50 shades of bad and a few shades of good

50 shades of Grey has been lambasted from here to eternity. I’ll agree that in most cases it has been rightly lambasted. The prose is appalling and the dialogue is cringeworthy (‘Holy crap”, “my inner goddess is doing the merengue with some salsa moves”), the plot meanders about forever, the one-dimensional characters… I could (and frequently have) go on at length about this.

I could also rant and rave about the sexist messages and subtext in the book. The fact that it misrepresents BDSM, the fact that Christian breaks their contract by ignoring safewords, the fact that in pretty much every scene of note – including the one where the contract is drawn up – Anna is under the influence of alcohol, the fact that she repeatedly says no, states that she feels like an abuse victim (because she is), that his actions legally count as rape, that there are scenes when she runs away from him in fear, that after she drunk dials him he traces her phone and shows up and gives out to her and won’t let her drink, the fact that he stalks her, threatens her, tells her she can’t run because he will find her, convinces her that his mood swings are her fault etc. etc. etc. All are classic traits of abusive relationships. Like I said I could go on, and maybe I will at a future point, but if you’re interested in these arguments that it portrays an abusive relationship just follow the links in this paragraph. I’m not here today to talk about the bad things though.

No means no!!!

No means no!!!

But we have a tendency to only focus on the negative and, like I said, I don’t think I have anything game-changing to add to that side of the debate. I have a tendency to be cynical so in my bid to be a bit more positive in life I’m going to be controversial here and say that maybe 50 shades of Grey isn’t all bad, there are some (not insignificant) good points that should not be ignored.

  • This a HUGELY successful franchise, a massive money spinner whose popularity has launched the careers of thousands of writers in similar genres and really brought some credibility to self-publishing and ebooks in places like Ireland that haven’t really adopted it like the rest of the world. However, the most heartening thing about the whole phenomenon is that this HUGELY successful story was inspired by a successful woman writer (Stephanie Meyers), written by a woman, adapted for screen by a woman and directed by a women. In a world where industries like writing and publishing and film are traditionally dominated by men (pun intended), and in a world where this infographic rings dishearteningly true, this is a fantastic achievement for women and should be acknowledged as such.
  • This is a franchise written for women. Despite the highly problematic portrayal of relationships in it, and the justified worry that this portrayal may subconsciously influence people into normalising abuse and not recognising it when it occurs, there are still some positives to be gleaned from this relationship. One of my main problems with the porn industry is that it’s all for men. It’s all about men getting off and men enjoying themselves and women get nothing out of it. There is very little aimed at women, very little female sexual empowerment and agency or even very little female sexual representation except for the purposes of giving men orgasms and making them feel all macho and awesome. 50 shades has got women talking about sex and has normalised women’s sexual desires (not the specific desires represented in the book necessarily, but even the fact that we have desires at all seems to have come as a shock to some people). In our incredibly repressive, uptight, reserved society, I see this as a good thing. Porn where women get off too is good, and there is no denying that Anna enjoys some of the sex in the book, it’s just everything else that has her running in fear.
  • It has normalised non “vanilla” sex (to borrow a phrase from the book) and encourages people to explore sex and their own sexuality which I reckon is a good thing. Honesty and open mindedness is always positive, and it has helped dispel some of the notions that people tend to have about those who engage in non-traditional sexual practices. The BDSM is the book’s main hook, but I would caution anyone who intends to use it as a manual. Some of what’s represented in it is decidedly dangerous (don’t tie someone up with cable-ties, seriously, don’t, a trip to the emergency room is not sexy). And to be perfectly honest, none of the sex is that surprising (apart from Christian’s behaviour and refusal to uphold the contract), I’ve read about far more deviant and shocking sexual practices in ancient Roman texts than between the covers of this book so everyone needs to relax about the so-called depravity.
  • This point isn’t exactly positive, it’s more just speculation, but while I believe that we should criticise the book, and scrutinise it, as we should look at all art with a critical eye, a vast amount of the backlash has not been aimed at the book, but rather at the fanbase, mainly because they’re women. This angers me. Though the book gets people talking about sex and normalises women’s desires this is instantly dismissed (by people who usually haven’t read it and are usually men) as ‘Mommy porn.’ What a horribly condescending term! While the abusive relationship has the potential to have a negative influence on some of its fans, a lot of its fans are also sensible enough to realise this and read it as a guilty pleasure, they just enjoy the sex scenes while recognising the disturbed nature of the characters’ interactions. But this ‘Mommy porn’ criticism doesn’t look at the problems in the book, doesn’t look at the book at all. Instead it criticises and demeans women for wanting or doing or enjoying anything sexual or having any sexual agency whatsoever. We saw the same backlash at the Twilight fanbase of teenage girls and we will see it at the next predominantly female franchise despite its quality. Yet you never see this kind of backlash against male fans or male-dominated franchises like action movies or the WWE (which is arguably of equally bad quality). This policing of people’s tastes infuriates me, and while I feel that the abuse in the books needs to be highlighted I will not judge you for reading them or shame you for liking them (though in some cases I will point out why I don’t like them).
  • The sheer volume of the book’s detractors has gotten some people looking at relationships in a new light and has generally made people more aware of abuse, people who might not necessarily have become aware, had they not been exposed to this criticism and dialogue before or even been aware of this dynamic in fiction and in life.
  • And lastly, while I found the book pretty tedious to get through, there are hours of entertainment to be had from ingenious parodies of the series. From 50 shades of tae to 50 sheds of hay, to if the books were written by men, to Ellen Degeneres’  staring in 50 shades of grey, the lego trailer, the musical version, the Steve Buscemi version, the #IrishShadesOfGrey, Ellen Degeneres again – this time making the audiobook, this list of the exact shades of grey (all 50 of them), priceless google image searches, the list goes on. There is something for everyone, those who love it, those who hate it and those who are just looking for a laugh.

