Invisible Ink by Elisabeth Joye
In the world of explicit fiction, eroticism is sometimes treated as synonymous with sex. In my view, they could hardly be more different. Sex is about physical acts and the sensual pleasure they engender. Eroticism involves the experience of desire, an emotional state that may be entirely independent of bodily arousal.
Of course, desire and sex often occur together (the former usually being the cause, the latter the effect), but that’s not always true. I’ve read far too many self-styled “erotic” stories in which the author’s primary concern seemed to be who was doing what to whom, without much attention paid to how anyone felt about the process. Meanwhile, it’s possible to write (though difficult to sell!) erotic tales that include little or no sexual activity. For instance, I have a BDSM story (“Stroke”, originally published in the anthology Please Sir) in which the hero is a Dom half paralyzed by a cerebral hemorrhage, who seduces his kink-curious nurse without ever touching her.
I’ll lay out my bias clearly before I continue. I’m far more interested in the infinite variations of desire than I am in the ultimately limited repertoire of sexual acts.
Elisabeth Joye’s debut novella Invisible Ink is almost one hundred percent sex scenes. At the same time, it’s one of the most erotic books I’ve read in a while. The book’s premise is a bit implausible—a woman so ensnared by sexual need for one particular man that she will do anything to be with him, regardless of the consequences—but Ms. Joye focuses so strongly on Lex’s inner life that I could suspend my disbelief, at least while I was reading.
Jake is literally a rock star. Lex begins as a fan. When he singles her out from the crowd of adoring groupies, she falls deeply and permanently under his spell. The chemistry between them is so strong it overwhelms everything else—rationality, responsibility, morality.
What’s erotic about this scenario? Being known. Jake knows what Lex wants before she’s aware of it herself. He challenges her to act upon her desires—and to satisfy his—no matter how outrageous. We all hide things from our lovers. The notion that we might share our darkest fantasies, without guilt or blame, can be intoxicating. Jake offers Lex exactly this freedom. In fact, he demands it.
He knows Lex in another, more visceral way as well. Through intuition, skill or luck, he understands how to play her body in order to evoke the maximum pleasure. We all dream of finding the perfect lover whose every touch is bliss. Jake has that gift, at least as far as Lex is concerned.
It’s erotic to be known, to the dirty depths of your soul. It’s also intensely arousing to be chosen by the one you desire, to feel that you alone can satisfy that person’s need. In Invisible Ink, the author makes it clear that no woman has ever gotten under Jake’s skin the way Lex has, despite his skittishness about commitment and her explicit renunciation of any sort of long term relationship. The heroine’s sense of being unique, special, destined to love the hero, is a touchstone of romance, but it’s also intensely erotic.
The sex in Invisible Ink is moderately extreme. The book includes transgressive scenes involving bondage, voyeurism and public sex. And yes, Jake has a huge cock (sigh), which makes the rough sex all the more edgy. I was more impressed, though, by Ms. Joye’s attention to the subtler aspects of their physical connection—Jake’s warm breath, his distinctive smell, his stubble scraping against Lex’s flesh, and his seductive, irresistible voice. The best scenes in the book are the ones where he wrings an orgasm from Lex without even touching her.
But then perhaps I’m just revealing my bias.
Although we see Jake only through Lex’s eyes, he’s a far more substantial character than she is. His hot-and-cold moods, his arrogance and conceit, his hidden need, all make sense in the context of who he is—adored as a star, but also exploited as a commodity. Lex on the other hand seems to have no personal traits other than her obsession with Jake. When she’s not with him, she’s rather boring. She hooks up with boring men. It’s as if she only exists as Jake’s lover.
Perhaps this is exactly the point Ms. Joye was trying to make. I found it disappointing, even distressing, however. Why would a complex, tortured, creative person like Jake fall in love with a non-entity like Lex? It’s clear their connection is more than just sex. What does he see in her that I didn’t?
Furthermore, although I love Ms. Joye’s brilliant, believable portrayal of Lex’s erotic obsession, I have a hard time swallowing a woman who’d blithely abandon her job for sex. Even Jake seems a bit shocked when she tells him she’s been fired (presumably because he feels responsible). I suppose my feminist upbringing is partially responsible for my horror, but still, Invisible Ink would have been far more intriguing if Lex experienced some actual conflict about jettisoning her career, her boyfriend, or her fiancé, when Jake calls.
Invisible Ink excels in its portrayal of a woman under the hypnotic influence of desire. It never goes beyond that point, though. Given the insight Ms. Joye shows in some of this book, I think she can do better. I look forward to her next work.