by Sasha Grey
2013 (Grand Central Publishing)
Right from the beginning of this erotic novel, we learn that the Juliette Society is the most secretive of communities, an exceptionally exclusive realm where the world´s elite explore their darkest desires, and where sex, violence, and punishment intermingle with impunity. Taking its name from a novel by the Marquis de Sade, the group is a kind of hedonistic universe of sexual transgression for the one-percent, a playground for the powerful. The passages in the novel describing the activities of the Society are a kind of mash-up of worlds the reader may already be familiar with through rumor, innuedo, and fantasy: this clandestine place evokes the ritualistic orgies of the infamous 1999 film Eyes Wide Shut, as well as Pasolini´s Saló, or the 120 Days of Sodom; it points to what we imagine what we went on at the Hellfire Club, as well as on that creepy island of Jeffrey Epstein. Less a specific geographic place than a broader state of mind, The Juliette Society is a space of ultimate freedom--freedom without any accountability, and where one´s innermost natures are explored. Here, pleasure and pain, sex and harm, intertwine.
Most of the chapters in the novel of The Juliette Society don´t occur in this complex world, however. DJ, writer, actor, and former pornographic performer Sasha Grey has instead chosen to place her novel in a much more familiar and "ordinary" world. Rather than a book of extreme sex and literary torture-porn, Grey has chosen to write something more nuanced, even philosophical.
The Juliette Society ´s narrative is much more about the journey of Catherine, a film major at a nameless university in an unspecified city. A young woman on the threshold of a series of transformations which are both personal as well as sexual, she articulates her inner experiences through referencing the language and imagery classic cinema, particularly Belle du Jour and Vertigo.
Throughout The Juliette Society, Grey refracts thoughts and experiences by Catherine with moments from key films by Godard, Buñuel, Hitchcock, or Kubrick. Further, characters in the novel echo specific actors and their roles in these films, a move which feels purposeful on Grey´s part, as though she is creating an infinite hall of mirrors within the architecture of her narrative. Form is following content, with the representation of fantasy and the erotic imagination being blurred within the reader´s mind, just as it is within Catherine.
The image of catacombs and mazes recur frequently inside Grey´sThe Juliette Society, both as geographic structures as well as metaphors for the wandering speculations within Catherine´s mind. Anna, a classmate with far more daring and erotic experiences than our protagonist, is key in guiding Catherine into a hidden world of sexual possibility and awakening inside herself as well the story´s fictional landscape. Her boyfriend Jack´s employer, a senator up for election, also proves to be a significant instigator of transformation and revelation in her character´s arc, inviting narrative possibilities which will presumably be explored later on the series (The Juliette Society is the first of a trilogy, with the other two published by Cleis Press).
By the novel´s conclusion, there are a number of elements of the novel left open-ended, so mysterious that it may feel like the author painted herself within a corner. Why does Catherine care so much about Jack, when we hardly see him treat her with much intimacy or understanding? What happened to her friend Anna--did she commit suicide, or was she murdered? And finally, once Catherine discovers the true secret of the Juliette Society, why is she permitted to live, and why doesn´t she even attempt to expose them for their violence and cruelty?
But perhaps the answers lies in a refrain often repeated by the novel´s heroine, which she learned in her film studies courses, and looks to as a kind of mantra for quality filmmaking: "Plot is subservient to character". The Juliette Society is less of a literal work of extreme eroticism and transgressive sex; rather Sasha Grey seeks to examine the philosophy of desire, and its kinship with violence as well as lust. In this sense, de Sade (whose presence haunts the novel, and who is even given a special thanks at the end) would be delighted at Grey´s stimulating and provocative book.