“Most novels, especially popular ones, are humiliating,” wrote D. H. Lawrence in 1928. “The public responds now only to an appeal to its vices.” By vices, he of course didn’t mean sex, for what was Lady Chatterley’s Lover (the novel in which these lines occur) if not a cry to the heavens for sexual redemption, for naked, openhearted give-and-take, for the planetary course correction of a good, solid humping? No, vice for Lawrence was all on the other side—with the constipated and the emotionally caged, the salacious and tiny-minded, pinching off their orgasms and stunting their souls. “I stand for the touch of bodily awareness between human beings,” says Mellors, the phallic gamekeeper in Lady Chatterley, “and the touch of tenderness … It is a battle against the money, and the machine, and the insentient ideal monkeyishness of the world.” Lawrence, oh Lawrence, old copper-topped moralist, thou shouldst be living at this hour, if only so we could ask thy thoughts on Fifty Shades of Grey, by E. L. James. Because when it comes to the insentient ideal monkeyishness of the world …
“This is basically my whole job now,” a bookselling friend of mine said recently, frowning over the chin-high pile of fresh copies she was carrying to the Fifty Shades table at the front of the store. Blockbuster, bonkbuster, spankbuster, wankbuster; S&M romance juggernaut; the book with U.S. paperback sales topping 5 million; the book that has reconfigured the Kindle as an erotic object; the book about which everyone with genitals must have an opinion—not banned like Lady Chatterley, no indeed, but culturally compulsory. Publishers are reeling, flinging everything with a man, a woman, and a pair of handcuffs onto the shelves. If you liked Fifty Shades, you’ll love Haven of Obedience by Marina Anderson, or Slave by Sherri Hayes, or The Ninety Days of Genevieve by Lucinda Carrington, or Anne Rice’s just-reissued Sleeping Beauty series. Sales of Tess of the d’Urbervilles—deployed faintly in Fifty Shades as a kind of literary touchstone—have tripled. Thomas Tallis’s seraphic 16th-century choral work Spem in alium recently appeared, rather improbably, at the top of the U.K. classical-music charts. Why? Because Fifty Shades, in a profound act of late-capitalist debasement, uses it to soundtrack a spanking-induced orgasm. (“The singing starts again … building and building, and he rains down blows on me …”) The movie adaptation advances apace, surrounded by noise. In the bookstore, I made deprecating sounds at my friend. Come, come, I said, but surely this is just trash. “Look around you,” she said. “All the women are smiling!” And I looked up, and it was true: concentric rings of feminine amusement, delicate and complicit, spreading murmuringly away on every side.
The plot, for those arriving late: Anastasia (Ana) Steele, literature student, Thomas Hardy fan, a virgin, meets Christian Grey, frillionaire entrepreneur, “the epitome of male beauty,” a bondage fiend. Ana brims with arousal: she wobbles, she palpitates, she blushes and flushes. Christian is enigmatic: steely and controlling one minute, warm and human the next. He takes her on a helicopter ride and shows her his sex dungeon. So the liaison is entered into, he straining chivalrously to “explore her limits” with regard to pain/pleasure, nipple clamps, and all that crap; she trying to recall him to the sweeter sphere of boy-meets-girl, and to wean him off his whips, for she has (oh dear, oh dear) fallen in love. “He wants me, but the truth is I need more. I need him to want me like I want and need him, and deep down I know that’s not possible. I am just overwhelmed.”
The prose—ah, the prose. Like Shirley Conran’s Lace rewritten by a smartphone. “You beguile me, Christian. Completely overwhelm me. I feel like Icarus flying too close to the sun.” Or: “I’ll agree to the fisting, but I’d really like to claim your ass, Anastasia.” (That might be a better title for the book, actually: Your Ass, Anastasia.) But this is not the point. The point is that in Ana’s attempt to make a man out of Christian Grey, to summon him fully into her sexual-emotional presence, to soften (with love!) the beady eye of domination and surveillance, we rejoin the struggle against modernity to which all the great sexologists of 20th-century literature—Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, D. H. Lawrence himself—were committed. Christian Grey, master of the universe, is nothing more or less than civilization and its discontents. His libido—denatured, accessorized—is the Lawrentian nightmare distilled. Life around him hums, or anesthetically drones, and it smells like the inside of a Mazda CX‑5. Check out his apartment: “To the right is an imposing U‑shaped sofa that could seat ten adults comfortably. It faces a state-of-the-art stainless-steel—or maybe platinum, for all I know—modern fireplace. The fire is lit and flaming gently.” He’s a pornographic Dark Knight, with the creak of Thanatos in his leather wings.
Ana, meanwhile—empurpled, chaotic Ana—is the saving female principle. She operates out of a curious psychological matrix, instructed now by her “subconscious” and now by her “inner goddess.” “My subconscious yells at me.” “My inner goddess is doing the merengue with some salsa moves.” (Occasionally they align: “No! screams my subconscious … My inner goddess nods in silent Zen-like agreement with her.”) She doesn’t even own a computer, poor lamb—until Christian gives her one.
What is the sexual milieu, the sexual world-surface onto which Fifty Shades of Grey and its sequels have crash-landed so spectacularly? As always, we are very, very confused. Should we be swinging, opening up our marriages, going three or four in a bed like the writhing nonconformists on Showtime’s reality show Polyamory? They seem to have the same problems with jealousy, lust, and so on as we poor monogamous bastards do. Or should we ironically and expertly self-gratify, like the anonymous sex diarists in New York magazine? “6:18 p.m. Kids just got picked up by ex-husband. Commence me time, meaning: buzzing myself into oblivion with my bullet vibrator, followed by yoga and mindless tweeting.” The sex enjoyed by, endured by, the young women on HBO’s Girls is abrupt and disorienting, like bumping into a lamppost.
Above all, we fear numbness. We fear deadness. It seems to have entered our bodies, like a chill. Madly we fight it. Hence: Christian Grey with his arsenal of sensation-enhancers. Hence: Brandon, the sex addict played by Michael Fassbender in Steve McQueen’s Shame, ploughing through his bacchanals with the face of a 400-year-old man—desperate, haggard, hammering away.
And Fifty Shades really takes us there, at the level of the line, to that place of numbed-out modernity and whatever‑ness: “His voice is warm and husky like dark melted chocolate fudge caramel … or something.” Dead signifiers repeat, repeat, on a loop of insensibility: Christian’s “unruly” hair, Ana’s endlessly bitten lip. Experience is freeze-dried into cliché, with industrial efficiency. “I’m all deer/headlights, moth/flame, bird/snake …” It’s all so 2012, so blank generation, so now. Bret Easton Ellis, author of American Psycho, has unsurprisingly declared himself a Fifty Shades superfan. No word yet from the great French heretic Michel Houellebecq, but he must surely be taking a keen interest. “The novel form is not conceived for depicting indifference or nothingness,” wrote Houellebecq in Whatever. “A flatter, more terse, and dreary discourse would need to be invented.” In Chapter 11 of Fifty Shades of Grey, when Ana first peruses the pages-long S&M contract Christian hopes she will sign, E. L. James has at last invented it: “The Dominant will ensure that all equipment used for the purposes of training and discipline shall be maintained in a clean, hygienic, and safe state at all times.” Look on her works, ye nihilists, and despair.