Never the Face starts with the narrator recalling a dream. Or, rather, the dream seeks here, and she “found myself hurtling back across the years, back to a spring morning in California when I was—
This implies she isn’t awake while she’s writing. Notice too how she’s abrogated responsibility for her actions: she “found [herself] hurtling back across the years,” instead of going there willingly. She doesn’t make the choice, implying that she’s metaphorically asleep, waiting for someone to wake her again because she can’t awaken on her own. Dreams run throughout the novel (although this novel feels more like a memoir, given its intimacy and tone). On its penultimate page, the narrator is “Afraid that those fabulous, shimmering dreams he had dreamt for me—for us—were about to shatter.” She’s right, since dreams can’t last forever outside of science fiction. Even at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the characters must leave Titania’s forest. The same is true of Never the Face, but maintaining the dream isn’t the responsibility of the protagonist—notice how David, the “he” of this love story, is the one who “had dreamt for me—for us.” He does this through sexual bondage. The details are interesting but essential; read the book if you want them. Read this post if you want some of them and some idea of what they might mean.
The narrator says that she had dreams about David, and not about anything else. Still, there’s hesitation: “a dream was one thing. Did I want the reality? Assuming that it was real?” Judging by the 200 pages to follow, we can guess the answer is yes. She feels more real when she’s told what to do. When they begin having sex, David instructs the narrator to open herself. She does. He speaks to her like an animal:
‘Good girl. Now, what do you say?’
I said nothing.
‘You say, “Please fuck your bitch.” ‘
With the involition of someone in a dream, I heard my voice saying, ‘Please fuck your bitch.’
David “accepted the invitation.” The narrator is giving up agency, which gives the encounter its power. We have an effectively infinite array of choices. To have them removed is taboo, and in violating the taboo she feels pleasure. She is both dreaming and awake. Later, the narrator says that she “climbed into bed and surrendered myself to dark dreams, dreams I didn’t like to acknowledge even to myself. I am chained up, spread-eagled. But my lover is ignoring me. Another woman kneels in front of him, and he is fondling her breasts, he is about to—” We don’t know what. The “dark dreams” end, and the narrator “pulled my mind back.” It’s too much, which is strange, given what her fantasy life is like. She says, “I felt as if I was cradling a bomb that at any moment might explode and blow my head off. I pulled the blankets tight around my body.” Maybe she’s missing a sense of danger, and while some might fill that sense of danger with climbing mountains, she fills it with sex. One is socially valorized, the other socially castigated. The sentences the narrator ends with an em-dash represents those places even she feels she can’t go, the places where she needs to break off.
Those points of breaking off leave things to the imagination. At one point, David tells the narrator to “Tell me your fantasies.” She resists, momentarily, but that resistance feels perfunctory, like all or almost all of her descriptions of resistance. She says that she “took a deep breath, snuck up to my place of dark dreams, and opened the door. I am tied up, legs spread. Men, I cannot see their faces—” She says aloud that that she fantasizes about “Rape. Especially gang rape. That’s probably my most common fantasy.” Another metaphor appears here, this time about opening doors instead of sleeping / wakening. Such metaphors point to understanding, growth, development, knowledge, whatever word you want to choose. Of becoming by being.
The narrator notes that she doesn’t “really want to be raped,” and David says, “I know you don’t, Kitten. No one does. It’s the idea that’s powerful. Giving up control.” It’s not just giving up control, however, but giving it up to the right person; in their book Why Women Have Sex, David Buss and Cindy Meston describe some of the research around rape and say that “In erotic rape fantasies, the male is typically attractive, dominant, and overcome with sexual desire for the woman […] the fantasy typically contains no realistic violence.” Those are all traits the narrator sees in David. In addition, you don’t fully need fantasy to become reality; you need enough fantasy to alter your reality. It’s hard to imagine the narrator going back to the Bobbies of the world after she’s been with a David.
Bobby was the narrator’s former lover. While the narrator is speaking with a friend, she says:
A memory from years before came into my head. I am naked. Bobby is whispering, “I’m going to kiss you all over.” He begins kissing my neck, my shoulders, my ears. I know I am supposed to find this sexy, romantic. But while my body is lying there being kissed (now he’s at the small of my back, now at the back of my knees), my mind is thinking about calculus problems, and whether anyone might have taken my clothes out of the dryer.
