: The Griffin and Sabine Trilogy by Nick Bantock

The Griffin and Sabine Trilogy by Nick Bantock:

Griffin and Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence
Sabine’s Notebook: In Which the Extraordinary Correspondence of Griffin and Sabine Continues
T
he Golden Mean:   In Which the Extraordinary Correspondence of Griffin and Sabine Concludes

 

Last night I had a rare opportunity to get to bed at a reasonable hour.

And I squandered it on the rediscovery of a book.

Though I’ve always been a scribbler, once upon a time I was also a reasonably talented visual artist who dabbled extensively in creating artwork in mixed media, black-and-white film photography, and digital manipulation. Writing and visual art collaborated frequently in my adolescent life, but one day they collided headlong with curiosity and a need for a psychological thrill when I first discovered Griffin and Sabine.

Written, illustrated, and constructed by Nick Bantock, this trilogy is comprised of the unusual correspondence between the broodingly lonely London artist Griffin Moss and the vivaciously mysterious Sabine Strohem, an artist from a chain of tiny islands in the South Pacific. Letters, postcards, and notecards – all exquisitely illustrated and handwritten, some in made-to-match envelopes that you can actually open and rifle through – document this mind-bending tale.

Part love story and part psychological thriller, Griffin and Sabine takes storytelling to another level by telling a story that requires its reader to do more than just turn to the next page. There’s a certain excitement to looking through the private correspondences of other people, and although I’d outgrown trying to break into my sister’s diary by my late teens the act of reading somebody else’s letters was still appealing. And it’s not just reading these intimate pieces of mail: each is a self-contained work of art that simply demands closer scrutiny from the reader, which in turns brings about a deeper appreciation for the concept and plot as well as a greater emotional investment in its outcome.

One of the reasons why I started “The 15-minute Book Club” section of this blog is to discuss the literature that inspired my own creative processes, changed or enhanced my perception, or otherwise impacted my life in a moving and profound fashion. Since closing the final book of the trilogy late last night I’ve been reflecting on what exactly this book means to me, I realized that Griffin and Sabine trilogy did all of these things for me.

As an artistic adolescent, upon the first reading of Griffin and Sabine I learned that art does not have to be perfect or conventional to be beautiful and meaningful: as long as it makes us think critically and opens our minds to a broader understanding of the world then art, to paraphrase Picasso, will always somehow enable us through is lies to comprehend the greater truths. It’s because of Griffin and Sabine that while I might not like or prefer certain kinds of art, I’m still able to appreciate them. For example, it might be hard to believe but you have to trust me when I say that Bantock’s image of a goldfish shattering a wineglass helped me get past my dislike of Warhol just enough to appreciate what a can of Campbell’s did for modern art.

Nick Bantock’s eccentric and raw approach to storytelling in the Griffin and Sabine books influenced my own writing style as well when I first read it in my late teens. Up until this point, my early attempts at writing always crashed and burned, ground to a screeching halt, or otherwise simply stopped because I was constantly getting bogged down in revealing everything all at once in desperate attempts to give my stories some kind of foundation. What Bantock’s style revealed was that the foundations of characters are just the back story – that the present story is what truly matters, and that a writer’s job is to allow the characters to tell the present story instead of trying to take over the main narrative by establishing off the bat what’s already happened to them. Reading the story of Griffin Moss and Sabine Strohem in literal bits and pieces taught me, as both a writer and a reader, to be patient with characters and let them reveal what they will, when they will.

It’s also worthwhile to mention that as far as my actual letter writing is concerned, anyone who’s ever received a letter or card from me will tell you that it’s always meticulously handwritten (and, in the case of the latter, usually handmade), includes hand-drawn illustrations and calligraphy-style quotes, and comes from the heart. While other books most certainly did contribute to my writing style regarding personal correspondence (not to mention my father’s insistence that we write often to our paternal grandmother in the Philippines), Griffin and Sabine definitely taught me a considerable amount about how to turn letter-writing into a true art.

