Book Review: The Juliette Society

I’d like to start off by admitting I am tough on erotic fiction. This is for a couple of reasons. One is that I spent the better part of a decade mapping the parameters of my desire by plowing through an English major’s worth of cliterature. It showed me that most erotica is formulaic and the rest just doesn’t turn me on. It’s either too vanilla, too implausible, too full of the clichés of sex writing, or too much of a snore.

There are exceptions to these rules. Nicholson Baker wowed me the sheer audacity of Vox — such a great concept executed with such sexy precision. Circlet Press routinely publishes incendiary fiction from both new and seasoned pens. I love sci-fi both as a genre and as a platform for exploring new kinds of kink. Thank you Circlet. You’ve given me solace on a lot of lonely nights.

Sadly, The Juliette Society by Sasha Grey doesn’t belong in the last paragraph. I had such high hopes for it, too. Despite the pitfalls that plague novels about secret sex-clubs of the rich and powerful, the author-as-narrator seemed well aware of where she was going, dotting the opening chapter seemed so fun, with so many clever turns of phrase, that it seemed like the ride would be worthwhile, even if the sex turned out to be uninspiring.

Turns out there were a couple of scenes that actually did turn me on. One concerned a girl, a wardrobe, some vintage ’50s clothes, and an incest taboo. Another was the way the protagonist described her professor and the way his cock was plainly visible through his slacks as he lectured perched at the edge of his desk with one knee bent and pointed to the side. You can see that pose right now, can’t you? I sure could.

And yet for every winner, there were about two or three what-the-hell encounters. Sometimes this occurred because the kinks plain missed their mark. An entire chapter dedicated to “cum” and all the places it can go didn’t move me, except maybe to skim instead of read. Neither did the gang bangs. Incompatible kinks are forgivable, though, if the rest of the book is okay.

Cue the rest of my disappointment.

“Plot is subservient to character”. This was our protagonist Catherine’s quote. It was repeated multiple times throughout the book and was meant to be part of the novel’s theme. This was why I found the shallow and unlikeable characters particularly bothersome. Jack seems to despise his Catherine for no other reason than she wants to have lots of sex with him. The issues this couple faces are also magically resolved near the end of the book — not because of any transformation on the part of the characters, but because his girlfriend has used her cooch to outwit a rakish villain named DeVille (more on that later). There’s another guy named Bundy (more originality) who is painted first as thoroughly deplorable and then as sympathetic when we find out he’s had some hard knocks. Oh yeah, trafficking in women and putting sex tapes online without their knowledge is the mark of someone who’s just misunderstood. There’s even a sex-club owner named Kubrick. This in a book where more than a third of the protagonist’s musings are devoted to film.

This is what really wrecked the novel for me: the film-school wanking. Grey apparently was a film major in college, so it only makes sense for her to pepper an erotic novel with musings about how life is like the movies, no? Actually: no. Referencing Eyes Wide Shut as you’re stealing its trappings doesn’t make you avant-garde. It just means you’re thoroughly aware that you’re ripping off other people’s ideas without adding anything new.

Even the wittiness that lured me into allowing myself to be highway-robbed of thirteen bucks soon degenerated into an odd sort of cynicism a few chapters in. It led me to wonder who Catherine was supposed to be anyway — the film-school ingenue or the jade who’s spent one too many weekends on a porn set in the valley. The eponymous Society was barely even mentioned until the last part of the book and then only as the drab kind of Inferno we’re used to seeing, this complete with writhing statuary.

It’s enough to make me switch to reading fanfic. Permanently.

Featured image via Res Wolke.

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