" ... my pride, not my principle, my money, not my virtue, kept me honest... "
The copy of Moll Flanders that I read --a Modern Library issue, from 1
" ... my pride, not my principle, my money, not my virtue, kept me honest... "
The copy of Moll Flanders that I read --a Modern Library issue, from 1985-- has the most perfect rendition of the heroine I have seen. A library copy and purely a random chance, but there she is--in wood-cut, in all her disheveled, coarsely hedonistic splendor. One high-buttoned boot hooked up high on the arm of some couch, Moll Flanders, consummate whore. Or hussy, or harlot, or maybe floozy, but it is most often as "whore" that she describes herself in the book.
Legs akimbo, petticoats raked up above the knee, torso slunk back into a chaise curtained away from the too-inquisitive glance, there she sits, or slinks. A drink in one hand and the other somewhere south of that, having just wrested up the skirts to focus the mind of the onlooker, a haughty wench. Sensual lips and dreamy, soporific eyelids say indiscriminate promiscuity, abandon.
And that brings us to the peculiar nature of the book. Meant in one way to appear as a cautionary tale, that idea clearly got lost in the early going, and the theme exists now as a parable of playing the odds with one's own moral compass. What might have begun as using taboo and shame as a commercial draw for a book (that generally would proceed from lusty jeopardy to regret and repentance, ala Pamela or similar)-- seems to have gone toward something darker, or maybe more concise-- a blithe disregard for moral lines and boundaries.
Peculiar also because, well, Defoe was more than 60 when he wrote this, anonymously, and it spares pretty much no category, in an early 18th century sort of way, of female sexual experience, from exploration to solicitation, to childbirth and further complexities. And that's a kind of a weird mindset for a sixty year old male-- an already successful novelist, having penned Robinson Crusoe by then- to want to inhabit. Moll isn't sexy, and she's not even coldly calculating; she is enthusiastically, relentlessly calculating. Any given page stands the chance of having an actual pounds and shillings accounting, for those interested in following the ongoing balance.
Speaking of time, for Defoe time is always a flirtation with eternity. Every consideration, every proposition that comes along must be subjected to Defoe's triangulating, dithering, re-litigating scrutiny until the reader wishes that Moll would do anything, rash or considered, just to get out of that paragraph. More than a period affectation, Defoe is really transfixed by his own ability to recant the same situation in every degree possible and then repeat the process. Surely this was written for the penny-dreadful marketplace, but really-- pace must have mattered, even there..?
"...being now, as it were, a woman of fortune though I was a woman without a fortune, I expected something or other might happen in my way that might mend my circumstances, as had been my case before... Bath is a place of gallantry enough; expensive and full of snares. I went thither, indeed, in the view of taking anything that might offer, but I must do myself justice, as to protest I knew nothing amiss; I meant nothing but in an honest way, nor had I any thoughts about me at first that looked the way which afterwards I suffered them to be guided. Here I stayed the whole latter season, as it is called there, and contracted some unhappy acquaintances, which rather prompted the follies I fell afterwards into, than fortified me against them..."
An interesting aspect of the book is the treatment of criminals being 'transported' for their crimes to the colonies; some unseen true-to-period ironies there. Still, while we're on the quibbles, there is much missing from this picture, detail and atmosphere aren't really served in any substantial sense, perhaps like many pulp efforts. Strangely there are no chapters or breaks in the book, and many many characters go unnamed. Children, husbands, protectors and antagonists must be remembered only as generic cogs in the storyline; this seems way too much the Allegory treatment, considering the flaws in the equation.
One more great white lie to be gotten out of the way before we conclude. For some reason Moll Flanders seems to enjoy this 'foundational feminist document' status in literature; not so much for the outcome, or even the wisdom of the proceedings, but for the fact that a female is seen to be exerting some control for once. But Defoe is an odd man, writing an odd book, at once exploitative, presumably profitable, anonymous and free of any responsibility for the outward ripple of feminine blameworthiness and culpability that it certainly narrates.