Finally, this unconventional love story between these two artistic souls first came into my life at the end of an overseas long-distance relationship. While the letter-based narrative struck a few raw nerves at the time (this was before international texting was a “thing,” let alone me having my own cellphone, so snail mail was actually a big part of this first relationship) this latest reading of Griffin and Sabine reminded me that deep, intimate connections can and will come up in all kinds of sudden and unexpected ways, and that being open to these kinds of surprises leaves you open to experiencing the rest of life to its fullest.

The best love stories are all different, but they all share a common thread of relentlessly pursuing the most abstract concepts and sorting through the most befuddling emotions, and finding out who you really are in the process. Opening yourself up to another person and to the world, and then reflecting upon those experiences when you’re alone, is how you come into the most complete form of self-understanding and self-awareness. While this might not really be what these books are really about, this is how they spoke to me last night and at this point in my life that’s the main reason why I treasure this story.

So maybe in the end I didn’t totally squander a few preciously rare extra hours of sleep by diving back into the strangely beautiful world of Griffin and Sabine, and maybe in the end I wasn’t just curling up alone in bed with a book. I was diving back into the most confusing, lovely, engrossing, and riveting archive of a relationship that I’ve ever encountered in fiction, and enjoying every unsettlingly bizarre and lovely morsel of it as I discovered more about myself through the extraordinary correspondence of Griffin Moss and Sabine Strohem.

The 15-minute book club, #2: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

“When a child asks you something, answer him, for goodness sake. But don’t make a production of it. Children are children, but they can spot an evasion faster than adults, and evasion simply muddles ’em.” 

— Atticus Finch

My parents raised us with what I’ve come to describe as a blended education; between September and June we attended public school, but the education continued during the summer with lessons in Latin, grammar, history, art, literature, and Catechism.  Idle minds were not permitted inside our house and the summer housekeeping on our education, though loathed and unappreciated at the time, has continuously served us in good stead in our grown-up lives.

I remember it well:  the summer I turned my oldest sister was given the task of coordinating the literary component of our summer learning.  At the time my brothers were on the threshold of turning nine and ten, and although our interests were starting to diverge like the proverbial path in the woods, the “all for one and one for all” mentality still prevailed.    In retrospect my sister’s wisdom was already well-developed even then, for she chose a novel that managed to capture three young and very different minds from beginning to end.

It was a miracle that a novel narrated in the first person by a six-year-old girl was able to hold the attention of two pre-adolescent boys, but I suppose that’s part of the magic of To Kill a Mockingbird – not to mention the fact that it can exert that same strength on readers who revisit it as adults, and therefore read it under a different light.  It is a harsher light than the yellow halogen of a desk lamp, the bluish circle of a flashlight under a duvet, or the dappled summer sun filtering through a canopy of leaves and branches.  It is the harsh, bright light of experience that comes from within to illuminate the depths of words that we as children see but cannot quite yet fathom.

While I’m sure my brothers found the book’s “bigger picture” to be more interesting than the day-to-day happenings of the Finch family, that first encounter appealed to the tomboy I was back then for I could relate to Scout Finch on many levels.  From trailing along on the shirttails of older brothers who were starting to lose interest in their little sisters to enduring trials at school in both the classroom and the playground, Scout and I had a lot in common and I wished she and Jem could materialize in the real world so that we all could be friends.  Jem could be the male third my brothers were starting to long for when we weren’t with our closest cousins, and Scout could be the female best friend who had always been missing from my early life.

We in the real world even had our own version of the Radley House at the end of our street, complete with its own lore derived mostly from the overactive imaginations of neighborhood children.  My young mind would overlap that house with the one in the book and conjure up new inhabitants, and the adventures we would have there with the Finches always involved Scout and me teaming up against our older brothers and outperforming them in bravery and boldness.

