Constraint is Siri Ousdahl’s debut in the genre of erotic fiction, although she has written prominently under an alternate author name for many years. She holds several prestigious writing awards and has worked extensively in publishing.
Within this, my critique of Siri Ousdahl’s novel, she joins me to discuss transgressive themes and the contradictions within our psyche.
Constraint pulls no punches. There is no sweetening of the pill. It is a tale of kidnapping, rape, violence and humiliation.
Our natural response is outrage. How dare one human being treat another this way? The early phases of the story are written clearly with the intention to arouse this reaction from us.
We are told that Alex is a sadist and has always been so, musing, from the youngest age, on ropes, chains and controlled violence. As an adult, he rises to the challenge of exercising precise control. ‘He wants to work out how much he can darken her flesh without breaking her skin.’
It is from this position that Siri Ousdahl unravels her story: winding back and forth, through past and present, and presenting us, readers, ready to judge and condemn, with knots we must unpick.
What should be simple is not, because we are human, and to be human is to be a creature of paradox.
Siri, while no writer can ‘control’ the reactions they inspire in readers, your story clearly aims to manipulate strong emotional responses, shaping them in various ways as the tale progresses. In this way, where do you hope to lead your reader?
This is my first formal erotic writing. In my other world as a writer I’m committed to psychological realism, and my ambition is to elicit a complicated, conflicted reaction from my readers. Very little is unequivocally one thing or another, red or blue or green; everything is tints, shades, and blends. If our understanding of ourselves is at all realistic, it is full of unresolvable contradictions. I wanted to write a sex novel that reflected that.
When I decided to write a noncon BDSM novel, I was my primary reader, so the person I was challenging was myself. I wanted to write a book that was as morally problematic as Lolita and as sexy as The Story of O. I wanted to see whether I could balance unsentimental realism with the poetry of eroticism, telling a story that, ideally, would both repel and attract. I wanted to see how long I could stay on the tightrope without falling off.
Our psyche comprises contradictory elements. Linnea, we are told, is ‘an alloy’, stronger than the metals from which she is made. A powerful metaphor in the story is given through Linnea’s sculptures, which comprise contrasting, yet harmonising materials: hickory and chestnut or oak and walnut. They symbolize Linnea’s inner being. ‘There are three tiny knots… clustered like moles on a woman’s shoulder.’ This metaphor continues. ‘The twisting shapes hint at lovers entangled ankle to throat’, bound by fine steel wire, brass straps, clear glass bands, rough rope knotted. Linnea’s art is a visual representation of what she desires for herself: bondage and forced compliance. We are told that ‘wood fucks wood’ and that the scent is ‘musky, human’.
Later, we read that Alex and Linnea’s bodies are a ‘sculpture’, representing ‘blood and hunger’.
Siri, you use Linnea’s art to reveal her state of mind (both during her captivity and beforehand). Can you tell us more about your research into the art world and how you’ve used art to bring layers of meaning to the story?
As a child, I didn’t study art (though I drew a lot), but I was raised in a family that valued art, much of it carved wood and stone sculpture. I’m sure my mother would not be thrilled to know how often I touched the art, running my hands along the shapes, marvelling at the three-dimensionality of it, its gravity.
I knew Linnea was a sculptor almost before I knew anything else about her. She was strong-muscled and ‘saw’ with her hands. Her art needed to be nonverbal, because I’m entirely verbal. Her sculptures were very clear in my head from the start, and I wish I had some of them!
Her photorealistic paintings were a surprise to me, but as I spent time in her head, trapped in the enclosure, I knew she would become obsessive about the walls: that she would make art from this constraint, as well.
I did a lot of research into the women of the abstract expressionist movement, and I developed immense respect for them. A woman artist of the first half of the twentieth century – in any movement – was in a horrible situation: her work ignored or treated with contempt, expected to model for and/or have sex with the men who defined whether she would ever be taken seriously.
As we enter deeper into Constraint, we’re given insight into the mind of kidnapper Alex, and the subject of his fixation, Linnea. Neither are as they seem and, as the story unfolds, the paradoxes within their natures are made more explicit.
A central theme of the story is our inward battle: our desire for self-determination and our wish to surrender some part of ourselves, to forfeit control, to allow another human ‘under our skin’, even (or sometimes, especially) where we know that surrender has the power to harm us. Most love stories explore, to some extent, this contradictory push and pull. In Constraint, there is an overt ‘battle’ between Linnea and Alex.
We’re told that the attraction for Alex is the paradox of the situation: that he enjoys Linnea’s compulsion to fight him, while witnessing her simultaneous arousal, seemingly against her wishes. He enjoys the ‘battle’ yet also wishes ‘for her to want him as much as he wants her’. We witness Alex’s violence towards Linnea, yet also his tenderness. ‘She has rolled close to him in her sleep, with her hands tucked close to his ribs and her face pressed against his shoulder… He…turns his face into her sleep knotted hair and breathes and breathes and breathes.’
