by Rich Moreland, 2014
I confess this review was generated by a conversation I had with Ira Levine (aka Ernest Greene) about his novel, Master of O. Within the BDSM community, Ira is a “master” in his own right and a renowned filmmaker. For a look at his visual trilogy wrapped around the O story, I’ve reviewed each installment here: O: The Power of Submission, The Surrender of O, and The Truth About O.
I figured that if his book landed anywhere within the vicinity of his visual storytelling dynamics, it likely has classic written all over it. I was not disappointed and must add that his print narrative is a giant leap ahead of anything that can be put on film.
Using the widely accepted Amazon rating system, Master of O is five stars, top of the line. If kink is your bailiwick, buy this book. You’ll find it a tasty delicacy of eroticism, pain, and high culture.
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“‘Me you want. Him you need. You can have both, but we all understand that need is stronger than want.’
O pushed away from Ray’s chest and glared at him. ‘Maybe I don’t want either one of you, or all your crazy bullshit.’
Ray managed a laugh of sorts. ‘I don’t buy that anymore than you do.’
. . .
Again, O realized, someone had loved her and she had hurt him. Someone had tried to be the man she needed and couldn’t be. This was O’s fate. She could give everything, but only to someone who didn’t require it. Just as her need for formality and consistency exhausted Ray, his need for affection and reassurance exhausted her . . .”
Set in the decadent glitz of a modern Hollywood splashed with bling and bondage sex, Master of O is Ernest Greene’s updated version of the sixty-year-old Story of O, Pauline Reage’s original tale about a fashion photographer and the mysterious Sir Stephen. Framed in mid-1950s Paris, Reage’s narrative is a salacious peek into the whispered kinks of those whose sexual secrets remained closeted until the 1960s gave way to free fall the ensuing decade.
Awakened, O is led “to the middle of the courtyard” where is she laid “upon a table” and “possessed” by two men “one after the other.” There is no further comment other than an awkward epilogue that offers a choice of brief and inconclusive endings. It is as if Pauline Reage created a character she did not know how to discipline, so she simply walked away, perhaps glancing back one last time.
In Master of O, possession, intertwined with need and want, drives LA’s rapid-fire entertainment planet of fashion, sleaze, and the commercial struggle between a fading print pornography and the internet. The narrative moves the reader through designer everything–cars, clothes, fountain pens, and food for starters. Not to be outdone, a perverse haute couture dips into the novel’s central fetish: bondage and discipline. Erotic wearables, including tattoos, piercings, and corsets, decorate female submissives who adore their kinks administered with stings and welts, erotic precursors to a sexuality that is faux violent but infinitely satisfying.
By the way, don’t let the significance of O’s tattoo slip by. It quite literally follows her around “That tattoo was going to be a damned nuisance,” Greene informs the reader in the novel’s final pages, refusing to exonerate anyone’s judgment for its creation or its folly.
If Reage’s story ends indecisively, Greene’s does not; he favors a sharp closing that tumbles head over heels to the finish line. But a conclusion does not always mean closure. With just enough evidence to avoid leading the witness, Greene insists the reader decide for himself. A cautionary word: do not dive into the novel without reading the Forward and after signing off on the final page, read it again. The author offers reflections necessary to decide how narrowly conclusion brushes up against closure for this modern O. She is more than servicing another penetration before the credits roll.
By the way, Master of O offers a flare Reage could only imagine: authenticity. Ernest Greene lives in the BDSM world as a player, bondage rigger, actor, director, and scriptwriter. His fictional O and her master, Steven Diamond, an LA attorney fixated on the accouterments of expensive fashion, understand the nasty ways money is accumulated and how it buys self-indulgent debauchery. O begins as brother Ray’s collared slave, but an exchange shifts the kinky photographer to Steven’s fast cars and lavish apartment where a distorted reality glistens beyond the massive windows overlooking the city. An oddly transparent pain and pleasure continuum captures O and Jacqui, a fashion model who occasionally slips into porn and, like O, loves her masochism. Both girls are delivered to their respective masters for frolic (Jacqui becomes Ray’s possession via “contract,” a BDSM nicety) spiced with flowing cash and sleeping late.
Greene enriches his tale with social and political commentary. Steven’s ex-wife Marie, The Pythia of his self-created universe, is the narrative’s moral compass such as it is. She speaks casually to her girls of Leni Riefenstahl, Nazi Germany’s famed filmmaker who denied her fascism post-war, prepares them for theatrical play dates in The Mansion (Greene’s version of Roissy/Samois) that get them off, and anchors Steven when he chooses to listen. Later the reader passes notables who populate the vagaries of the adult film world just as Dante’s Inferno lays bare the Florentine’s contemporaries of dubious distinction. AIDS Health Foundation’s front man and Kink.com’s founder are among Greene’s distinguished guests who wallow in self-aggrandizement.