Note the contrast between what the narrator is “supposed” to feel and what she actually feels. That conflict generates the narrator’s erotic tension; so does the way she wants to live in the radical present. David achieves that through pain. Bobby doesn’t: he lets her mind think “about calculus problems,” instead of jerking her mind into the now, away from the daily grind and towards the moment. She wants to live in the present tense, which is incredibly hard for some people. The narrator understands this to some extent: she says thinks it difficult “To generate a feeling of safe danger.” She’s looking for an oxymoron, and someone who can deliver it is special. She is “Exploring places you don’t normally go, scary places, with someone you trust. It’s very controlled.” The places are slightly physical but mostly mental; they’re about making the mind and body fuse. It helps that David has the traits of a romantic hero: he is self-assured, powerful, knowledgeable. She thinks, “I wonder if he’s good at [going down on women]. He’s good at everything else” (Emphasis in original). Being skilled and competent is attractive; he’s also conveniently rich, a man who “was on the waiting list” for a country club with “a joining fee of $70,000.” Maybe she thinks it easier to trust someone rich.
Regardless, his competence lets her trust. David tells her that what they’re doing “is about surrender, giving up control. It has nothing to do with liking pain or wanting to be hurt.” That’s specious: if it had nothing to do with pain, pain wouldn’t be the mechanism used to achieve the end David perceives as surrender. He would use some other mechanism. You can’t separate ends from means no matter how much you might want to. You don’t beat someone without that beating being somewhat about beating. In this case, the beating also serves as contrast, with poor Bobby being the punching bag. Midway through the novel, the narrator says:
I thought of Bobby, how he always fell asleep after he came. For a moment, I conjured him, sprawled on top of me as if I was part of the bed. He could sometimes manage sex twice a day. But David—
He’s superhuman. No: Superman. I’m fucking Superman!
Or, rather, she makes him into Superman. One wonders if Bobby could’ve been molded in the same way. Still, Bobby’s kisses are quite different than sex with David. When David comes in, he “twisted my hand in my hair, forced my face upward, and kissed me. The kiss was rough, violent.” He leaves, and the narrator’s body reacts in a way that will grow predictable but still perturbs her on some level: “Trying to ignore how aroused I was, I turned back to my books.” She can’t control the way her body feels, which is part of what she likes. It’s part of her divided mind. David has a theory about this: “Pain quiets your mind and opens you to pleasure.” Under this theory, pain is a borderland between normal existence and extraordinary existence. The question remains: how do we get to extraordinary existence? How can we travel there through experience? He says: “It’s that when you cry, I know I’ve got you. I know you’re completely present, a body reacting and responding. You’re not thinking about anything, or worrying: you’re just there.” It’s so hard to live in the present, especially among a certain segmented of the highly educated, highly repressed, highly skilled part of the population. It takes an effort to live in the specious present. You wouldn’t want to live there all the time, but for a while, it can be extraordinarily powerful because we do so so infrequently. Habit becomes stultifying: we need to break from it, at least if we’re unusually open to new experiences. This passage, a conversation between the narrator and her friend Sally, captures the idea:
“Well. I don’t know what your experience has been—do you find that sex with most guys is more or less the same?” I said.
“Yes,” she said, rolling her eyes slightly. “Yes.” She laughed. “Some of them like to carry you about more than others. But that’s about it.”
“This was different. Totally different.”
Difference can be scary; it also can’t be fully explained. Sally wants explanation; the narrator can’t fully give it. She prevaricates, because what else can she do? It’s a bodily experience unlike almost any other. The narrator knows how it would be judged, and she’s internalized her friends’ reactions; at one moment, she says, “I thought of what Sally would say if I told her, ‘You wore his wife’s skirt? To a restaurant? Are you insane?’ ” But that’s the point: to transgress. You aren’t supposed to have affairs, even with the wife’s blessing; you aren’t supposed to be a masochist, even if you are; if you do those two things, you definitely aren’t supposed to wear the wife’s skirt. The question starts to become, where are the lines? If you don’t have any, you become scary. Dangerous. The sort of person who might steal someone else’s mate, who is threatening the foundations of social order. Hence you have to be labeled as “insane.” The idea is hardy a new one: Hester Prynne gets her famous Scarlet Letter for transgression. She’s achieved the state David Axelrod describes in his article “Laws of Life:”
‘Internalization’ is the word psychologists use to describe the compliance with norms out of feelings of right and wrong. A norm is internalized if violating it is psychologically painful even when the consequences are otherwise beneficial. Thus, cheating on an exam might result in persistent guilt even if it were not punished and did succeed in raising the student’s grade […] if everyone [strongly] internalized a norm […], there would be no incentive to defect and the norm would remain stable.