My early years in school were similar to Scout’s, particularly where actual book learning was concerned.  I remember being told by the school librarian that children in grade one could only borrow from the section of the library where there were picture books – a rule reinforced by my teacher and, once it came to the attention of my parents, promptly ignored and undermined by means of my first card for the public library.  A year later, reading about Scout’s interactions with Miss Caroline Fisher on Scout’s very first day of school brought back the memory of being turned away from the school library check-out counter by the steely-haired, flinty-eyed librarian because I wanted to check out two novels “too advanced for my grade’s reading level.”

That summer flew by as I chased daydreams inspired by To Kill a Mockingbird but all too soon it was to become a thing of the summer – as short-lived as the sweet freedom of the season itself, and like the last rays of the sun on the final night before school started not even the light of that beloved book could outshine all that I was to learn in the next year.  When September arrived I found myself in the third grade under the tutelage of a teacher who supported my literary precociousness and encouraged me to read whatever I wanted.  When I told her what I’d read that summer and proved that I could spell, define, and properly use the book’s advanced vocabulary, I also told her that I had spent the previous two years bored to tears during class trips to the school library because I wasn’t allowed to venture to the other side where the novels were kept.   I don’t know what passed between my third-grade teacher and the librarian, but whatever words were exchanged my teacher’s evidently were stronger –  because from then on I was able to borrow whatever my heart desired from whatever shelf I felt drawn to any given day of the week.

To Kill a Mockingbird soon disappeared under piles and piles of other books.  Most were borrowed from the school library, the public library, and my father’s study; some were procured with pocket money from various book sales at the community centre and church; and a few – my treasures at the time – were  bought brand-new with birthday and Christmas money.  But it came back to the top of the pile in grade ten, when the English curriculum called for it as a class novel study.  I went along with the coursework, completing the entire book and assignment package in about a week – a feat that left me more time to delve deeper than my classmates into the story.

This was, perhaps, one of the first times I experienced how a classic book changes with the age of its audience.  The parts I had found highly hilarious as a child were, nearly ten years later, only amusing.  Adolescent retrospect made me see my childhood delights and daydreams as silly flights of fancy and I, like Jem and my brothers, chose to pay more attention now to the bigger things in life than to Scout and the world she inhabited between Mrs Henry Lafayette Dubose’s house and the Radley Place.  The novel, which my younger self had seen as amusing and entertaining, revealed to Teenage Me its more somber face.  As I dove deeper into it, trying to find out what Harper Lee was really trying to say, I was swept into the undercurrents of Maycomb’s society until I was washed up on disenchanted shores where I waded through muddy waters where history crashed against fiction.  I realized then that my first encounter with To Kill a Mockingbird was only one way by which I might experience the novel, and that as precocious as I might have been at seven I had subconsciously skimmed over the later chapters of the book because my childhood mind could not quite understand why Harper Lee would have spent so much time on “boring, grown-up things” in a book that I thought to be about an idyllic and carefree childhood.

Soon, To Kill a Mockingbird disappeared once more under other books.  I gave it barely a thought during my university years, during which any reading I did was hardly for the mere pleasure of opening a book and forgetting a cup of tea three sips and two chapters later.  When Go Set a Watchman was released earlier this summer, its predecessor came to the forefront of my mind and I found myself more eager to re-read To Kill a Mockingbird than I was to discover Go Set a Watchman.  In my current phase of audiobooks, I was delighted – though hardly surprised – to find several audio versions of that beloved novel and immediately downloaded the edition narrated by Sissy Spacek.

The hormonal sullenness of adolescence now long behind me, I’ve found that I can enjoy the amusing portions of To Kill a Mockingbird with delight similar to that of childhood.  I’ve also realized that the novel has more amusing lines and passages than my younger eyes had ever seen, thus proving that growing up doesn’t necessarily mean you entirely lose either your sense of humor or your ability to find lightheartedness anywhere.  As for the parts where teenaged eyes could only see distress, discouragement, and disenchantment, my adult observations can now see what good can come out of the novel’s darker elements.