We also see Alex’s compulsion to lose himself to a place of otherness, of transcendence. ‘He snaps the switch lightly against his forearm. It’s barely a touch, and the bright sting is no more challenging than walking out into icy-cold air or biting into raw ginger, but a faint white stripe flares and flushes red, a color shift as sudden as an octopus shifting camouflage. He observes this with interest. He is dropping into the strange, abstract space where she stops being entirely real to him, where he stops being real to himself: the no-place that is all places, and their bodies become geometries and his body and brain divide themselves into pieces simultaneously dissociative and entirely, pulsingly, engaged.’
While whipping Linnea, Alex ‘…does not think as he builds rhythms, patterns… He switches to using both floggers, infinite eights overlapping. And faster, until he is breathless, fighting a strange wild laugh that is rooted not in his mind but his body’s work… Linnea is barely present in his mind; she is also the entire focus of all his attention.’
Meanwhile, we learn that, as a child, Linnea played games of self-torture for pleasure. ‘In her teens she started to make sense of it all. She read Réage, Millet, Nin, Roquelaure, McNeill; eventually (with a horrified blend of alienation and recognition) de Sade.’ Linnea ‘knew she longed for bondage and all the sorts of torment ingenious men and women had developed. She was hungry for the whip, the collar, marks.’ She ‘knows that her body will respond in complicated ways—as it always has been complex, pain and pleasure tangled like necklaces tossed onto a bed…’
In this way, they are sexually well matched. We are told that their ‘games and rituals’ are such as ‘their natures decree’. Linnea watches coyotes outside, dancing, playing, fighting, then mating: another metaphor for her relationship with Alex.
Siri, can you tell us more about the psychology of the dynamic between your protagonists?
I was a lot like Linnea as a girl, with a high tolerance for pain and a craving for adventure that was not satisfied by my quiet upbringing. I did many dangerous and stupid things, all of them exhilarating. I was also a pain in the neck, for reasons I did not then understand: My mother says that I would ‘cruise for a spanking’, restless and clearly pushing rule after rule until I eventually did get spanked – ‘and then you would calm right down, happy and settled’ – which is how I remember it, as well.
My nature decreed what I wanted, even as a child. As I became sexual in my late teens, I found I moved effortlessly into BDSM, though I didn’t always understand how to get what I needed until I was in my 30s. As an adult, I have both topped and subbed for floggings, whippings, bondage, D/s, and many other things. When I write, I write from experience.
Despite this, I think I understand Alex better than I understand Linnea. Writing is basically a top’s game: I write something to elicit a response. I design a scene and then execute it and if I do it right, the reader feels things they didn’t expect. I am in charge, though the reader can always safeword out, put down the book and walk away.
In exploring the theme of constraint and freedom, we see the metaphor of inside and outside spaces – looking inward and outward. Linnea struggles against Alex’s constraint of her freedom, but we come to see that her constraint is also internal. ‘She’s a coyote in a leg-hold trap, chewing at her own ankle.’ When she asks what he wants from her, he laughs, evading, ‘because the answer is love and he cannot admit that’. Linnea evades, as well. ‘It is not the house and enclosure that blocks honesty; their constraints travel with them.’
Alex seeks tension. He ‘draws a narrow line around Linnea and longs for the moments she breaks past them… What hawk comes to your hand without training, without bribes and constraints…? How is this different than other, more conventional relationships?’ He muses that even true love is built from ‘unconscious accommodations, invisible chains.’
The non-consensual elements of Constraint are, by nature, disturbing, while yet having power to arouse. It is this very juxtaposition that makes the story compelling, since we are encouraged to examine paradoxes within our own behaviour. You’re exploring where many authors fear to tread. Siri, what inspired you to choose this theme, of our contradictory, paradoxical, self-destructive nature, and of the constraints we carry within us?
A correctly structured BDSM experience (or relationship) has clear rules and expectations, but many ‘traditional’ experiences do not: in most relationships, love and trust change meaning unilaterally, over time, without negotiation. A lot of BDSM fiction is actually terrible BDSM: even if the sex/play itself is safe, sane, and consensual – even if there are contracts – the characters lie, manipulate, gaslight, misdirect, and cheat their way into the relationship.
Alex is, at least, honest about what he wants, to the extent he understands it.
Having delved into Linnea’s romantic past, Alex challenges her lack of intimacy with anyone. She resists, saying, “No one is anyone’s.” Later, taunted by dominatrix Klee, Linnea asserts, “I am not yours. I am no one’s.” Klee responds, “So sad. We all belong to someone…”
We see Alex’s desire to ‘possess’ Linnea, to make her love him, while this can never be true until she wishes it to be so, until she recognizes an emotional connection to him.
The relationship between Linnea and Alex progresses, through shared intimacies, until she feels that he is ‘seeing her, actual her, instead of whatever he usually sees when he looks at her’. We read that he sees ‘she is her own person’.
By the closing pages, he has accepted that his non-consensual treatment of her has been unacceptable, to the extent that he is willing to suffer any consequences (including imprisonment). He notes that he no longer has ‘certainty that his decisions are the right ones’.
Alex tells Linnea explicitly that he loves her and offers that she may choose what happens next, even if it means her turning him in to the police. He has the power to continue as he did, but recognizes his