Safe Word by Molly Weatherfield
Cleis Press, 2003
When the STORY OF O was first published in 1954, it shocked the world. The secret domain of Roissy and its privileged, perverse masters, the willing self-abasement of O in their hands, were completely alien to contemporary moral sensibility. O's journey to complete surrender frightened and attracted the reader because of its strangeness, its incomprehensibility. O herself was on a path of discovery, gradually coming to understand the depth of her submissive nature.
In SAFE WORD, Molly Weatherfield invokes Roissy both implicitly and explicitly. Her heroine Carrie has been auctioned off to a stranger and committed to a year of absolute servitude. Carrie's new master as well as the master who sold her belong to a shadowy network of wealthy S/M afficionados - the "Association". Times have changed - the association is run by a woman rather than a man - but not that much. The association sponsors gatherings where slaves serve as candelabra, benches, and statuary, not to mention receptacles for the guests' varied lusts. They stage races where human ponies, plugged, bridled, harnessed and urged on by their drivers' cruel whips, compete to avoid the punishment that will come with defeat.
Carrie, like O, thrives in this sort of environment. After a year of harsh discipline, she returns to her original master Jonathan, polished and refined by pain. The elegant curve of her neck, the grace with which she kneels, the eagerness she shows in response to his abuse, enchant and excite him. The novel is structured as a set of stories that Carrie and Jonathan tell each other, as they struggle to comprehend the consequences of their year apart.
Ms. Weatherfield captures the nuances of Carrie and Jonathan's relationship with exquisite clarity. The breath-stealing excitement of complementary fantasies. The heady familiarity of remembered responses recognized. The uncertainty about what the other wants, the desire to please, the aching need for the validation that says yes, you are the one, the special one to whom I am intimately, eternally connected, and I know you feel the same. It is all there, and it all rings true. The book begins with their rendezvous in Avignon, and immediately, the reader is immersed in the subtleties of their interactions. They retreat to a hotel, where they proceed to fuck exactly like two lovers who have been separated for a year, lovers who played the role of master and slave but who are not quite sure now who holds the power. The writing here is sensitive, vivid, and intense.
It is only when Jonathan asks Carrie to tell him about her experiences that the book begins to lose its edge. Carrie is articulate and precise in recounting her trials and adventures. She spares no detail. She shares with Jonathan the many beatings, violations, and humiliations inflicted on or observed by her. Her stories are populated by gorgeous, perfectly-trained slaves, insatiatable mistresses, strict but passionate trainers. Carrie portrays the decadent world of the Association with the skill that one would expect of her, a woman with a doctorate in literature.
Unfortunately, it is not 1954, and such tales have lost their power to shock. Today, leather-clad vixens with whips and stiletto heels are used to market breath mints. Fetish is fashion. The Internet can deliver images that make Roissy look like Sunday school. Carrie's stories, however well told, are hackneyed and by today's standards, unremarkable. This is all the more true because they involve so little emotion.
The members of the Association are for the most part bored, jaded sensation-seekers. The slaves that serve them are beautiful puppets with little sense of themselves. We see a few flashes of personality, for instance, in a scene where Carrie is given over to be abused by two slaves whom she vanquished in a pony race. Overall, though, the participants in these lascivious tales are undistinguished and indistinguishable. With one or two exceptions, they do not really care about what is going on. It is a diversion, nothing more. The core attraction of dominance and submission, in my opinion, at least, is the interplay of emotion between the slave and master. Trust and surrender; the intoxication of power; desire and devotion; curiosity and courage. These are ingredients in the alchemy that transforms pain into pleasure, and more than pleasure.
Carrie and Jonathan practice this magic, particularly early in the book. Jonathan, recalling his first meeting with her, is movingly eloquent. He notices her at a party, "sweet and shaggy-looking, graceful and a little lost and dreamy...Great ass". Following her into a room where someone had put on a bondage video, he discovers her, revealed:
"The girl with the ass was gazing up at the screen as though it were telling her the meaning of life. Flushed face, parted mouth - quivering, guilty, enthralled, spectacular. Her face was a real porn show, and I could gladly have watched it all evening... In the midst of a noisy, unconscious crowd, too -- she was the only one in the room really seeing the movie, and I was the only one really seeing her. She'll look like that for me, I thought. She'll do anything and everything I want.
She did, too. For a year and a half. She took everything I dished out, meekly and silently challenging me to raise the ante."
This is what I look for in an erotic novel, this kind of insight, this thrill of connection that always takes my breath away. SAFE WORD has some of this sizzle, but ultimately I was disappointed. The conclusion, in particular, involved a Dom ex Machina whom I found somewhat annoying.
Nevertheless, SAFE WORD is literate and well-crafted, and certainly crammed with nasty S/M scenes involving every combination of genders. Readers who are entertained more by characters' actions than by their inner lives will likely enjoy SAFE WORD. Readers looking for something more challenging and inventive might, like me, feel that Ms. Weatherfield had let them down.