Although it reads as a memoir and a coming-of-age-story, Scout tells it all from the point of view of a child.  The words Harper Lee gives her to tell her story are mature and eloquent, but Scout recounts the events of her early life in a tone as straightforward and frankly as only a child’s voice can be.  Scout is suspended in time within the book, forever a child in an idyllic environment only just beginning to crack under the pressures of the larger world beyond picket fences.  Out here in the real world, I have aged; I have grown up in all kinds of ways, losing innocence in the process and therefore sometimes losing hopefulness and faith.  Though Scout grows up too, at the end of the book she is still in that liminal phase where life’s harder lessons are now perceptible but not quite yet tangible, not yet quite learned.

To Kill a Mockingbird keeps Scout in that safe zone within Calpurnia’s earshot, and because of that I can go back to the novel any time I please and be transported to a childhood whose memories and stories are perfectly preserved.  It means that I, now an adult, can still walk up to meet Scout on the porch and re-experience that childhood.  Enough years have gone by between my first meeting with Scout and now for me to be able to do any discussion about To Kill a Mockingbird the justice owed it.  Even though I see things now for what they really are in that seemingly lovely version of Maycomb, I have a child’s hand by which I might be led through those dusty red streets and by whose touch I am reminded to look through even the darkest moments of life with the hope and faith that a light may still be seen somewhere in it.

An open letter to CS Lewis 

“We read to know that we are not alone.”
— CS Lewis

Oh, Professor – how many times have I run, heart wounded and despairing, to your works in search of a quote as though you were an apothecary and your words my balm of Gilead? How often in these last few months alone have I sat at your feet to commit to heart your lessons about the Four Loves? How many hours have I spent in the presence of God with your words guiding my conversations with Him?

I long to be surprised by joy again – to look up through tears and see something that compels me to rise once more to my own two feet even before those tears have dried. I long to find the peace of purpose; wherever it might lie on the road ahead, I long to stumble upon whatever it is that makes my life meaningful in the midst of all the other lives around me.

I fancy myself a writer, though compared to the literary heights to which I aspire the title of “scribbler” seems more appropriate…and perhaps it always will be better suited to me than its nobler counterpart.

Will I ever lead anyone through a wardrobe as you and Lucy led me? Will any of my nighttime thoughts, furtively whispered out loud to empty darkness or feverishly scribbled into a notebook by lamplight, ever be printed so that they may touch another life as yours have done mine? Will I ever have full mastery of this skill with which I have apparently been blessed, so that I may use it to its full potential as God intended?

These are the questions I would ask you if I could sit with awhile with you in one of your old haunts. As a child I imagined you as an uncle who would patiently listen to my incessant chatter about Narnia, answering the questions I had about that wonderful world. As an adolescent I would have debated with you about Screwtape and Wormwood, for I too was an inept youth in desperate need of goodly avuncular guidance. But now I am grown up and the imaginary conversations I have with you know about my haplessness and helplessness would be best suited to brandy in a study, or perhaps even once in a while to The Eagle and Child – though there I would be a most enchanted fly on the wall instead of a demanding pupil.

But how childish and droning my questions seem to be – even to the melodramatic pupil who posits them to you! Maybe it’s better that I bring them to my beloved books instead of to the man who wrote them, for as grown-up as I fancy myself to be I am still childish enough to be totally incapable of gracefully bearing any reproach, no matter how lovingly critical, from one I love so dearly.

So instead I write to your memory, searching for the answers in your written legacy. You are right, dearest Professor – when I read your words, I do not feel so very alone.

The 15-minute book club, #1: The Icewind Dale Trilogy by RA Salvatore

The Icewind Dale Trilogy by RA Salvatore 

  • The Crystal Shard
  • Streams of Silver
  • The Halfling’s Gem 

One of my brothers brought it home from the public library one day, and less than a week later it was in my hands:  a huge paperback omnibus edition containing an entire trilogy of novels.

Its grey cover, bent and creased by previous borrowers as all popular library books are, depicted four characters on a snow-covered outcropping of rocks.  There was a redheaded woman in a green dress standing next to a long-haired and youthful warrior in a horned helmet holding a giant hammer, and on the ledge below them a dark-skinned elf held an onyx figurine of a cat as a black panther materialized on the snow in front of him.  They were but four of the adventuring party with who my brothers and I would soon become obsessed over the next few years of our young lives:  the Companions of the Hall, a motley band of heroes hailing from the land called Icewind Dale in the Dungeons and Dragons universe.