The book is a hard-boiled noir experience in which Steven combines the cool smoothness of a wannabe James Bond with the shiftiness of Sam Spade/Philip Marlowe in survival mode. Ambrosia for BDSM aficionados, the sex is freely given and taken in ways that would delight the pervy nastiness of a medieval inquisitor.
Where does this lead, and leave, the enigmatic O? Perhaps her submissiveness plays on the margins of sexual slavery as femme fatale, or maybe she is exorcising her rich girl demons by contradictorily using servitude to reinforce her rights of choice. Or being thirty, perhaps she is just having fun her way while her body maintains its desirability.
And what of Steven who is haunted by a repeated dream that takes him to Venice where he declines to loll with his deceased relatives on a forever weekend? Upon waking, an apparition within reality–a violin’s eerie melody in the empty park beyond his window–reminds him of the novel’s central message.
“Sooner or later, mostly sooner, everyone said good-bye. Attachment to this world or anyone in it would ultimately end at this destination.”
One thing is certain, Ernest Greene takes an erotic original whose character development surrenders itself to the fetish and turns out a gem that is a lengthy, but fascinating read. Master of O is a journey in which gradations of want and need, chilly and self-serving at times, march lockstep in a single direction.
Epilogue for a Review
Some post-review comments might be helpful in getting the most out of Ernest Greene’s story.
The author is married to the irrepressible Nina Hartley, one of the most dynamic women in the adult film industry I have personally met. Nina is, I am certain, the model for the perceptive and humorous Marie. Everyone’s guidepost and the voice of reason at the novel’s every turn, Marie guards her girls and reminds Steven and Ray not to go beyond their own personal boundaries, or as we used to say in my adolescent years, don’t bite off more than you can chew.
For readers who may know little about the adult film business, the author touches on key issues that roil industry waters: the timeliness of the blood testing protocol, the ongoing condom debate in LA county, and everyone’s demon, product piracy. The twenty-first century has also witnessed the decline of print and DVD sales at the expense of the internet. It’s a changing of the guard industry people have learned to accommodate as Greene illustrates when Steven, Ray, and internet entrepreneur, David Phelps, are persuaded to negotiate the fate of Forbidden, Ray’s magazine. Incidentally, the enduring art of the still photo, so important to modern adult entertainment, is replenished with the ongoing references to O’s photography.
As a literary experience, Master of O operates on several levels. There is the main story, of course, built around Greene’s successes in extending the direction of Pauline Reage’s thinking. Feminism is spot on in the book and anyone who doesn’t believe that Marie and O are pro-sex, sexually empowered women needs to pay attention. They are powerful decision makers, deftly placed in the narrative to counter the tightly controlled milieu Steven occupies for himself.
Additionally, there is the SSC (safe, sane, consensual) and RACK (Risk Aware Consensual Kink) paradigm that is the BDSM community’s raison d’être for playing safe. Greene’s characters know their hard limits. O insists her boundaries are few but she does not want scars. Pushing aside the public’s misperception of a bunch of sadists who punish sick masochists, BDSMers are fetish lovers working together. By the way, don’t look past the black and red color motif that metaphorically drives the community. I’ve always believed BDSMers adore the iconic and formally dressed Dracula and his sexy succubi of Hollywood’s pre-code days. Biting and sucking doesn’t do one in, it just keeps the game alive.
Speaking of games, the mythical glamor of the high life (no pun on product marketing intended) washes through and over the novel. Greene is an encyclopedia of international fashion, automobiles, the art of fine parties, good food and the sport of a Renaissance Man. The attorney’s favorite is fencing where “kills” refresh the soul while yielding a good workout. Vlad Dracul was good with a sword, too, I’ve heard.
Not to be left behind is psychology. Sigmund Freud’s id and superego collide with Carl Jung’s definition of masculinity and femininity as opposing forces. A natural since Sigmund and Carl parted intellectual ways by the early twentieth century. Jung’s male animus and female anima step into the fray between Freud’s animal id and the morally superior superego in the give and take between O and Steven. Neither is totally what the other thinks and the sticky prickly briar patch of love plagues them both, hanging in balance at novel’s end.
Of course, the magic of good literature is the unresolved debate over who are the most lovable, redeemable, disliked, weakest, sexiest, and smartest characters in the story. Greene poses the question with O and Steven. Where would you place them along a continuum of likability and fortitude?
Well, enough of this, but if I were teaching a course in modern literature, I’d include Master of O.
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