Book Review : Molly Tanzer - The Pleasure Merchant (2015)
You only know a man when you know his pleasure.
I try to keep my diet of historical fiction as lean as possible. My reasoning goes as follows: why would I read someone talking about, let's say renaissance, when I could read someone who was actually there? The answer to that question is simple: perspective. Perspective often is incredibly boring though as authors tend to revisit the past with the same bland progressiveness. Not Molly Tanzer, though. No, sir. Her novel The Pleasure Merchant is a trapezoidal funhouse that almost drove me insane, but no one can ever accuse her of having a boring perspective on the past. She kind of reconciled me with Victorian fiction altogether, to be honest.
The Pleasure Merchant masquerades as a simple novel, but it really isn't. It's the story of Tom Dawne, a horny teenage apprentice wigmaker in Victorian England who very much loves his job and his boss' daughter's body. It is never outspokenly described by another character, but I suspect Tom is pretty dashing, too. His life changes when one of his wig is used in a catastrophic prank that caused a client's outrage. Tom loses his job and is kicked on the street, but Mr. Bewit (the client is question) feels so bad about this, he gives him a job in his home. Tom enters a world he couldn't possible thought existed before. And neither did I!
Apprenticeship novels are nothing new. Many iconic authors from Goethe to John Irving have been teaching the secrets of life to teenage protagonists in sprawling novels for centuries. In The Pleasure Merchant, Tom Dawne is introduced to the sophisticated and nuanced manipulations of adult ways through a series of encounters with various acquaintance of the Bewit house. Molly Tanzer doesn't spare the readers any of the intellectual headaches she puts Tom through. Each relationship Tom gets entangled with is long and complex to a point I lost the highway a couple times and wondered what the hell I was reading. Tanzer never fails to reward her readers through subtle shifts in narration and in the power structure between character. Gotta keep your eyes open, though. It's easy to drift and get lost in The Pleasure Merchant.
So, I can already hear you asking: "Ben, what is this original perspective on Victorian England you're trying to sell us?" While Molly Tanzer nails the parlance, etiquette and wide array of unspoken rules of the Victorian era better than most, I don't think she really cared about historical accuracy at all. She's not trying to make history say something, but to pitch this wild idea of a fortunate layer of society that indulged into the pleasure it forbade others. What made The Pleasure Merchant interesting and pertinent to me is that it didn't only address rules of Victorian England, but unspoken rules of contemporary society. So, The Pleasure Merchant uses historical fiction as a prism to discuss contemporary issues and I though THAT was pretty cool.
I read to challenge myself. Always did. While I found The Pleasure Merchant to be a sprawling labyrinth at times, I can't debate that it's a clever and engaging novel that requires your best reading self in order to be fully appreciated. Don't get me wrong, it's not a difficult novel per se. Molly Tanzer's style is quirky and user-friendly. What it requires is patience and intellectual presence. The Pleasure Merchant is a long novel (over 400 pages) and you can't really drift through it. It's a ready that rewards your efforts though. Not exactly what you would be looking for if you want an escapist summer read, but not every novel that requires you to work actually works with you. The Pleasure Merchant was a fun challenge, but it is very much a challenge. Know what you're getting into, but also know that it'll give you back what you put in.