Saskia Vogel’s beautifully written debut, Permission, is about sex, power, and, yes, BDSM. But it’s also about grief, belonging and the healing that comes from such intimacy, writes our guest editor Elodie Rose Barnes.
“I am a pornographer. From earliest childhood, I saw sex infusing the world”. This quotation from Camille Paglia, tucked away in the front pages of Saskia Vogel’s debut novel, would be easy to miss. It could be seen as blunt – a quotation about sex at the start of a novel that centres on the BDSM community – but it could also be read more delicately, as an invitation or perhaps a preparation for what lies ahead. Because when sex infuses the world there is the possibility of something other than the physical act, and this is what Vogel brings to life in Permission. It’s about sex, yes, and about power. But it’s also about grief and loneliness, healing and belonging, all woven together in a narrative that is rich, complex, and profoundly feminist not only in its questioning of accepted patriarchal norms, but in the way it offers an alternative.
Permission is told through the alternate narratives of two main characters. Echo, a twenty-something jobbing actress and model, is swamped by grief after the premature death of her father. There is more than a hint of guilt, too; her father fell off a cliff near their LA home, after spending years climbing the cliff and the coves beneath with Echo in an effort to convince her that she shouldn’t be afraid of the landscape. This same landscape is described in the very first paragraph as one that is constantly shifting, never to be relied upon. The hills are “sleeping giants, twitching as they dreamed”. Brush fires and earthquakes are everyday reality, and even from childhood, Echo says she “knew the landscape would not hold”. The absence of a body adds both to the turmoil surrounding her father’s death, and to the unrest in Echo herself. Reminiscences of a teenage affair with a female friend add an extra layer to the grief – somewhere along the way, this has also been lost. As Echo moves between her childhood home and her own home, trying to take care of her grieving mother while at the same time peppering her days with half-hearted encounters with men, there is the sense that she is both adrift and incredibly lonely.
The second narrative is taken up by Lonnie, the new neighbour at Echo’s mother’s home, and is told through his alter-ego, Piggy. While Echo’s narrative is intimately written in the first person, placing her at the heart of the story, Piggy’s is told in the third person. This places him a little off-centre, a little distant, but he too has a past in which he was lonely, in which he didn’t belong, in which his only name was Lonnie. While Lonnie still exists in a day job that is barely mentioned, Piggy is in service to a dominatrix called Orly. It is this role that empowers and fulfils him: “I wished to serve a Goddess who takes genuine sadistic pleasure in my submission to her Will”. The difference between Piggy’s willing submission to Orly, and Echo’s involuntary submission to her grief, could not be clearer.
Orly is the most mysterious character – the one without a voice of her own – and yet it is Orly, and the BDSM world that she inhabits, that bring Echo and Piggy’s narratives together. After first befriending Echo and then seducing her, Orly invites her to join the business and the three of them form a comfortable, unconventional ménage. There is no Fifty Shades-style cringing here though; in Vogel’s hands, whips and lashes, paddles and safe words become not just a means to sexual satisfaction, but a complex way of healing deep emotional wounds. On one level, physical pain becomes a substitute for emotional pain. In soothing and healing wounds of the body – Echo soon learns from Piggy that Epsom salts and arnica cream are essentials to have on hand -– wounds of the mind and soul can also be tended. But there is also a more profound shift taking place: one of attitudes and ideas, preconceptions and judgments. As Orly says to Echo, “The hard part is most people don’t know how to ask for what they want. They don’t think they’re allowed.” That sense of self-denial is written between the lines as a fundamental cause of a lot of emotional pain. Some feelings are socially and culturally unacceptable to feel, much less act on. Vogel departs from the standard victim narrative by giving her characters the power of “permission”. She gives them the right to say that this is how they want to love, and this is how they want to heal. It’s what makes the book so deeply feminist – that both Echo and Piggy, a woman and a man, can benefit from a new way of being that is so different from the patriarchal norm. Echo realises that, “If there was a disease, I was not it. It was something I had contracted, born of the science that makes sense of sex through pathology, a patriarchal order that fails not only women, it fails us all.”
In contrast, the so-called “normal” men in Echo’s life are portrayed as selfish, egotistical, sexist, and at times violent. The only time that domination is forced during the novel is during a humiliating dinner date between Echo and her Harvey Weinstein-esque agent: “He stepped in the way of my view, with a glass in each hand and his penis hovering near my nose.” Vogel shows, with an elegance that belies this sleazy encounter, that there is more than one way to dominate. Orly and Piggy’s way, despite being seen as deviant, is consensual and pleasurable. How, the scene asks, have we come to view something as seedy and cruel as non-consensual sex as acceptable?
Echo’s journey is a complex one, and along the way the reader is asked to think about some fundamental questions. Where do I belong? How do I want to be loved? Echo, at least, finds some answers. The end of the novel brings us back to a landscape that is still untamed. Grief and uncertainty are still present, hovering under the surface, but this time there is no fear. As she watches a grunion run in the cove near where her father disappeared, she thinks how much Orly would enjoy the scene: “This wild nature, so clear about what it wants”. A tidy ending – but not too tidy – to a stunning debut.
Feature image: Detail from Francesca Woodman’s Untitled, New York (N.392/ N.391), 1979-80.