The first book of the trilogy, and thus the omnibus, opened with a poem that I read over several times before I even thought to turn the page:

Come gather ‘round, hardy men of the steppe
And listen to my tale
Of heroes bold and friendships fast
And the tyrant of Icewind Dale

Of a band of friends, by trick or by deed
Bred legends for the bard
The baneful pride of one poor wretch
And the horror of the Crystal Shard

I remember how that simple poem sparked my curiosity and how, by the third time I read it, that spark had become a small but steadily-growing fire that brought a new life to my imagination.  My brothers could not stop talking about these books, and I wanted to know why — and after reading that opening poem, I knew that this would be something I could share with them that would transcend a mere infantile desire to mimic my older siblings in the hopes they might see me more as a peer and less as a pest.

Our shared love of the fantasy genre had been born in Middle-Earth and Narnia, and now our literary adventures led us to stir up the dust of legends in Faerûn.  I sped through The Icewind Dale Trilogy at lightning speed, enamored with this brave new northern world and entangled happily in the enchanted web RA Salvatore wove in the harsh and forbidding setting.

The Icewind Dale Trilogy came into my life soon after one of my first best friends exited – only a few days after a schoolyard incident had shattered that friendship beyond repair.  A picture of the two of us at my birthday party had been found in a puddle by the long-jump pit, and when I told the boy who found it that it I had given it to the “blonde girl in the picture” he told me, “She’s my class, and when I brought it to her she told me that she didn’t want it anymore.”

My birthday is in August, and during my elementary and high school years that meant hardly anyone would ever be in town to celebrate it.  The picture in question had been taken during the year when that blonde girl had been the only friend from school who hadn’t gone off on vacation or to camp the week of my birthday, and in my juvenile mind the fact that she’d been the only friend at my party meant that she was my best friend.  You can imagine, then, how awful I felt when I heard through the schoolyard grapevine that my apparent best friend in another classroom had denounced our friendship in front of most of our grade.

This was emotional background to my first encounter with RA Salvatore’s beloved character Drizzt Do’Urden and his diverse band of adventurer-warrior friends, and it set the scene perfectly for me to develop a deep attachment to their tale.  Their unfailing loyalty and support for one another, as well as their acceptance of each other despite such stark and obvious differences in their backgrounds, were all things I yearned to find in my peers but had yet to discover.

I longed to be able to slip through some rift in the earth and fall into Icewind Dale – and all the lands the Companions of the Hall subsequently travelled –  so that I could meet this band of heroes and earn my place among them.  I daydreamed of doing so by committing some gigantic act of bravery in the heat of battle following the sudden discovery of some special talent or ability that lay stifled by Earth’s magic-less atmosphere, or perhaps by bringing knowledge from Earth into some dire situation whose impossibility had exhausted all of Faerûn’s own possible solutions.  Though having my own share of their legendary fame was appealing, it was the idea of belonging to a group like that – a group of truly best friends – that committed my heart to the entire Legend of Drizzt saga.

In time, I came to realize that I did have hidden qualities and talents that could be used and shown in fine form in my earthly existence.  It’s true that I fell in love with literature while sitting at the feet of JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, but it was RA Salvatore who inspired me to make a first real commitment to writing a world of my own. Most important of these cached treasures was my love for writing, which became apparent when I started committing my daydreams to paper.  This secret phase of writing fan-fiction made me realize that if I could insert myself into the existing canon of Forgotten Realms legends, then maybe I could make my own world where all my wildest dreams would find life.

