Saturday, October 13, 2012

100 reviews # 4: FIfty Shades of Grey and Tempest

A few weeks ago I made an undertaking to review two phenomena of the age, the blockbuster S&M porn novel Fifty Shades of Grey and Bob Dylan's Tempest. When I made the undertaking I was not very sure how these two would fit together in terms of content, approach or scope. All I knew was they were two examples of culture product which had the world abuzz (Tempest for about half an hour, Fifty Shades for months and months). I wanted to look at how champions and/or consumers of these items embraced, analysed (or not) and explored them. I was intrigued by the number of women I had seen reading Fifty Shades on the train and wondered whether their doing so was any kind of a statement or indeed whether there was any self-consciousness at all to the act. I wondered about the Dylanophiles who consistently heralded and defended this man's work into his dotage, taking every apparently wrong move as a puzzle set for acolytes by a great mind. I wanted to show that there's less of a disjunct between these two than might initially appear, if only because - here's my 70sness coming in to play - they both belonged in the bag of Things We Had To Know About in 2012, the passing show of stuff made and on sale, for which the media gives us context and then talking points.

Unfortunately, I hit and unexpected snag. In both cases, I had dissed the works out of hand in the first instance because what little I'd heard about (or in the case of Tempest, of) them sounded bad. On reflection I assumed that in the larger works there would be some nuance or quirk or set of ideas that would intrigue me. After all, only boring people get bored. Well, I read the whole of Fifty Shades of Grey and listened to Tempest (admittedly only) a couple of times. They suck! They really, really suck. I was not expecting them both to suck so badly.

To start with Tempest. Of course, and understandably, all discussion of Bob Dylan these days revolves around not whether the residual interest in his 21st century (or in fact post-1970s) work is predicated on the appeal and impact of his first 15 years or so as a recording artist, but to what degree the new work is a degraded echo of what was once an interesting voice/artist. We all want to be kind to old people, and presumably much of the niceness extended to Dylan in the last couple of decades comes from sentimentality about who he once was. He is not that person anymore - who would want to be the same person they were fifty years before, much less be able even to approximate it? - and what he is now is a performer of almost no appeal whatsoever. Detached from the legacy, Tempest is an amazingly poor album. If it had been written and recorded (and I bring this up because it was so reminiscent of the genre) by a periurban retired schoolteacher and his friends from the men's shed, and released as a CDR in an edition of 50 copies, no-one aside from the wives would give it the time of day. Its most original idea is a song nine minutes longer than appropriate that mixes up the actual Titanic disaster with fictional representations of the same. Its best song, the opener 'Duquesne Whistle', has at least an agreeably warm sound/production; luck or skill, who knows. The only thing that interests me about Tempest, ultimately, is the question of whether Dylan makes his lyrics up as he sings them, or whether he spends five minutes writing them down in free-association first. If these words are the product of any kind of concerted effort, then the great man truly has lost it. No, no 'ifs'. He lost it years ago and there is no excuse for this kind of absurd banality. I do blame the press, for giving it oxygen, and editors for scoping round amongst potential reviewers for finding those who would regard it positively.

Now, those who love Tempest (no-one really does love it, of course, though many have found it possible to pretend to) no doubt would turn their noses up at Fifty Shades.  That's appropriate, but everyone should turn their noses up at this particular piece of dross. It's barely worth going into, but to dismiss it lightly when Tempest got a big paragraph would be to give Tempest too much dignity.

Fifty Shades is a sexual fantasy epic in which a young woman called Anastasia is seduced by a billionaire twentysomething called Christian into the world of what we used to call bondage and discipline and now I can't remember what it's called. I gave my copy to an op shop in Swan Hill - I saw no reason to continue to own it once I finished it, and I did actually finish it (spoiler: it doesn't end, indeed the first, most popular book is one of a trilogy of books each the same enormous size and almost has the status of a prequel, setting up for whatever happens in the second and third). All I retain from my reading of the work is these notes:

I have an email address? p. 178
Eradicate hunger across the globe p 237

The first note is to my mind the most preposterous, unbelievable aspect of the novel - that college student Anastasia Steele does not have an email address, until Christian Grey sets up an account for her.  I would ask firstly, what kind of a prat in 2011 (I assume this is when the book is set - it's when it was published), educated, ostensibly within the book's mythic universe articulate, in the first world (Seattle or Portland or somewhere) doesn't have an email address? 'I have an email address?' is as crazy as 'I have a middle name?' or 'I have a library card?' 

As for the 'eradicate hunger' note, I am not entirely sure why I thought this was worth writing down, though if I remember correctly this is Christian Grey's main business, somehow. I don't know why no-one thought of the billions to be made from this before but like Fifty Shades itself I guess you just need to get a niche and work it. 

I am no great judge of literary sex scenes and I tend to avoid reading such stuff, but the descriptions peppering this book are lazy, cliched and vapid. Christian has entirely no flaws - he even knows how to set up an email account - except that he Cannot Love, as his mother was a Crack Whore. Anastasia, deprived of the use of 21st century communication tools such as email, has developed a close relationship with something she calls her Inner Goddess, a kind of judgmental witch in her brain. The book starts, goes six hundred pages, and then ends. I did read it to the end, so it was in one sense 'readable', in the same way Tempest is 'listenable'. 

Yet both of them let me down shockingly, even given my low expectations. The thing that links these two really is that one has been received as being at the high end of popular culture, and the other at the 'low', porny end. But they are in fact roughly of equal value: bloodless going-through-the-motions. At least Fifty Shades will have a long-term impact; no doubt sales of big leather belts skyrocketed in 2012 as readers briefly (probably very very briefly, but what do I know) experimented with the presumably quite mild practices espoused by Christian Grey; it's also, I bet, likely to be many children's first exposure to fiction on sexual themes, and while 'scarred for life' is going too far, it will surely shape attitudes. Tempest will be so forgotten - actually, I think it already is - before long that only completists will know of it, and even then few of them, surely, will want to know it. 


Paul Stam said...

Finally I found someone who will tell the truth. I agree with every word of it. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

ditto david- i even skimmed your post because it was almost as boring as the subject matter

fxh said...


I tried 50 Shades a few times but just couldn't be bothered. Flicking through it didn't seem to have any humor, decent smut, or more elevated nutrient such as erotica, story or plot. I may be wrong as I didn't read it all.

As for Bob - I buy all (well most) of his albums. He deserves it. Mostly he has nothing new to say. Or lately nothing to say. Nor a new way of saying it. Musically its basic USA bar band stuff.

However his voice is magnificent - isn't it?

John Weeks said...

I'll read *anything*, (I'm shameless) but I had the good fortune to be warned off from '50 Shades' by this rather amusing GIF-laden review.