Night and Day, Henry Versus EL James

james and James

No, I’m not one of those self-flagellating must-do-it martyrs who vow to finish every book they start, no matter how unpalatable.  Not finishing a bad book is as easy for me as zoning out during the welcoming comments at a Chamber of Commerce convention, or to keep the previous metaphor going, declining to finish an undercooked fat-choked pork sandwich.

No, I don’t have that mitigating principle to explain my finishing (it’s been several years now) EL James’ pant-fest, Fifty Shades of Grey (which I have handcuffed to a library carrel and urinated on here).

Certainly, anyone who read the above linked-to-post might find it improbable that such a severe and sarcastic critic would continue to squander the few, precious, and dwindling hours of his life’s eventide following the escapades of Anastasia Steele and Christopher Grey, characters as finely wrought as a pre-schooler’s drawing of an octopus; however, this critic did, albeit skimming through the novel’s latter emails, sex-scenes, and interior monologues with the concentration of a meth addict perusing Henry James’s The Ambassadors.*


*Indeed, I dedicate that one-paragraph 83-word sentence to the Master.

But finish it, I did, as I might a 32-ounce Slurpee, knowing that it was bad for me, didn’t even taste good, but that it went down easy.  However, I will give Ms. James’ high school English teacher this compliment: ol’ EL has gotten the bit about active voice/vibrant verbs.  I haven’t been exposed to so much clambering since the fall of Saigon.


3 April 1975

Whatever the reason – the active prose, its socio-historical late empire ramifications, the fairly well-choreographed sex scenes – I finished the damned thing, and I might add that Fifty Shades of Grey’s success demonstrates that the novel as a form is far from dead.  Future story tellers need not abandon first person narration and turn to screenplays to make their fortunes.

You go, fan fiction aficionados!


Nevertheless, I did finish Fifty Shades, but it left me famished for something beyond solid.  Yet, I wanted it to be very roughly analogous – Lolita perhaps – but then it hit me like a revelation – The Ambassadors, a novel about another naive American’s initiation into an exotic world.  Although universes apart in style, structure, and depth of characterization, Fifty Shades and The Ambassadors do share some shading in the Venn diagram of their thematic concerns.

Not to mention authors with matching surnames.

So I clambered up ascended the stairs to my drafty garret study to greedily snatch remove the 60-cent 1965 paperback that literally falls apart in my hands as I squint at negotiate its microscopic minuscule type.

ambassador page

Oh, my sweet Buddha, but we are in different universes.  Compare Henry’s description of our protagonist Lewis Lambert Strether to EL’s description of Christian Grey.

As they say, age before beauty.  Take it away, Mr. James:

[. . .] what his hostess saw, what she might have taken in with a vision kindly adjusted, was the lean, the slightly loose figure of a man of the middle height and something more perhaps than the middle age–a man of five-and-fifty, whose most immediate signs were a marked bloodless brownness of face, a thick dark moustache [sic], of characteristically American cut, growing strong and falling low, a head of hair still abundant but abundantly streaked with grey . . .

Your turn, Ms. James.

I surreptitiously gaze at him from beneath my lashes as he stands in line waiting to be served.  I could watch him all day . . . he’s tall, broad-shouldered, and slim, and the way those pants hang from his hips . . . Oh my.  Once or twice he runs his long, graceful fingers through his now dry but still disorderly hair.  Hmm . . . I’d like to do that.  The thought comes unbidden into my mind,**and my face flames.  I bite my lip and stare down at my hands again, not liking where the wayward thoughts are headed.

** a thought comes unbidden “into [her] mind”  – as opposed into her genitals?

Which one is talking?

“I’m always considering something else; something else, I mean, than the thing of the moment. The obsession of the other thing is the terror. I’m considering at present for instance something else than YOU.”

“I’ve never slept with anyone, never had sex in my bed, never flown a girl in Charlie Tango, never introduced a woman to my mother.  What are you doing to me?”

Which passage ends with “His eyes burn, their intensity takes my breath away?”***

*** Answers available at 1-900-144-5412 ($1.20 per minute fee)


So what’s my point?

Good question.  First of all, despite egregious flaws, the plot of 50 Shades of Grey carries you along (and it has as at least as many sex scenes as Slaughterhouse Five has death scenes). However, it’s definitely lower middle brow. (I was somewhat interested to see how the narrative would be translated onto the big screen but but not curious enough to bother to go see or rent it).  I figured that the viewer would be doomed to a thousand voiceovers and that moviegoers might perceive Anastasia as more pathological than the reader does if they didn’t hear her story in her own words.

Once, when a parent called to complain about A  Clockwork Orange’s being on our reading list after having seen Kubrick’s film, I had to explain that in the novel Alex’s quaint phrase “a malinky little tolchock to the gulliver” on screen is transformed into the objective depiction of a woman being clubbed to death.  Likewise, Anastasia’s “organism ripping through [her], a turbulent, passionate apogee that devours [her] whole” could come off on screen as trite pornography

Second, the tsunami success of Fifty Shades must tell us something about sex in the Late Empire.  One, women who thirty years ago might have discretely ordered the book and read it behind closed doors are now reading it on airplanes and discussing it at happy hours with their girlfriends.  Sex is a powerful obsession, an innate need, and it is probably impossible to sustain passion’s fire on a marriage bed dampened by the constant distractions and stresses of the working world – getting the kids ready for school, picking up something from Harris Teeter, opening that audit notice from the IRS.

If EL James were to follow the adventures of our heroes into the second decade of matrimony, she may very well be writing sentences like this:

My back to him, I feel his hand reach over and touch my well-worn tee shirt, and I clench, trying to stifle a yawn.  He rolls over me and his gray eyes are red-veined and floating in a puckered slough of discoloration.  Holy shit, he wants me, but I want him about as bad as I want a yeast infection.

EL James 50,000 Degrees of Ennui

I’ll leave you with this.  Check out the first and last pages of the outline of The Ambassadors that James submitted to his publishers.





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