Trial lawyer Steven Diamond, a fixer at the top of his game, is offered a special tribute by his younger brother, Ray: the timeshare of the captivating and submissive fetish photographer, O. Sex, substance, and sadness ensue. Oh, and lots of stuff.
If the conventional love story is Boy Meets Girl, Boy Loses Girl, Boy Gets Girl Back, then it’s true that Ernest Greene’s landmark BDSM tale “Master of O” is at least one third conventional. But that is as accessible as he is going to get. The rest is up to you.
“I don’t assume the audience needs to be apprised of things they can figure out for themselves,” Greene says.
But to better appreciate Greene’s novel, released this summer by Daedalus Publishing, one can look at nearly a decade of preview material in the form of Hustler’s Taboo Magazine, the glossy hardcore fetish mag Greene edits, and the three movies Greene wrote and directed for Adam & Eve, “O: The Power of Submission” (featuring Carmen Luvana), “The Surrender of O” (with a pre-Sheen Bree Olson), and “The Truth About O” (starring Bobbi Starr and Asa Akira). Each serves as a stop on the very particular pilgrimage that is a Dominant/submissive relationship, exploring the themes of training, mentorship, the freedom of submission, and the weight of dominance.
“There’s also almost wall-to-wall sex,” Greene points out. “Don’t forget.”
That’s right, the sex. When O presents herself to Steven —
Languidly, O leaned forward until her breasts touched the floor. She swept the skirt up, composing it across her back, then stretched her arms out in front of her and touched her forehead to the floor. Her pelvis was rotated up, her knees apart. As Steven had assumed, the smoky Wolford stay-ups were all she wore underneath the full skirt and old-fashioned tulle petticoat. He looked lingeringly at what he was meant to see.
— thus begins a relationship that is massive with sex. Sex between two people, three people, several people. Intimate sex, sex for show, sex as a gift, sex as instruction, and (always) sex as ritual. Unlike the constraints of porn movies, the sex in “Master of O” does not stop at the popshot and does not necessarily begin when the clothes come off. It’s in the density of detail, like amber liquid in a heavy crystal glass, that serves as foreplay and aftercare.
Because the real revelation in “Master of O” is not the sex; it’s the place sex occupies in the rigid hierarchies of O and Steven. Steven’s home is a shrine to his high end hobbies and fashion, and O occupies an exalted place therein, to be sure, but in “Master Of O”‘s numerous sex scenes and well over 120,000 words, you will not find a single mention of “sweat pants.”
The rose stickpin came out first, to be skewered into the red felt inside the fitted-leather dressing box on the long, low chest next to the bathroom door. His plain, round platinum and jet cufflinks went there too, in a different compartment from the toggled chain bracelet and the onyx ring. The engraved card case and pillbox dropped into their spaces and the leather box shut with a firm click. Drawing the red-and-black pocket square, Steven shook it out, folded it neatly and slid it into a narrow drawer with many like it and many others more ornate. There was another drawer for glasses an optometrist might have envied. The wallet joined a dozen more in a locked cabinet and the fountain pen slid into a vertical rack inside a glass case so crowded with extravagant writing instruments it resembled an ant farm. His watch joined a dozen others in a motorized Tourbillion auto-winder with a skeleton movement.
He caught a quick glimpse of himself in the three-way fitting mirror. Steven’s looks didn’t inspire vanity, but his style did.
We follow Steven, a man in his mid-fifties, the much-younger O, and Ray through their workdays in a contemporary Los Angeles that remains noirish in the porny sunlight. We also meet Marie, Steve’s ex-wife, a confidante and ruler of The Mansion, a school for submissives where clients can sample the wares, much like a kinky version of the public restaurant at the Cordon Bleu Academy.
In the “O” movies, Marie was played by Nina Hartley, Greene’s wife.
So now that you have some background, we begin our Ernest Greene interview with the necessary, obvious, and hated reference to a certain bestselling bondage-lite airport novel for moms by E.L James.