50 shades of Grayskull

 

For the record I have not seen the film and have no intention of seeing it. I have read the first book in the trilogy, but slogging through that was a challenge so I didn’t bother with the other two. I’m just waiting for Valentine’s day 2016 so I can go see the Deadpool movie.

Short Story Sunday: ‘Pocketful of Dharma’ by Paolo Bacigalupi

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I bought this as part of the Humble Bundle months ago. Beacuse it was a lot of books at once it was a while before I got around to reading it. I’ve been dipping in and out of it over the past few weeks. Paolo Bacigalupi is a multi-award winning sci-fi author and it’s easy to see why. This is his debut collection of short stories and ‘Pocketful of Dharma’ was first published in 1999. His stories are original, deep, multi-layered and political. They also feature characters from many different cultures and backgrounds which I loved and you don’t see often enough in science fiction.

However, I found I couldn’t read this book for extended periods of time. It’s quite dense. Worldbuilding is Bacigalupi’s biggest strength but it turns into a weakness as well. ‘A Pocketful of Dharma’ is set in a cyberpunkish version of China told from the point of view of a young street beggar. A new, organic city is growing in the centre and the rich and important are moving there while Jun and his ilk are left on the ever-more squalid streets below relying on the generosity/guilt of tourists to survive. He innocently obtains a data cube that everyone and his mother is after. The data cube turns out to contain the consciousness of the Dalai Lama, who cannot reincarnate until it is destroyed. This is about to cause a war between China, Tibet and several others who all want it for their own ends.

The story is good but so much worldbuilding is crammed into so small a space that I can’t help but feel it needed more room to breathe. Casual references leave you wanting more, a lot more. Making the reader work and not belabouring and tiring out every detail can be a good thing but there is a lot of detail without very much explanation. There’s the character and the socio-economic strata of his world, there’s the city he lives in and the spongy living city he aspires to, there’s the life of the gangs around him, there’s the higher political problems, the technology, and the thumbnail sketches of the various other characters that Jun encounters with their own vague motivations… it’s a lot to take in on every page, so much so that it’s hard to get lost in the story itself, and it’s a good one. The characters also take a back-seat in this story, Jun’s the only one I ever felt was a real character. I have this problem with the worldbuilding in some of his other stories but not the character problem thankfully.

It’s definitely worth reading. It paints a bleak, complex picture of people oppressed by society but that picture is highly imaginative and, though he made me work for it, I’m glad I took the time to read it.

Notable lines: A vast biologic city, which other than its life support would then lie dormant as humanity walked its hollowed arteries, clambered through its veins and mailed memories to its skin in the rituals of habitation.

REVIEW: My Summer Reads

So I recently spent a week abroad. I don’t do so good on sun holidays because I burn easily enough in Ireland and I like doing stuff instead of lying down, which I do quite frequently at home for free. Prior to leaving I was told I could only bring five books to keep me going because the bags would be too heavy, they’d cost extra, I’d make someone else carry them, blah blah blah. So I brought four books and my kindle (fight the system!). Here are some micro-reviews of the ones I read.

The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter.

13147230This is a Pratchett’s first foray into sci-fi since he wrote Strata back in 1981. It is about parallel universes and the travel between them. Pratchett and Baxter manage to get around the complicated confusing plots of certain other authors I could mention by making these worlds uninhabited by humans. Our earth is a freak or ‘Joker’ earth where humans evolved. Across the Long Earth sentience is quite rare but there are lots of interesting versions of the world out there and the absence of humans lets the authors explore more interesting topics, such as what happens once resources become infinite? The technology to travel, or ‘step’ to these other earths is very very cheap. What happens when anyone can get gold or land or anything they need right next door for free? And next door to that, and that… The book ends on a hell of a cliffhanger though so while I’m waiting for the next one I think I’ll have to read more of this Baxter guy.

Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk

I’ve meant to read more of Palahniuk since I read Fight Club. Marla Singer is more messed up in the book than she is in the film but she doesn’t hold a candle to Shannon McFarland. Invisible Monsters deals with a supermodel who becomes severly disfigured and her various methods for dealing (or failing to deal) with both this and her pre-existing insecurities. There are plenty of twists and funny moments, particularly with Shannon’s parents. The book deals a lot with reinvention and plays with identity and gender – particularly with transgender characters and the hyper-sexualisation of the modelling world. Another major theme is self-destruction and self-mutilation. Because of her deformity she is quite literally the silent protagonist. It’s no Fight Club but definitely worth a read (particularly the remix version) .