Families and societies work hard to achieve exactly this effect, especially in educating the impressionable young, and they sometimes succeed. Still, it is rare for a norm to be so thoroughly internalized that no one in a group is tempted to defect.
Violation is psychologically painful but also satisfying. In Never the Face, the narrator’s main manifestation of guilt comes from the writing of the novel, and we can’t help but think that guilt is awfully minor. She doesn’t look into where that guilt comes from, but the usual suspects are out there: society, other women, religion, schools. In “Sexual Economics: Sex as Female Resource for Social Exchange in Heterosexual Interactions,” Roy Baumeister and Kathleen Vohs posit that in many societies women are responsible for restricting female sexual agency. They might be right. But Ariel Sands isn’t asking those questions, even though they arise in my mind. Dan Savage said that “When it comes to human sexuality [. . .] deviation from imaginary and tyrannical ‘norms’ is the norm.” He’s probably right. Books like Never the Face make you think “probably” might not be strong enough.
The narrator says that “Those desires, those dark desires that lurked in the shadows of my mind—most of the time I tried to hide them, even from myself. I had never let myself speak of them.” She hasn’t, and relatively few others have. David has a theory, that at her “core,” the narrator is “Someone who wants to surrender, to be taken.” She “started to protest” but doesn’t. What is there to be said? This novel also arouses the fear that, if these “dark desires” lurk in the mind, others might too. What happens if they are awakened? What might we find there? The worst answer might be “nothing.”
While David leaves, the narrator “stood on the sidewalk, thighs and buttocks smarting, my body alive with desire.” If it’s alive with desire, is it dead the rest of the time? Or asleep? If so, then she should be glad: we like being woken up. It disturbs us to be asleep, to be unaware; that’s why so many stories deal with entering an unknown and previously unperceived world. In “The Unreal Thing: What’s wrong with the Matrix?“, Adam Gopnik writes that, in The Matrix, “reality is a fiction, programmed into the heads of sleeping millions by evil computers.” In this book, we get the sense that reality is, if not a fiction, then at least a tedious drag, programmed into the heads of sleeping millions by social convention that binds us without our knowing it. Notice how Gopnik, too, resorts to the language of slumber to convey his point. He goes on to point out the idea’s history:
The basic conceit of “The Matrix”—the notion that the material world is a malevolent delusion, designed by the forces of evil with the purpose of keeping people in a state of slavery, has a history. It is most famous as the belief for which the medieval Christian sect known as the Cathars fought and died, and in great numbers, too. The Cathars were sure that the material world was a phantasm created by Satan, and that Jesus of Nazareth—their Neo—had shown mankind a way beyond that matrix by standing outside it and seeing through it. The Cathars were fighting a losing battle, but the interesting thing was that they were fighting at all. It is not unusual to take up a sword and die for a belief. It is unusual to take up a sword to die for the belief that swords do not exist.
The idea of “what you see is what you get” probably goes back even further: hence the idea of what we might now term magical thinking among many pre-agrarian hunter-gatherers, who so often believe that spirits control and animate the world. Or contemporary people who send mental notes conventionally referred to as prayer, to a fellow who goes by various names but sits (if we imagine him being corporeal) in a cloud, seeing everything and noting down a demerit every time you masturbate. Whether you’r the narrator of Never the Face, Neo in The Matrix, a hunter-gatherer tribesperson, or a modern monotheist, you don’t want your everyday existence to be all there is. You want something more, but how do you get there? Through kinky sex, appeals to the spirits, gathering in a group of people and reciting chants / songs? Given the choice, I know which one I’d choose, but the similarity of the goal—transcendence, extra-normal power—makes me wonder what could connect all these practices, especially given how practitioners often dislike those using other methods. The highly kinky and heavily religious do not appear to have much overlap.
One thing that sets The Matrix apart from the innumerable comic book movies in which good guys and bad guys try to kick each other’s asses is the underlying idea that reality might not exist (Gopnik says the sequel “is, unlike the first film, a conventional comic-book movie, in places a campy conventional comic-book movie”). One thing that sets Never the Face apart from the innumerable books of erotica that describe, in detail, how things feel is the discomforting sense that maybe we never really will awaken from everyday life without the assistance of some activities described in the book; I shy away from using the book’s direct language—do I feel I haven’t earned it? Gopnik says that “the idea that the world we live in isn’t real is one that speaks right now to a general condition,” and I would posit that Sands feels the same way, or that her narrator does. But for her, the fake world is fake because it has been stripped of sensuality, of tactile sensations, of intensity; those feelings have been denuded by Big Macs, large personal spaces, telephones, and a social sense that forbids discussing erotic life for fear of any number of things, including political correctness. We don’t want to acknowledge what we might want if we really freed our minds.
