The Story of O
By Pauline Réage
The Story of O! O, my virgin eyes!
Back in the late 1980s a Canadian rock band called The Pursuit of Happiness sang these apropos lyrics:
"Adult sex is either boring or dirty."
In the case of The Story of O, I think the line comes full circle. Adult sex is both boring and dirty.
Full disclosure: I read this because it appears on the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die and I've been using that list as a reference for a few years. The novel dropped into my hands and I took the opportunity to read it.
So anyway... I've got a glass of wine and I'm settled down. Let's see if I can say something about The Story of O without making a complete ass of myself.
The Story of O is an erotic novel written in 1954 by Pauline Réage The pen name for French author Anne Desclos). It is considered one of the most important novels of the 1950s for its stark depiction of female sexuality and its themes of bondage, sado-masochism, body modification and sexual degradation. The narrative follows a woman, referred to only as O, who gradually descends into the depths of sexual slavery via bondage, whipping, torture, piercing and branding. O is prostituted by her lovers and in one alternate ending she asks permission to commit suicide, which her lover grants.
That about sums up the entire book right there.
Oh, you want more, huh? Oh, OK. Let's see....
I'm no prude, but seriously... if sex is consuming this much of your physical, emotional and psychological activity (never mind the actual time and energy one would need to devote to it), I think someone might be in need of a course in time management. And I'm not talking about just the characters in the novel but also Pauline Réage (or Anne Desclos or whatever) herself. I mean I'm a red-blooded male so I certainly understand... um... aspects of this sort of behavior but hell. I just simply couldn't relate to the vast majority of this stuff from both the male or female perspective. I'm sure there is some sexually liberated sort out there that might scream down my throat about this, but I'm perfectly happy with my limited (and entirely standard) sexual mores. To me, sex just isn't worth so much hassle unless, of course, you work in the adult entertainment or prostitution industry, in which case it may be considered a career decision. But I refuse to go down that road. We are talking literature here, right?
I tried to read the novel metaphorically at one point. I tried to read the story as a parallel for the history of the Christian Church (that worked for a time), as a diatribe on feminism (I'm not the best person to be giving The Story of O a feminist reading) as a discourse on the 1912 U.S. presidential election (I have no idea why), but nothing seemed to stick. It all seemed so utterly pointless. Who would go to so much trouble for their sexual proclivities? Anyone? anywhere? If so, I can't imagine I would overly interested in meeting them. Not for any moral reason, but I figure I'd have very little to talk to that person about. Sex is an extremely boring topic of conversation. Six seasons of Sex in the City proved that.
Perhaps you just had to be there. After all, this novel was published in 1954 and I can imagine it would have caused quite the stir at the time. I remember reading On the Road by Jack Kerouac in 2005 and not getting it. I thought it was a pretty pedestrian account of bumming around the country, something a lot of people I know have done or are currently doing. I had the same experience with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I get the idea that these are the sorts of books that spoke to the zeitgeist and have subsequently echoed poorly as they have aged.
Given the pervasiveness of pornography on the Internet, The Story of O loses a good amount of its ability to shock. In fact it is downright pedestrian compared to what a six-year old can find in half a second via a Google search. I'm aware that much of pornography in the early 1970s (Deep Throat, for example) was modeled after The Story of O (and I'm not too sure how comfortable I am admitting to the fact that I know this) but in recent years pornography has far surpassed even the most extreme realms of Pauline Réage's imagination.
Anyway, I'm not terribly interested in delving much farther into this novel. I really have nothing of substance to say about it. I'm glad I read it due to its literary significance, but, like Kerouac and Deep Throat, I think The Story of O was a product of its time and place... nothing more. At this point the only thing I can really say about The Story of O is that it was boring and dirty. In that order.
Oh well, at least now I don't have to read Fifty Shades of Grey.