It’s been a long while since I last visited my childhood friends in the Forgotten Realms, but I’ve recently returned.  And I’m glad I came back, for upon reading the opening lines I felt a feeling not unlike the kind I get whenever I am reunited with my brothers and sisters under one roof, or whenever I see a friend whose company I have not shared in a long while:  that wonderfully strange feeling that my heart has somehow arrived home…as if taking it up was like knocking on Drizzt’s door, and reading it was like being admitted to cross his threshold and sit by the fire beside him, Guenhwyvar the astral panther at our feet and the rest of the Companions – Wulfgar, Catti-brie, Bruenor, and Regis – expected to join us at any minute.

Reading between the lines and using your grey matter when it comes to Fifty Shades

With its first incarnation being Twilight fanfiction devoured ravenously by Twilight Moms, Fifty Shades was first introduced the world as “mommy porn” – erotica that “primarily appeals to the sensibilities of mothers and housewives.”  I’m not exactly sure that the average housewife or mother is bored or frustrated enough with her own sex life to find Fifty Shades fulfilling on multiple levels of eroticism.  As saccharinely escapist as some of their novels tend to be, the bulk of the Harlequin Empire is made up of books that more than adequately spice up boudoir reading without resorting to the extremely graphic, violent, or manipulative methods that drive Fifty Shades.  All in all, I suppose that what I’m trying to say here is that I find the fact that it is so popular rather disturbing and, quite frankly, horrifyingly telling of the current state of the human condition.

Obviously I am not a fan – in the slightest iota – of EL James and Fifty Shades of Grey, but it’s not because I’m a practising Catholic abstaining from pre-marital sex.  Always a fine example of curiosity killing the cat, I decided to read the book when it came out in order to be able to see what all the fuss was about, and defend my preconception of it as a forest-killing, dumbed-down excuse for a novel.  Already knowing that its origins were in Twilight fanfiction, I was expecting it to be horrible.

That being said, I was horrified at how horrible it actually was.  From its constant deviation from some of the most basic grammatical structures (comma-spliced sentence fragments can be found in abundance here) to the more devastating consequences of its carnally-driven plot, there is nothing edifying on any page.  If any part of it had been marketed as what not to do in a relationship, then maybe I’d have less of a problem with how this book has taken the world by storm.

But no part of this book is marketed as such by any of the powers that put it in widespread public existence, which leads me to question how much of modern humanity actually thinks about what it reads anymore.

I wrote in a previous post about how writing should have integrity, and part of that integrity is doing proper justice to one’s subject – which does not happen here, either with sex or with the characters portrayed.  Sex – vanilla, BDSM, or any flavor in between – is more than just mere entertainment or gratification.  There’s a lot involved in sex on all different levels of human existence, and to disregard any of them is to disregard the entire facet of humanity associated therewith.  There are countless shades of grey in the spectrum of love and sexuality, but in Fifty Shades not one of them is tinted with real love.  Also, although I have no firsthand experience with the sexual culture of BDSM, I do know that it is a much more complex, intricate, and psychologically-driven than the way EL James (mis)represents it in the trilogy.  In Fifty Shades its codes of conduct and etiquette are entirely ignored as it is stripped down to its most basic elements, which are then twisted by and embellished with James’ own half-baked ideas of what a dominant/submissive arrangement looks like…and then tastelessly marketed as “true love.”

Thrust into this morally murky bubble, the main characters lose any kind of edifying traits themselves – which is even more of a shame, in my opinion, because taken out of the context of Fifty Shades and separated from one other there actually might be some potential in both Ana Steele and Christian Grey.  Outside of Fifty Shades and apart from one another in better-written, better-researched novels, they truly could have been different.  If she’d been put through the hoops of heartbreak, doubt, and drastic change by anyone other than Christian Grey, Ana might have become a stronger, confident, and truly independent woman; thus her story could have been a proper coming-of-age.  Christian’s troubled past and sexually psychotic mind, explored by more capable and knowledgeable talent, could have put him in the running for a millennial re-envisioning of a brooding, stormy-eyed Victorian antihero who might have truly been saved by anyone other than Anastasia Steele.

