A recent episode of Radiolab discussed the connections between the notion of consent and the systems in place to protect participants in the BDSM community. It was clear that, in many cases, proponents of BDSM often have rigid guidelines to ensure consent is established prior to any activity between two people.
It was also unfortunately clear, from firsthand accounts described in the podcast, that these systems can sometimes malfunction. As Saskia Vogel states in her debut novel, Permission,
We might play at power, exploring roles not yet available to us outside these four walls, but for the space to be sacral, it had to be held sacred by us all.
This perceptive reflection from the narrator of the novel has far-reaching implications, certainly beyond the walls of BDSM and even beyond sex itself.
In many ways, it seems as though the understanding and awareness of fantasy and desire on one hand and reconciling our sexuality with the reality of our lives on the other can lead to a more effective system of advocating – and therefore consenting – for ourselves.
Vogel has explained that she turned to literature after her time working as a reporter for a porn industry magazine, suggesting, however, that she continues to explore many of the same questions about discovery, awareness, and acceptance in her current work.
In a lecture about the porn festival, Viva Erotica, Vogel recalls trying to find a way to get audiences to “look at porn as part of, and not separate from, popular culture and the art of cinema.” This project is apparent in Permission. The prose of this novel asks and then demonstrates how the elements of erotica and literary fiction can merge, overlap, intertwine. In many ways, the composition of this novel mirrors life itself.
Reflecting on one’s own sexuality and sexual history in the wake of #MeToo can often be deeply connected to all of the complexities of one’s life and identity. Using the character of Echo, Vogel has the perfect opportunity to explore these connections.
In the novel, Echo is navigating three aspects of her life: a recent family tragedy, complex memories from her adolescence connected to her sexual identity, and the conflicted past and precarious present she has with the entertainment industry. As she confronts each of these facets, she is drawn into the world of her family’s neighbor, Orly, who helps Echo discover herself and reflect on her experiences.
In writing this novel, Vogel has drawn comparisons to Joan Didion. While a comparison to Didion’s writing may be a bit overblown, there is definitely some truth to a thematic link between the two. Like Didion, Vogel locates danger and tragedy in the Californian landscape. There are movie stars and glamorous lifestyles, but there are also jagged cliffs, the impending doom of the San Andreas fault, and disappearances in the Los Angeles canyons. Echo is “forever waiting for tragedy.”
When discussing landscape, the idea of distance is never far off. In Los Angeles, distance is everything. For Echo, the distance between her parents’ home in the canyons and her downtown apartment is vast, though only a car ride away. Even the short distance between neighbors’ homes is prohibitive. It is possible to never meet the person living right next to you.
In Permission, Echo learns that in order to understand herself and cultivate intimacy, she must be willing to eradicate the distance between two bodies, to truly “merge,” as she recalls at one point. In a strikingly surreal sex scene, the physical borders of the body are ripped away; two bodies completely engulf each other.
For a novel that is this brief, there are some odd preoccupations: In one case, Echo repeatedly thinks about the pre-made deli counter food that she eats directly from the containers in her mother’s fridge. Various pre-made salads are given more attention than necessary. The narrator regularly reflects on her mother’s German identity, frequently mentioning her pronunciation of words and desire to move back to “the continent”. While these traits of her mother could provide some valuable insight into the depths of this character, they are not delved into deeply enough for them to be clearly relevant to the story.
In some areas, descriptions venture towards eye-roll territory: “My sheets did not yet smell like sorrow,” or “Alongside my orgasm, sorrow and fear coursed through me.” In general, however, Vogel’s ability to think about the erotic as a legitimate literary technique is encouraging and commendable.
This novel will make a huge impact on the way we consider genre in literature, and it will certainly provide a significant contribution to discussions of sexual identity, desire, acceptance, and consent.
Thank you to Coach House Books and NetGalley for the advance copy of this title.
Permission – Saskia Vogel
Coach House Books – Literary Fiction – Release Date: 9 April, 2019