The character of Moll Flanders is devious and mean-spirited; her actions are a carefully crafted disguise of commission and omission always meant to set her at a safe remove from discovery. As readers we are deceived by the nearness of the narration, the page-to-page trial and danger that Moll must endure, in her chosen vocation. Which is to say pickpocket, shakedown artist, confidence-woman, whore and liar. Very much the opposite of the true innocent, the agreeably amiable mistress of the fortuitous bluff or timely wink that she'd like to have us believe in.
Defoe's thesis, that life is always brutal, always extracts innocence, forces guile, and proceeds toward cataclysm -- comes down to a simple summation. And that is, basically: getting over, and not getting caught. Even for a penny-dreadful, that's really not much of a resolution. The book lurches directly for disaster, but in the spirit of all such tales, ends on a sunny, happy note. WTF. Moll Flanders, you are no Molly Bloom, girl.
Pressure Drop Weirdish, drifty tour of turn-of-century London, a future-now drama where everything is wound a little too tightly for words. Which is fiPressure Drop Weirdish, drifty tour of turn-of-century London, a future-now drama where everything is wound a little too tightly for words. Which is fine, as we are subject here to nothing less than harrowing, relentless, millennial dread, and at epidemic levels.
War Ina Babylon Ballard wants to do --surprise-- a world out of balance, that creaks and shrieks and runs off the tracks wherever it possibly can. On the one hand a millennial, 9-11-adjacent dystopia, and on the other an older author's disaffectionate look at a generation and country no longer remotely his own.
Because it is Ballard, though, we have a layered contradiction of themes, counterbalanced by a fairly direct storyline and lucid prose that carries us along. And we'll need it, with our endlessly gullible narrator, a compulsive, chronic empath who seems intentionally to miss the likely motive at hand. This leaves the reader to assemble a more-plausible storyline, and hope that the narrator catches on. Which is a fairly unwieldy method of having the tail wag the dog.
There Is No Guidance In Your Kingdom Simply put, the situation is that the middle classes have decided to revolt against their own milieu, their own stylish urban satisfactions and lifestyle. Condos burn, Volvos are piled into barricades, targets for 'actions' are considered, but only if they are truly meaningless enough. The Tate Modern and the National Film Theatre (pandering as it does to rosy Shepperton/Ealing hollywoodisms) are selected as faux-culture targets to be firebombed. Even Travel Agencies are terrorized:
"Tourism is the great soporific. It's a huge confidence trick, and gives people the dangerous idea that there's something interesting in their lives. It's musical chairs in reverse. Every time the muzak stops people stand up and dance around the world, and more chairs are added to the circle, more marinas and Marriott hotels, so everyone thinks they're winning... All the upgrades in existence lead to the same airports and resort hotels, the same piña colada bullshit. The tourists smile at their tans and their shiny teeth and think they're happy. But the suntans hide who they really are--salary slaves, with heads full of American rubbish. Travel is the last fantasy of the 2oth Century left us, the delusion that going somewhere helps you reinvent yourself."
Who The Cap Fit, Let Him Wear It Virtually everyone in the novel is enmeshed in some collective millennial crisis, preoccupied with everyone else's pathology, as they see it from their privileged perch in society. One keeps waiting for the sting in the tail, the poisonous element that, well, never really comes.
The incongruous business at hand, with the entitled classes in flagrant opposition to their own values, really never settles as a possibility. The comfortable, Range-Rovered new-urbanites tending their adulterous affairs and helicoptering their children-- have no poison in them, and offer no conceivable threat. I kept having the feeling that the ladies of Ab-Fab might take on this revolution, bottles of Stoli and cartons of Dunhills at the ready, but that it might be difficult to have it catch on.
And so it proves, in spite of the author's better efforts to try and wind the whole thing up-- by having all of it, the revolution, the recognition of the falseness of the surroundings, the dread-- attempt to eat its own tail. Narratively speaking. (perhaps dangled in clarified butter and followed on by a chilled flute of something seasonal, citrusy and white...)
Get Up, Stand Up After the cataclysmic build, it tries the patience of the faithful class-warrior really, to think that Ballard would just drop the onslaught, the confrontation at the barricades, and just tuck it all safely into bed for the evening. But reader, he does just that. ...more