Filler content with the picaresque

Following on from Monday’s post, here is the second part of the feature on the work of Molly Tanzer that originally appeared in Black Static #51:-

THE WEIRD WEST AND THE PICARESQUE: MOLLY TANZER (continued)

THE PLEASURE MERCHANT (Lazy Fascist Press pb, 430pp, $16.95), Tanzer’s second novel, flying out the door hard on the heels of her first, is subtitled “The Modern Pygmalion” and set in a Regency London that’s notable for its lack of talking bears. We are introduced to the character of Tom Dawne, a wigmaker’s apprentice, who loses his position and sees his hopes of marriage to his master’s daughter Hizzy crash and burn through no fault of his own. The wealthy Mr Bewit, who is somewhat implicated in his downfall, takes pity on the young man, and Tom finds a comfortable berth as a manservant in the Bewit household. It is a somewhat peculiar establishment, with rakehell son Callow off somewhere on the continent and Mr Bewit mourning but never speaking of the fate of his daughter Alula. The dominant figure in the household is the cousin Hallux Dryden, a self-proclaimed scientist who never refrains from voicing his opinion on any matter and exercises an unhealthy level of control over his beautiful wife Sabina. Tom soon becomes a favourite of Mr Bewit, with all the privileges that confers, including romantic dalliances with young society ladies who don’t realise that he is a servant. However, with the return of Callow Bewit his position becomes precarious, which is when he meets the young woman Miss Rasa and her master Mangum Blythe, the pleasure merchant of the title, an upper class fixer upper who can arrange anything for the right price. When shit hits the fan at the Bewit household Tom finds himself a man of substance and determines to pursue a relationship with Rasa, regardless of what or who stands in his way. Specifically, regardless of Mangum Blythe. It’s a bad judgement call.

Mostly the story is told from the perspective of Tom, but there’s a frame narrative which claims the book as the work of Rasa, now a pleasure merchant and recording events many years after they took place, and the final passages concern her deeds. Again, though there is much here that is horrific, especially in the influence exercised by the abominable Hallux Dryden over Sabina, this is not correctly speaking a horror novel; it would more readily be classed as a picaresque, or perhaps a post-modern work in the same vein as Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor. It’s a fast paced romp of a story, with a complex and clever plot, and a wry humour and mocking sense of irony underlying much of the narrative, while once again Tanzer’s descriptive skills come into play, taking us from the country houses of the aristocracy to the cloistered confines of Regency coffee houses and the cobbled streets of London.

And while you can certainly take the narrative at face value, and read it simply for the pleasure of an engaging story well told, Tanzer has a feminist stance worn lightly on her sleeve. Tom Dawne is what I guess in modern parlance would be described as a bit of a lad, treating the women in the book as objects to gratify his lust, lying to get his way with servants and young ladies of good breeding alike, and caring not a fig that he has sworn his heart to Hizzy (and yet, he is annoyed when, after being ignored for a while, she turns to another man – Tom is the master of the double standard). This immorality carries over into other aspects of his life, so that he is entirely ruthless in consolidating his position in the household of Mr Bewit, removing any who oppose him or stand in his way. The anger he feels towards Rasa is superficially rooted in what he considers her lack of appreciation for what he has done for her, which he regards as ingratitude, but in reality all he is doing is dressing up a form of churlishness brought on by her refusal to act as he wishes. And when he embarks on his campaign against Mangum Blythe, Tom determines to strike through using a woman, indifferent to what anguish he might cause the one he is using as a weapon. Tom is, in not so modern parlance, a complete bounder, and there is plenty of gratification to be had in seeing him get his comeuppance, undone by his own hubris, though what needs to be remembered here is that the story is being told by Rasa, and the thoughts and motives attributed to him are those that she reveals and not necessarily the reality. It is her interpretation of his behaviour, just as we interpret all that she discloses. And to be fair, she does allow that he has a moral streak in him, not immediately seizing on the wrong course, and needing to justify his actions to himself, even if his reasons are invariably specious. He is not a two dimensional monster, but a fully rounded character, a flawed human being.

Repellent though it may be, Tom’s behaviour is nothing compared to that of Hallux Dryden, a monster in human form, who wishes to shape Sabina to fit his desires and cares nothing for what she wants, who sees her simply as a tabula rasa on which he can write his own idea of how women should behave (most of which involves deferring to and constantly praising her husband). Sabina is to be a Stepford Wife, reduced to the status of a doll by the mesmeric hold her husband has over her. Central to this aspect of the story is the objectification of women, the ways in which men dominate and shape them, without so much as a by your leave.

The relationship between Dryden and Sabina is mirrored in that between Mangum Blythe and Rasa (her name, which he conferred, is a reference to the tabula rasa, or blank slate). But while Mangum does indeed exercise considerable influence over his protégé, he uses it more wisely, always encouraging Rasa to realise her own potential, to decide what she wishes to do rather than simply pander to his authority and ego. They are more like business partners than anything else, though Mangum is the senior. A suave, highly educated and cultured individual, sexually precocious and seeing no reason not to take his pleasure where he will (yet with a strict moral code to which he adheres come what may), Blythe is the genius loci of this novel, its presiding spirit, even though he is seldom at the centre of the action. He is a man who believes in pleasure, for himself and others, and who has made its pursuit his life’s work and career, though interpreting it in more philosophical terms than empty hedonism. In many ways he is the ideal of those libertines found in the pages of the Marquis de Sade, with all of their virtues and none of their vices, including a regrettable tendency to lecture the reader. Blythe doesn’t lecture, but leads by example. He does not seek to dominate women, because he does not fear them or need the validation of others.

These three very different men, and Rasa’s reactions to them are the hard nugget at the centre of this dazzling novel, and they allow Tanzer to comment on attitudes, good and bad, that are still far too prevalent in our own society more than two hundred years after the events described in its pages. It is a remarkable achievement, a stunning novel from a writer at the very start of her career, one who is not afraid to take risks and go off in unexpected directions, to give us alarums and excursions. In literary terms, Tanzer herself is a pleasure merchant of the first order, offering us the wares we crave, even though we don’t realise so until after we have fallen under her spell and become addicted to the unique visions that are her stock in trade. There is much to look forward to, and long may the addiction last.

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