Book Review: History of a Pleasure Seeker
by Richard Mason
Richard Mason burst on the literary scene back in 1999 with his debut novel The Drowning People, published when he was twenty-one. At the time, he was extremely handsome, thin, and well-spoken (he has perhaps the most stereotypically British British accent of any living writer), and as if that weren’t insult enough, his advance for the novel was reputedly immense. Little wonder, then, that the critics started hurling knives at the book as soon as it was unboxed. That reception didn’t stop it from becoming a financial success, and, in bitter retrospect, it doesn’t diminish the book’s undeniable skill and depth. In other words, it was the kind of literary debut that makes fat, middle-age authors gaze longingly at suicide manuals.
Other novels followed from Mason, and more importantly, other Masons followed, to dull the affront. Every season there’s a new phenomenon, and certainly the fact that a good-looking author got paid 100,000 pounds in 1999 for a literate gay novel seems more palatable when seen from the vantage point of a good-looking author getting paid $20 million in 2010 for a trilogy about vampires. And it didn’t hurt that Mason’s work kept getting better.
His latest novel, History of a Pleasure Seeker, is his best, an exuberantly luxurious tale set mostly in Belle Epoque Amsterdam and starring young Piet Barol, who’s an extremely handsome, muscular, well-spoken shark in the water, lately sprung from his provincial backwater and purely concentrated on acquiring the better things in life. Despite the novel’s title, the main focus of Piet’s energies isn’t pleasure but money – he’s smart enough to recognize it as the passport to the kinds of pleasures he wants (all very cosmopolitan in nature; unlike the book’s author, this character would never dream of spending a wonderful afternoon reading a book), and he’s self-controlled enough to work toward heaping piles of it rather than settle for less.
Barol is an exquisitely drawn character, the kind of protagonist Henry James would have created if he hadn’t been six different kinds of repressed (the actual Belle Epoque was wasted on its greatest connoisseur) – he’s Merton Densher, except gay and more aggressively for sale. He inserts himself into the lives of a wealthy Amsterdam family, interviewing with (and very subtly flirting with) the lovely wife, impressing the stern husband (by demanding more money), immediately smiting two of the house’s apparently requisite gay servants (the havoc Piet would have wrought at Downton Abbey can only be guessed), and settling down to the challenge of helping Egbert, the family’s troubled ten-year-old son, who’s very smart but refuses to leave the house, imagining supernatural entities he needs to appease.
Exploded into this refined setting like a canon shot, Piet gets to work immediately, and Mason consistently and skillfully works to deepen this main character into something truly memorable. Yes, Piet is mercenary – but he’s not heartless, and that’s a tricky combination to pull off. Mason fills him with an altruism-through-egotism which may not be entirely unfamiliar to our author:
Piet Barol had never yet turned on Egbert Vermeulen-Sickerts the totality of attention he had so far devoted to every other member of his family As he left Maarten’s office he felt exhilarated by the challenge of getting to the bottom of his mysteries. Piet had great faith in his ability to make people love him. He was not daunted by the layers of calcified sediment that separated Egbert’s humanity from the world beyond it.
While Piet’s upstairs endeavors are meeting with success, his downstairs escapades are steadily heating up. The younger of the two servants attracted to him, Didier, feels the same thing all his employers do about Piet: that he represents a chance for something new, that he’s an opportunity that might not come again and therefore must be seized even at great risk. Piet himself tirelessly works to convey this impression while also stalling it and manipulating to serve his purposes. Mason counteracts the narrative coldness of such a stance by periodically giving us scenes – always written with a precise, beautiful concision – in which Piet is somehow not in control, either drunk or seen from afar or, here, asleep and impossibly alluring in the moonlight:
Didier went straight to Piet’s room. He was horny enough not to mind much about the future.Piet was lying on his bed, shirt and trousers on the floor, head back, mouth open. He was fast asleep. The moon’s light caught his profile and shadowed the indentations of his powerful body. He was snoring lightly and twitching as he dreamed. A longing to kiss him stole over Didier, but again he resisted it.
History of a Pleasure Seeker almost never stops with resisted longings, however (another freedom James might have envied), and hapless Didier is drawn on by inferred encouragements very similar to those the waking Piet might make:
He sat down on the bed, suddenly tired. Piet muttered in his sleep and turned on his side, pulled his thick, hairy legs under him. The movement struck Didier as an invitation, as though Piet half sensed his presence and was making space for him. He took off his shirt and lay down beside him. He pressed his shoulder against Piet’s back. He could feel the warmth of Piet’s body and smell the cigar smoke in his hair; see the pimple on the back of his neck, the imperfection that made him perfect. And though the darkness had begun to spin he fell into a deep and easeful sleep.
In the novel’s later section, Piet and Didier find themselves aboard the luxury liner Eugenie, whose sybaritic pleasures (all available for a price) are trotted out by Mason in a somewhat ham-fisted maneuver meant to signify, Titanic-style, all the glories of this doomed age. To Didier the ship is a magic kingdom existing between harsh realities, and every day spent on board is one more opportunity to somehow possess this magnificent tempter who has derailed his life:
The sight of Piet Barol in bathing drawers heightened Didier’s sense of urgency. They had only eight more days in this world-no-world on the ocean; the approaching shore threatened everything. It was a calm day. Ropes and swings had been attached to the ceiling to be climbed up and dived from. Piet made rather a display of himself, climbing hand over hand halfway to the roof, the muscles in his back writhing like serpents; knotting the rope around his feet; diving down again.
His performance drew applause. He had a steam in the Turkish hamman and then a dip in the iced plunge pool. By the time he reentered the changing room, his body was red and tingling.
Mason aptly characterizes this furtive pairing as “at once intimately joined and quite alone,” and he’s perhaps more right than he knows: the removal of the action from the Vermeulen-Sickert house and the addition of Didier’s soddenly smitten point of view have the curious and entirely unwanted effect of turning Piet from an enthralling operator to just another enviable bauble – he loses dimension as the book progresses. One could wish Mason had been satisfied centering the whole novel around the seduction of that one Amsterdam family (and the confrontation with the little boy’s demons); once the scene changes, some essential tension snaps.
But even so, History of a Pleasure Seeker is a big, confident accomplishment and a sure sign of even greater things to come. The only down-side of lowering yourself into the heated bath of this book’s prose is likely to be the rude shock of leaving it for the starker twangings of most current ‘literary fiction’ today.