It’s notoriously hard to look past our cultural and biological conditioning, even when part of our cultural conditioning is to recursively question our cultural conditioning. But we try anyway, because a certain number of us don’t like not being to think something that we could possibly think. To return to Gopnik, “In a long article on the first “Matrix” film, the Princeton philosopher James Pryor posed the question “What’s so bad about living in the Matrix?,” and, after sorting through some possible answers, he concluded that the real problem probably has to do with freedom, or the lack of it.” The “freedom” answer, however, still smells to me of cultural conditioning, but I buy it. Plus, it seems like cultures that value “freedom” appear to be better, on average, at getting along with their neighbors and not murdering their neighbors.*
And I buy the value of Never the Face not just for the dirty bits, but also because it seems like we should be free to want to be hit if we want to be hit, regardless of the important political and social convictions we might justifiably hold in other aspects of our lives. As Paul Graham says in his essay “What You Can’t Say,” “To do good work you need a brain that can go anywhere. And you especially need a brain that’s in the habit of going where it’s not supposed to.”** Freedom applies to sexual freedom too, and being able to explore your desires so long as those desires don’t hurt others.
For the narrator, sex and the activities around it let her live in the now. She says, “As usual after a savage beating, I was in a daze. My mind had gone blank; the internal monologue was silent. I as just there, in the now, without thought.” With Bobby, she thought about calculus; with him, she thinks nothing, which might be the greatest challenge for intellectuals. You wouldn’t want to go blank all the time, but for the moment it’s thrillingly, astonishingly different. In the novel’s rhetoric, it wakes her up, as discussed above.
Being awake lets the narrator see and feel things she wouldn’t otherwise. She sees the essential. She feels it. David says that beating someone is “Way more intimate than fucking. [. . .] Because it strips away pretense and self-consciousness, it reduces you to your essence.” The sex and bondage the narrator experiences isn’t, under this reading, about sex and bondage; they’re about understanding yourself and the world around you. The same thing that sports books say sports are about and that art books say art is about. The difference is that sports and art are valorized by society, while sexual exploration isn’t and probably never will be. It’s not just about the sex, either; as David explains in a perhaps self-serving way, the bondage “takes trust [. . .] You don’t need to trust someone to fuck them. But to put yourself in someone else’s power, to make yourself that vulnerable—that takes trust. [. . .] That’s why it brings such closeness.”
Is he right? The question is beside the point: he’s right in the narrator’s eyes. If he wasn’t, she wouldn’t stay with him. She wouldn’t want their relationship to continue when he breaks it off to stay with his wife, who knows about his relationship with the narrator. She encourages it. But the novel ultimately implies that such an arrangement can’t last. Society must be paid its dues. Plus, one challenge is simple: where does it end? Towards the novel’s end, the narrator says that David “had set upon me with if possible, a new level of ferocity.” Eventually, the logical conclusion becomes death, which I doubt the narrator wants. Neither does David. But you have to reach some maximum this side of the underworld.
Normally, I wouldn’t include spoilers in an essay about a book, but in this case “what happens” is besides the point, and the narrative tension doesn’t really exist. The book isn’t about what happens, but how and why it does. The answer is ultimately pre-verbal, like the reason for the adventure that propels Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. We can use language to approximate the feelings invoked by experience, but in this case the approximation is wider than most art. That, I think, is what feels so subversive: Never the Face suggests that you will never understand without trying it for yourself. If you do try for yourself, you will be indulging a set of possible desires that social life tells you you shouldn’t have, and if you do have them, they should be repressed, and if they can’t be repressed, they at least shouldn’t be spoken, and if they are spoken, they at least shouldn’t be written and distributed, and if you write and distribute them, you at least shouldn’t let others read it. The layers of taboo violation go deep.
She says that she had dreams about David, not about anything else. Still, there’s hesitation: “a dream was one thing. Did I want the reality? Assuming that it was real?” Judging by the 200 pages to follow, we can guess the answer is yes.
* Neal Stephenson discusses how our culture propagates itself visually in “In the Beginning was the Command Line,” which should be required reading for people who want to know how things work.
** Graham, later: “If you can think things so outside the box that they’d make people’s hair stand on end, you’ll have no trouble with the small trips outside the box that people call innovative.”