The Juliette Society is not your mother's romance novel. Instead, Sasha Grey's debut novel is better suited for someone that has fantasized about spending time in the Red Room with Christian Grey rather than having a picnic on the beach with Fabio. The Juliette Society is a tantalizing read for anyone interested in edgy erotica, secret societies, and in Sasha Grey herself. According to Amazon reviews, this novel illustrates an incredibly powerful society of BDSM and extreme sex enthusiasts which will have any reader lusting for more. But reader be warned; Once you immerse yourself in this exclusive secret society, there is no turning back! Instead, you are left to Sasha Grey's own devices as she takes you on a wild ride, exploring some of the deepest and darkest fantasies ever imagined. However, despite the hype surrounding this novel, this review is determined to take a critical look instead of being blindsided by the fact that it was written by Sasha Grey.
Perhaps it's a fallacy to assume that The Juliette Society is actually supposed to be erotic, simply because of Grey's background. After all, there are plenty of great works of literature that describe sex in detail and aren't necessarily supposed to be arousing. On the other hand, The Juliette Society has a sloppy plot stocked with hazily developed characters that manage to be dull and lifeless even when they're attending orgies. The erotic content is mediocre at best, especially when written with such a flat voice that emphasizes telling over showing, and "I" statements over actual character development.
Our narrator "Catherine" is a blossoming film student who has some sort of sexual epiphany while watching Belle Du Jour, which was directed by Luis Buñuel. Coincidentally enough, the main character in this film is also Catherine and she is also having erotic daydreams of having a more sensual life. It is during this time of sexual stirring that an outrageous new friend named Anna leads Catherine down the garden path of earthly delights. But not surprisingly, of course, there's some dark and bitter fruit in that garden, which Catherine soon finds out. Unfortunately, most of this discovery is sandwiched between fantasies about and fights with her incredibly boring boyfriend Jack. Add to that a few riffs on ideas like hegemony, "mommy complexes,” film theory, and male ejaculate, and you have this jerry-rigged subplot about a rash of suicides that is The Juliette Society.
At first, it appears that The Juliette Society is headed towards the stomach-churning world of De Sade's 120 Days of Sodom—after all, the society's namesake is De Sade's depraved heroine, sister of the incredibly virtuous and tortured Justine. I find it surprising that Pasolini never pops up among the many, many film references. Then again, at least, The Juliette Society isn't into coprophilia (that we know of). When Catherine looks up the BDSM site Anna sometimes performs on, the vivid description of what she sees is actually effectively intense. It's ominous and dirty and frankly upsetting, as if she were watching the prelude to a snuff film. Although it was actually a relief that Grey didn't veer into that territory, what follows felt like the equivalent of a balloon deflating and all the tension that was built up in the first 100 pages slowly whistling out. Somehow, Catherine goes from being horrified by rope bondage and sex machines to totally blasé about an Eyes Wide Shut-style party at some house in the middle of nowhere.
Despite all the problems I had with this book, the most frustrating thing about the story is Catherine herself. She often addresses the reader with a weirdly flat affect, and it's not exactly clear who she was before her awakening. She describes aspects of her childhood and sexual development in ways that don't jibe with how she thinks and acts, either before or after her epiphany. It's almost as if the chapters are slightly out of order in the way she vacillates between being shocked, voracious, detached, and cynical. We're supposed to believe so very much is at stake, and not just for Catherine, but the narrative voice has no urgency to it, no emotional depth, no life.
In her adventures, she meets a variety of goofballs, such as a hipster miscreant named Bundy with a donut face tattoo and a variety of amateur porn sites that lead to a very seedy underbelly of the web, and Kubrick who is a kindly older fellow who runs a roving party called the "Fuck Factory." There are some tantalizing opportunities for The Juliette Society to be daring, to play with some of the many, many ideas Grey tossed in there by way of her film references — Vertigo was particularly interesting — but it just never quite gets there. It's not clear if an editor reigned her in or didn't help her fully tease these ideas out, but the end result is haphazard and unfulfilling. So as of now, the jury is still out on Sasha Grey's novelistic prospects.
However, to give Sasha Grey the benefit of the doubt, this was her first publication. So while it will never end up on Oprah's book list, that doesn't mean that readers shouldn't give it a try. Overall, there are some hilarious moments sprinkled throughout, like the line, "the grossest thing imaginable is fucking Donald Trump in his private jet over St. Tropez." Plus despite the sloppy writing, Grey wrote with a genuine passion and excitement that many authors have lost over the years. In an interview with the DailyBeast, Grey revealed that she's in a positive place, "Yes. I think I’m happier than I’ve been in a really long time. Blame it on love. I’ve really been trying to go back to when I was 18 and rediscover the things that drove me, and my passions. How do I get back to being that strong? Because I feel like as I get older, I’m not as fearless as I was when I was 18. I sacrificed a lot, in terms of friendship and family, from working so much at such a young age, but I wouldn’t be where I am if I hadn’t." While I can only assume that she wrote The Juliette Society during this period of inner happiness, the book does a lot to help develop her character outside of the porn industry.
The Juliette Society by Sasha Grey
Film student Catherine has a secret: a long-held dream, the source of all her sexual imaginings. A dream full of desires of which she is ashamed and embarrassed. And these vivid dreams eventually find their way into her everyday life. One night, at a club, she meets at a man who leads her into a strange world. And soon she is drawn toward the Juliette Society, an exclusive secret society in which all the deepest, darkest fantasies are explored. But for those who join this world, there is no turning back.