Sunday, December 11, 2011

Moll Flanders & the Beach

 Another entry written ripped from Owl's China's notebook:


Owl is back from the beach town of Sanya located on Hainan island, burnt brown and coated in a layer of sand and salt like a bad tempered margarita. In Sanya men walk around in straw hats and cotton shirts, and the woman wear dresses that bare their shoulders and float in the breeze. The streets are lined with vendors selling cheap hats, ice cream, and every fourth store sells fruit. In the fruit shops, the mangos are the size of coconuts, the coconuts are the size of watermelons and the watermelons are the size of God.

These are all merely roadside accessories; people go to Sanya for its beaches: the palm trees set against blue sky, the white sand, the endless rippling ocean that goes on and on—

Theoretically Owl adores beaches, diving in to the blessedly cool waters, bobbing along the waves, letting them roll you about as they please, getting coated in sticky salt water…getting sticky salt water up your nose, getting sand down your bathing suit, and then doing it again, and again, until you're nauseous from the salt water and sun, because still the ocean sparkles tantalizingly under the sun, like a length of silk God spilled across the earth, and for all of that, it's beauty is inaccessible.

You can plunge into the ocean's depths, swim out to the horizon, but eventually the need for land and air will reel you back to the shore. The ocean runs too deep, stretches too far to be fully understood, and because of this it exerts and inexorable pull on each and every person who chances to walk along its shores.

Owl finds this unbearably frustrating, and she is torn between wanting to build a cottage by the ocean side or to leave and never ever come back. She dealt in a more mundane way. She memorized seventy five Chinese characters. And then she rewarded herself with Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders which she'd been dying to read ever since she opened the cover page and read the full title:

The Fortunes and Misfortunes of Moll Flanders Who Was Born in Newgate , and during a life of continu'd Variety for Threescore Years a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her brother) Twelve years a thief, Eight Years a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv'd Honest and died a Penitent.

Owl anticipated delicious scandals full of lurid details. You have to give Defoe mad props for having the best imagination ever. He writes about people who wash up on deserted islands, or you know, felons who marry their brothers.

She was sorely disappointed. The events of Moll Flander's life may be scandalous, but Moll Flanders herself has the personality of a farmwife who has been dealt a rough hand in life. Moll is the practical side of any person you would meet on the street. She would like to earn her daily bread. She falls in love, but earning her daily bread takes precedence over love. Most of the emotional impact of her life is divorced from the reader by lots of details about her expenses. Defoe fleshes out a scene where a pregnant Moll is contemplating bigamy, with a table listing the midwife's charges.

If anything, Moll Flanders is an argument that morality is contingent upon situation. Pressed too hard, anyone might commit bigamy/prostitution/thievery etc.

Owl can't argue. Still, she felt cheated. She wanted scandal and she got a doctor's bill.   

After all, what is scandal? It's the moments in life where the bare facts are known, but the emotional landscape is not. The bare facts are usually ugly, stripped of cause and effect explanation, the emotional landscape can only be guessed at, and there you have it—scandal—something known and unknown and therefore absolutely delicious to pick apart.

For example:

They broke up because he cheated on her. With a penguin.

Scandalous. Ugly. Why? The cheating. The penguin. But not so scandalous when you learn that she had a massive crush on Cillian Murphy and she'd watch all Cillian Murphy movies back to back until he wanted to scream, so he started watching March of the Penguins and Happy Feet and then he went to the zoo and there was a penguin, and it was sleek, it was very lonely…alright, bestiality is still scandalous but Defoe could probably make it seem like ordinary business by discussing the exact negotiations the man made with the zookeeper to get a night with the penguin. ($50 for a night at a Motel 6, $30 for the cab from the zoo to the hotel, $400 for the zookeeper to turn a blind eye…)

In Moll Flanders Defoe committed the cardinal sin of fascinating writing. He stripped away the mystery from scandal and replaced it with the mundane.

Potentially on purpose, potentially to make a good point, but Owl was not appeased.

Owl put down Moll Flanders, somewhat disgusted and plunged back into the blinding blue ocean. There at least, mystery remains eternal.


  1. I wish I could write like you. I shall hopefully be on a ship somewhere between the near and far future and then I will really wish I could write like you because I will probably be documenting my experience. Just not so elegantly as you do.
    ~ Danceswithwaves

  2. You are entirely too good to me and I love you for it.

    Ahoy, what's this about a ship? For realz? For serious? Details! How/when/why/etc. DO document it! Please! I'm so excited for you, this is marvelous!

  3. I truly love your writing and you don't give yourself enough credit, which makes me sad -- so I try to do some of it for you. :)

    It's that sailing ship program I've been trying to become an instructor for, that I thought wasn't going to happen. But I ended up getting in contact with the president of the program who forwarded on my info to the people in charge of crew, so I may have just upped my chances of being an instructor (by, like, a million). *fingers crossed*
    ~ Danceswithwaves

  4. :)

    That is awesomely cool. Keeping all possible body parts crossed for you. Good luck and let me know how it goes!