Gram: How heavy did the shadow of “50 Shades of Grey” hang over “Master of O”?
Greene: Well, I’m 62 years old, and I did not want to write a disingenuous tale. But “50 Shades” was definitely present in my mind as I thought about writing a definitive update to “O.” I thought, Do I want to write propaganda or counter-propaganda? Very quickly it became clear that I wanted to write neither of those, but a novel. By Chapter Three the furthest thing from my mind was E.L. James.
Gram: I’ve seen your home with Nina. I’ve read your magazine and I’ve watched your movies. How much is Steven Diamond you?
Greene: Naturally bits of the author are going to show up. I can provide details of sexual encounters and things that I have seen and done, but Steven might be more aspirational for me. My middle name is Steven — there were about six Jews in Denver when I was growing up, so it was determined that I should at least have a goyische middle name — but the character is more based on my late friend Emerson. He was a lawyer, a kinky guy, larger than life, not overly concerned about morality but not amoral. He was also the type of guy who’d pay $100 for a tie back when $100 was a lot to spend on a tie.
Gram: This is a long time ago? I just bought a tie at a yard sale for a dollar.
Greene: And I bet you look great in it.
Gram: For all Steven’s Master of the Universe status, you make it a point early on and throughout the book that both Steven and O are aware of the finiteness of his reach. There’s an understanding of limits.
Greene: It’s an important part of the story. Trial lawyers know they are hired help. Steven is the go-to guy for certain problems, a fixer of fleeting things. But the people he often works for — the type of people whose middle name might be “von” — operate in a world far above his. For all his skill, he knows his employers often think of him as a “regrettable necessity that won’t marry our sisters.”
Gram: So Steven knows his limits, which is something that you don’t see as part of the standard male dominant character.
Greene: And the great thing about this relationship — this more true-to-life portrayal of the Dominant/submissive relationship — is that O knows it, too. Everyone is aware of limits, so that when the limits get breached there is a reckoning.
Gram: Back to the idea of Steven being aspirational — at least somewhat — for you, what do you admire about him?
Greene: Steven has no secret life. Secrets give other people power. It’s a luxury of his to live a wide-open life.
Gram: Yes, at one point you make it clear that Steven does not have to work; he likes the cut and thrust of his job.
Greene: To not need to work is a great freedom.
Gram: We meet a couple of characters that might be familiar to people who are following California’s condoms in porn legislation. In addition to painting Los Angeles as it is in “Master of O,” what’s the purpose of this level of topicality?
Greene: It makes Steven a part of his time. It might also be petty. It might be both of those things. The author has his opinions and Steven can execute some of those opinions.
Gram: Is there an agenda at all? I notice that Steven and Ray kind of bust the stereotype of kinky people as humorless. At times, Steven is downright jolly and Ray noodles on a guitar.
Greene: That dour image is unfortunate. The grim and humorless image is unfortunate. You can see kinky people being merry at multi-day events, where someone might give a fisting demonstration with the tagline “Learn What It’s Like To Be A Muppet.”
Gram: Sorry to keep bringing this up, but just as books like “The Da Vinci Code” might have made uneducated people think they were instant experts on art and the Catholic Church —
Greene: Very popular books can do a lot of damage to the truth, yes. “Gone with the Wind” did. Not all dominant males are sociopaths, they’re not all abuse victims. There doesn’t have to be something “wrong.” Furthermore, I don’t think any of these so-called “edge players” would make it for 15 seconds in Fight Club…
Gram: Notwithstanding that “Master of O” is both a massive, sweeping novel and a very intimate one, it happens to exist at the same time as this cultural phenomenon of “50 Shades.”
Greene: Most BDSM has been junk. You need an Anti Defamation League for kinky people, starting with that book. Steven Diamond is in his own way a principled man. His principles are sleek. He is — speaking of Tom Wolfe — a “man in full.” Christian Grey is not the exemplar of the dominant male — Steven Diamond is.