There’s much to admire in Blue, L.N. Bey’s promising debut novel that draws its inspiration from some of the great classic BDSM narratives while remaining uniquely true to itself. An ambitious effort, the story is believably scaled, avoiding the credulity-straining grandiosity of so-much half-baked escapism, or the pretentious plot convolutions of would-be epics, which tend to collapse under the sprawling weight of their own inanity. Not that there isn’t a great deal of very imaginative, even fantastical storytelling here—this isn’t some drab novel of manners or cloyingly pointless foray into domestic realism—but everything here is decidedly to a purpose, and almost always to the point. The novelist seems to have learned the lesson some of her characters struggle with throughout the story: sometimes the greatest expressive freedom lies within a narrow set of well-defined limitations.
In essence, Blue is a novel about the pursuit of artistic vision, about the struggle to express one’s genuine self—or, perhaps more accurately, the search for a medium through which one may express that vision—be it film, photography, performance art, or, possibly. something a good deal more personal, subtly sensual and secret. The main characters, each in their own way, are driven by an ideal, and must find their own way ultimately to achieve that ideal.
Young—thirtysomething—attractive, recently divorced, Janet has always been drawn to the stylized BDSM of ‘trashy’ erotic novels, though she remains hopelessly naïve about what goes on in real life, her experience of sex disappointingly vanilla and reflexively hetero-normative. Her first introduction to the Lifestyle is not promising, and, yet, she is spurred on by curiosity, a disquieting realization that somewhere deep down, she got off on it, was powerfully turned on in spite of the humiliation, aroused by the pain, but even more profoundly moved by a sense of belonging and at long last drawing near to knowing her place in the scheme of things.
In some ways, it’s possible to see Blue as a sort of sunny, secular reimagining of Pauline Réage’s The Story of O—one of Bey’s cited inspirations. Where O’s introduction to bondage has the feel of a quasi-religious experience, a kind of mystagogic initiation into some ancient, esoteric mystery cult, Janet’s experience seems practically prosaic, almost commonplace in a world where very little remains to shock or scandalize. The action is transposed to the suburban American Midwest—the place feels very much like Kansas City, in fact—and there is an unassuming ordinariness about the characters and their settings. Yet, like O, Janet ultimately finds herself transformed to the very essence of her being, approaching an understanding of herself more complex and affirmative than even her most famously self-martyred predecessor.
None of this is to depreciate the novel as a work of erotic entertainment—far from it! When Janet meets Dmitri, an auteur of singular and disturbing vision, the results are nothing short of seismically arousing. (I do wish the author could have done more with these characters’ personal sexual relationship.) Some effort has been made to add variety to the predictable patterns of power-exchange, which is not always an easy thing. Bey very skillfully explores the erotic possibilities of everyday activities, as when two men watching a basketball game, give a penitent slave a lash for each point scored—brilliant!—or a scene of abject humiliation beneath the gaze of security cameras in a liquor store. And so much more!
The author avoids most of the pitfalls commonly besetting the frosh novelist, those tangent superfluities and preachy, self-indulgent digressions that are more about showing off one’s own cleverness than telling a great story. There is still a tendency towards excessive repetition, rehashing the same already-established plot points via the heroine’s seemingly endless fugue of self-doubt—a device right at home in a romance novel, but a tad tiresome here—and a few of the scenes feel like pale carbon-copies of each other—like déjà vu for the terminally incurious—although, this could be the author’s way of imbuing the narrative with a cyclic quality, rounding things off and tying it all together. I would have preferred more subtle recapitulations, and a good deal more variation throughout. Some of the chapters were overlong and would probably benefit from being broken into two (or even three) shorter, more manageable units.
Still, not bad on balance. Not bad at all for a first try. The writing is assured, but never cocksure, the author’s vision broad but not overreaching. The story is sufficiently interesting to inspire curiosity about what happens next, the rising action is skillfully controlled with a clear sense of dramatic momentum, and the whole thing draws to a logically satisfactory, un-open-ended conclusion, without the pretentious promise (or would it be threat?) of an unnecessary sequel.
With a first novel like this, one can clearly look forward to great things in L.N. Bey’s future. In the meantime, Blue is recommended.