Alas, both characters were forged by a mind that could do neither of them any such justice – and that, in turn, does not do anyone in the real world any justice either.  Ana as the so-called “submissive” not only belittles the struggle of any woman anywhere who has gone through the harrowing experience of an abusive and manipulative partner.  The way she keeps surrendering herself to Christian (and all his appetites), thus allowing him to actually use her for his own pleasure, within the context of EL James’ horribly skewed and extremely twisted misrepresentation of “love” undermines hard-won emancipated femininity.  On the other hand, Christian as the so-called “dominant” adds an extremely unhealthy dose of aggressive misogyny to masculine strength to the point where the male’s traditional role as “provider and protector” is twisted into “possessor and enslaver.”  In him, unconditional devotion is twisted into the skin-crawling id of a stalker; generosity is turned into bribery and guilt-manipulation; and leadership becomes an assertion of both physical and emotional power.

The way Ana allows Christian to use her body without much (if any) regard for her mind or her heart – even though she knows on some level that this is exactly what he’s doing – enforces the erroneous message to women that sex is how you win a man and keep him in your life.  His countless abuses of her, in turn, send the message to men that a woman’s admiration of a man’s strength can be twisted and bent as far as it can go in order to obtain the highest amount of gratification for him.  Her co-dependence on him and her delusions of being his “saving grace” only serve the final end of his sexual gratification, which only comes about after he has both figuratively and literally beaten her to his will.

This is the bottom line of what’s wrong with Fifty Shades of Grey:  the whole “mommy porn” demographic aside, these books have been read by young women who are much, or even exactly, like Ana.  The other part of EL James’ international audience is young, inexperienced, impressionable, and naive enough to fall into the many traps set up by Christian Grey as a horrible misrepresentation of modern masculinity and male sexuality.  There are men like Christian Grey in the real world, but they’re not intangibly contained on a page or a screen out here – and the fact that a whole slew of young women are entering the real world with the expectation or hope of finding their own Christian Grey is frightening in that flesh-and-blood abusers, manipulators, rapists, stalkers, and misogynists are enabled and even eventually legitimised by their uninformed victims’ infatuation with Christian Grey.

Just think about it for a moment:  what Christian Grey does to Ana Steele is abuse, and in some of the worst ways it could possibly be abuse.  In the real world, though many shades of grey do exist between the white of what’s right and the black of what’s wrong, when it comes to any kind of abuse there is no grey area. 

 

***EDIT***

One thing that I did notice when going back to read my text was that I did indeed forget add (and have since rectified) that I read the book to see what all the fuss was about — to see if it actually lived up to its acclaim as the “greatest romance novel of the generation,” and should it not do that, be able to properly defend any preconceptions of mine against the arguments of its fans who would undoubtedly (and indeed, did) defend its “merits.”

I do not mean to criticize EL James for the actual act of writing — all the shortcomings of her grammatical, characterization, and other basic storytelling mechanisms aside, the fact that she wrote something that got published is definitely more than what many other artists may ever see in their own careers. What I do criticize is the irresponsible marketing that went into selling the book, and the subsequent irresponsible consumption thereof.

Sex and anything relating to it — “vanilla” or otherwise — is a volatile subject that, when mishandled in the name of “art,” “entertainment,” or “performance,” can cause emotional and psychological damage on a wide scale. With great power comes great responsibly, and anyone who practises any craft whose fruits become as widespread and globally accessible has a responsibility towards humanity to edify it through their art, not degrade it. If a small group of people had taken Fifty Shades to heart at this scale, it wouldn’t be a terribly huge problem; however the fact of the matter is, it has spurred a whole surge of women — and men — worldwide towards a lifestyle that is not befitting of their dignity as humans. And I’m not talking about the BDSM culture, either: like I said in the original post, the relationship in Fifty Shades is one of extreme abuse that popular culture has now come to view as desirable in real life.

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If you’re looking for other reads that explore, in more depth, why and how the Fifty Shades relationship is abusive, I highly recommend the following:  “Fifty Abusive Moments in Fifty Shades of Grey” and “Fifty Shades and the Fifty Shades is Abuse Campaign:  Dispelling the Myths,” both by mrsmanics over at The Rambling Curl.