Steven Diamond is an extremely successful trial lawyer in his early sixties, with strong opinions, expensive tastes, a penchant for dominance, and a heart as impervious as his last name. When his younger half-brother Ray gives him the lovely and talented fetish photographer O to be his slave, Steven’s first inclination is to decline. As one of the founding members of The Mansion, a luxurious private venue catering to practitioners of kink, he has ready access to a stable of well-trained submissives on whom he can practice his deviant desires. Steven knows how much Ray cares about O and doesn’t want to see his somewhat feckless sibling hurt. One night with O, though, is enough to make Steven realize that she’s unique. He has never met a submissive more finely attuned to his needs and preferences, nor one so eager and so able to endure the extremities he loves to inflict. She is his equal in intelligence, spirit, and evil imagination. As Master and slave, they make a perfect pair, but as time goes on, Master Steven finds he wants more.
In Master of O, Ernest Greene borrows the characters from Pauline Réage’s erotic classic, but aside from the emphasis on BDSM, the two books have little in common. The original Story of O focuses on the slave O’s experience, both physical and emotional, as she descends more and more deeply into total submission. Master of O, for the most part, is narrated from Steven’s perspective, as O walks into and, ultimately, out of his life. Story of O is a slim 200 pages, while Mr. Greene’s book runs to over 900. While Réage’s novel partakes of a dream-like quality, with O drifting in and out of scenes of pain, humiliation and debasement, Greene’s opus is hyper-realistic, laden with detail that at times becomes excessive.
I have somewhat mixed feelings about Master of O, but I can honestly say that despite its length, I did not get bored. The story, which revolves around Steven’s deepening attachment to O as well as their joint plot to hook Ray up with one of O’s models, moves along smartly, punctuated by frequent, lengthy and explicit BDSM scenes. A lively cast of secondary characters joins in the orgies of bondage, flogging and fucking. Most of the time, the nicely varied sex scenes do play some role in advancing the plot and/or revealing the natures of the characters. In some cases, they’re just for fun, for instance, a wild six-way romp in a private jet, with several Mansion slaves costumed in latex stewardess uniforms.
Steven and O live in a world where D&S activities are the norm. Everyone around them is kinky. Ray makes his living publishing a high-class fetish magazine. O’s photographs of beautiful women bound and abused are partially responsible for the magazine’s success. Steven’s ex-wife Marie runs The Mansion as well as supervising a bevy of aspiring slaves in her own home. Even Steven’s secretary is comfortable with bondage, piercings, and nipple clamps, at least as a spectator. And everything is consensual – the slaves clearly enjoy their roles as much as the dominants.
At the same time, this book does not treat D&S entirely as play. The scene in which O accepts piercing and extensive tattooing to mark her as Steven’s property has an almost transcendent quality - a dignity, a level of ceremony, that attests to its significance in the kink community. As O willingly undertakes painful hours under the needle, she is surrounded by her sister slaves, as well as Marie, Ray and Steven. All are left spell-bound by her beauty and her glad suffering.
Steven’s and O’s interactions go beyond mere amusement or sexual satisfaction. Linked by complementary fantasy and mutual perfectionism, they engage in a quest for increasingly total control – Steven’s control over O, O’s control of herself.
In one of the most memorable scenes, Steven and O contemplate a set of erotic drawings together:
The image was powerful. A tall, spectacularly curvaceous woman of perhaps thirty-five lolled in the arms of a muscular, bearded man many years her senior. He stood, holding her barely upright, close against his broad chest. His penis, jutting up under the woman’s back, was equally impressive. He looked down at her with a strange combination of severity and tenderness. The woman’s eyes were closed. Her face was transported with an ecstatic transcendence familiar from the images of martyrs O had seen on the walls of many an Iberian church.