WARNING: I can take a lot of gore in books – not so much in films, but in books usually nothing is too gruesome for me – and there’s a scene in this book that made me physically ill. I had to stop reading get some fresh air and cancel my plans for the evening. Not for the faint hearted.

The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard

This one was a bit of a struggle. The premise was great: global warming has been accelerated exponentially due to solar flares and the equator has become uninhabitable. The book follows a team of scientists at the borders of the uninhabitable zone studying the ecology and trying to find a way to delay or at least document the advance of the floods. This is hard sci-fi and is very well written for the first half. The narrator is compelled by this drowning world and the book has quite a few Heart of Darkness moments as the environment’s devolution parallels that of the characters. However the imagery is endless (there are only so many ways to describe a lagoon before it gets boring) and while beautifully written the plot stagnates at points. He spends quite a lot of time hammering home his themes as well which makes the already introspective character a bit too detached for me. I reckon if it had been told in the first person he could have avoided most of these pitfalls. I stopped in the middle to read other books so when events accelerated near the end I found it hard to get into again. But it’s only 170 pages long so definitely worth a try.

Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut

So after all the hype around Slaughterhouse Five I don’t know what I was expecting but it certainly wasn’t a war novel. The Western World obsesses over WWII to the neglect of all other tragedies so I definitely wasn’t thrilled to be reading yet another book about it. I’ve read a lot of excellent holocaust narratives and this one starts out very blandly. The first chapter is a bit tedious but then the time travel and alien abduction starts. This has nice parallels with Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil as both stories try to discover new ways to talk about trauma and the answer unanimously seems to be evasion and surrealism. It’s an excellent book that plays with narrative conventions. Now I finally know where the phrase ‘So it goes’ comes from and why so many people get it as a tattoo. Vonnegut repeats this phrase to provoke every emotion under the sun in reaction to death, highlighting how omnipresent it is.

Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey

I only got one chapter into this on the plane home so my opinion is still pending. But so far it’s pretty interesting. Standard enough sci-fi opening (until a bit at the very end of the chapter which makes me think this one’s going to be pretty low on the Mohs scale) but told in a very compelling way. If it’s any indication of the way the rest of the book is written I’ll stick with him for the long haul.

Holocaust Narratives

"Beatrice and Virgil" Book Cover So without consciously intending to, I’ve read  several books about the holocaust recently. I read Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel, The Book Thief  by Markus Zusak and MAUS by Art Spiegelmann. All turned out to be great books and all turned out to be about the holocaust but they told their stories in very different ways.

Beatrice and Virgil is a new departure from Martels previous, bestselling work Life of Pi. I read Life of Pi years ago and loved it so I was looking forward to more of the same, a fantastical story with well developed characters involving animals. Instead Martel bludgens us over the head from the get go with his overrriding message that traditional narratives are unable to capture an experience as horrific as this with any degree of accuracy. Which is fair enough in itself and despite a few episodes apparently added to pad out the book (like the essay on taxidermy) I really enjoyed it. He found thoroughly original ways of describing horror and I enjoyed his theories about how writing needed to change to reflect this (I will not go into his methods here to avoid spoilers but they were truly original). However, I still have a few issues with the book:

1. the extremely abrupt ending, it did not seem to fit in with the rest of the book and for days I was unsure if i liked it or not, if I could make it fit with the rest of the characters or not.

2. there were a few episodes in the book that seemed to add nothing to either the plot, the characterisation or his overrriding message. (such as the essay on taxidermy, the scene near the end with his cat and dog or the protracted description of flip books at the start)

The thing is I’m not sure if these issues are even issues. He could easily have added them on purpose to show how perplexing these events are, how random some events can seem, how monotony can reign at the heart of violence or any number of things like that.

Though the book did have issues I ultimately liked it because it made me uncertain.

 

Holocaust NarrativesThen I read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. I think it’s a young adult book but it again deals with some dark and complex things. I like that it doesn’t talk down to it’s demographic like so many others I read recently. It’s about a girl living in Germany during world war two and it’s narrated by Death.

The authors’ concept of death is strikingly original, even moving at points. the story is full of intergections from him that add variety to the self-conscious narrative. Though the book was never going to end happily Zusak fills it with all degrees of emotion, giving yet another unique perspective on one of the most devastating events of recent history.

Next I read MAUS. And again I found a startlingly original way of telling the same story. The Nazis are depicted as cats, the Jews as mice and panel after panel, picture after picture, Art Interviews his Father on his life in GErmany during the Holocaust and we get a deeply moveing multilayered story not only of the Holocaust itself but of survivors guilt and how people like Art and indeed myself, who never went through anything like this, had extremely easy lives in the aftermath of such trauma, try to understand it.

I feel I’ve gone on too long, but this is a topic I will return to again, narratives of trauma and how art constantly finds new ways to tell the same story. How, fifty years later, this story is still relevant and still evolving with each telling.