Molly Tanzer’s The Pleasure Merchant Exceeds Carnality and Love

“Pleasure” is noun, adjective and verb. It is provocative and sexy, dangerous and luxurious. But what is it? Everyone thinks of sex, and Molly Tanzer’s The Pleasure Merchant is full of it, but the realm of pleasure exceeds carnality or love. Maybe your pleasure is food, or inclusion in a certain social sect. Revenge. Reunion. Freedom. A pleasure merchant is simply one who procures the desired for a price. But more questions follow, for if this is a story about pleasure, it is as much about the lack of it. How long does pleasure last? Is pleasure happiness?

Tom Dawne is an apprentice wigmaker in mid-to-late eighteenth century London caught in a feud between two rich gentlemen. Accused of planting cards in one man’s wig, he is dragged by Bow Street Runners to the house of the other gentleman, where Tom is found innocent but dismissed from his position nonetheless. An orphan with incomplete training, he is despondent. The other gentleman, out of a sense of guilt, hires him immediately.

Quickly, Tom realizes the advantages of being in service in a great house versus working as an apprentice of the merchant class. Satiated with pastries, cream and meats and clothed in soft garments, his perceptions change along with his dreams. But the closer he gets to the family and learning the part his new master played in the deception that changed his life’s course, the more his own sense of entitlement grows.

Page by page, as Tom seeks sex, finery, respect and eventually revenge, it becomes apparent that he does not know how to acquire happiness. He is shallow, his desires and morality unwittingly base. He is the so-called common man: a plebeian slave to class, marginally educated yet ignorantly married to mainstream materialisms.

As a wigmaker’s apprentice, Tom fiddles with his master’s daughter, rationalizing their actions with future plans of marriage. As a servant, he is quick to find a maid to lift her skirts. As an imaginary gentleman, dressed up as a surrogate son to his master, he tarries further. Whatever woman present is only the object of his pleasure. Anytime a female expresses sexual need apart from his own lust, or, worse, complex thought, he is repulsed.

Enter Hallux Dryden, Tom’s employer’s cousin, a “nerve doctor” who practices hypnotism while preaching free will. His “science” is his obsession, a sinister undertone of the novel. While his “nightly duties” upon his wife are a joke below stairs, Dryden considers his work his pleasure, though he too derives little happiness from it. His liberalism is of the sort that everyone should be free to agree with his own opinion, as it is the most correct. He is a despot in the house, decrying finery as he dresses in silk, writing a manuscript no one may read, and admonishing his wife for any activity besides vacantly bolstering his ego.

When Tom stumbles upon Miss Tabula Rasa, the pleasure merchant’s apprentice, enlightenment floods the page and she steps onto the pedestal of protagonist. Because she is learning a career outside of social constructs, Tabula Rasa is able to break the rules, and despite the revolutionary times, there are many. Tom, seeing through the mirror of his own expectations, assumes “pleasure merchant’s apprentice” is synonymous to “prostitute,” compromised and without options. Smitten as much with Miss Rasa as the idea of “saving” her, he is blind to the unique liberties she enjoys. Her position is a favorable paradox in the Industrial Age — an orphan adopted into means, a woman and lover, financially independent and intellectually self-reliant. Tom’s efforts to protect her illuminate the contradictions of the era, and many of today. It is easy for Miss Rasa to take the lead, her ideologies are modern and her demeanor accepting. But as unknown ties to Dryden and the family of Tom’s employ collide with her comfortable present, Miss Rasa too must learn whether ignorance truly is bliss.

This noir recounting of a shop boy turned servant turned gentleman, more than one Pygmalion and several Galateas, is at once historical and crime fiction, a mystery with elements of horror and moments of romance, complete with scandals, villains, fringe science and social troglodytes. Masterfully employing every tense and seamlessly switching point of view from third omniscient to first, with a dash of second person for good measure, this is a playful story as well as a cautionary tale. It is a subtle portrait of human interaction, of the blurred lines that can separate, weave and even unravel fates.

While elegant, at times poetic, this is not a novel for those averse to adverbs or unable to stomach excessive ellipsis. It is a wet dream of well-used vocabulary with only a handful of departures from the parlance of the times. Decadent and smart, artistic without being pretentious, and completely captivating from start to finish, Tanzer’s The Pleasure Merchant is the very best sort of literature: a rare pleasure indeed.

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