But the most arresting aspect of the drawing was the scrupulously rendered evidence of intense and prolonged flagellation. The woman was marked from her collarbones to the bottoms of her feet. A variety of different instruments had been used on her with great patience and skill. A layer of broad strap marks had been applied first, followed by a global lashing with some kind of slender, cutting whip that left long narrow welts, the deepest of which oozed tiny rivulets of blood. The whipping had obviously gone on for hours until ever inch of her exposed flesh was covered in thin stripes inflicted with sufficient restraint to fade within a couple of weeks.
The woman was collared but otherwise unrestrained and though clearly too exhausted to flee or resist, showed no evidence of wanting to do either. Something profound had clearly transpired between the two of them. The viewer was left to conjecture the specifics from the visible aftermath.
“Now that’s my idea of a good whipping,” Steven said.
“You could whip me like that if you wanted,” O replied without an instant’s hesitation, eager at the prospect.
Steven looked over at her gravely.
“Careful what you offer. You know I’ll do it.”
“Why would I offer otherwise?”
They looked into each other’s eyes for a long moment.
This is one of the most erotic moments in the 900 page novel, in my view. All Steven’s clever instruments of torture don’t begin to turn me on like this admission of shared deviance.
Later, toward the end of the book, Steven makes good on his promise – at O’s insistence. Shivers run up my spine at the thought – not of the beating itself, but at O’s determination to endure it.
As illustrated by the quote above, the writing in this novel ranges from mostly competent to occasionally inspired. Mr. Greene has a talent for clever observations.
The shades were down over the glass wall, and no light came from beneath. Somewhere deep in the empty park across the boulevard someone was playing the violin, quite expertly. Once again, Steven laughed at the town where the Department of Incidental Surrealism was the only agency that worked overtime. (p 142)
Performing complex procedures without losing concentration on their purpose was the BDSM equivalent of walking and chewing gum, yet few of those who had topped her possessed that ability. (p 631)
[When you’re out about being kinky] “Try making a campaign contribution and see what happens. You know you’ve achieved infamy when politicians won’t take your money.” (p 683)
In short, Master of O provides plenty of kinky action, a bit of deeper exploration into the psychological aspects of BDSM, and decent writing. Why do I say that I have mixed feelings about the book?
First of all, it’s rife with typographic errors, missing or incorrect words, even sentences that trail off without completion. At one point, I noticed that the main character’s name was misspelled. At first I bookmarked each error; after about hundred pages I didn’t bother anymore. An author who allows his book to be published with these sorts of problems loses a lot of my respect, no matter how sexy a story he has penned.
Second, despite his generally competent command of language, the author has serious problems maintaining a consistent point of view. I’m not a purist, eager to condemn “head hopping” in any form, but in this book the POV shifts from one character to another without any signal or justification. In some cases this tendency interferes with comprehension. In others, it’s merely irritating.
Finally, the book’s obsessive descriptions can become wearying. I understand that, by mentioning every element in Steven’s wardrobe, including his watch, his pen, his jewelry and his wallet, the author is trying to convey the character’s preoccupation with, and desire to control, these details. Once or twice would have been enough, however, to make this point. Instead, whenever Steven goes out – throughout the full 900 plus pages - we’re treated to a litany of clothing and brand names.
Some of the BDSM scenes suffer from similar problems. By exhaustively describing every implement and recounting every action, the author paradoxically reduces the immediacy and intensity of the scene.
In some cases, though, the book’s preoccupation with detail makes it more effective. Unlike the encyclopedic enumeration of Steven’s (and Ray’s) clothing, the descriptions of the female slaves and their fetish gear managed to be arousing rather than annoying. The scenes of Steven’s fencing lesson, O’s photo shoot, and Ray’s computer graphics session all benefit from the realistic details. I really liked the occasional mention of Steven’s testosterone pills and Viagra; they lent verisimilitude to his potency in his role as a Dom. And I truly appreciated the fact that Mr. Greene describes the physical toll a BDSM session takes on both the top and the bottom.
Overall, I enjoyed Master of O. I’d consider reading another book by this author – if and only if he manages to find a better editor!
Judging from the enthusiastic reviews on Amazon, I gather that many readers don’t really care.