Sunday, January 18, 2015

Bread and Circuses


Among the many books that I've given up on lately was The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. So many of my Goodreads peers had read it and given it rave reviews, that I hadn't even realized that it's a children's novel, and a fairly mediocre one at that.

Unlike Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, or even Something Wicked This Way Comes, both of which I've seen this favorably compared to, the supposed late 19th century setting doesn't affect either the characters or the plot. It reads more like a series of conversations between competing steampunk cos-players.

This probably would have been all right when I was 12 years old, but I find myself having no patience for fluffy "entertainment" as I get older. Perhaps this is my version of a mid-life crisis, but I need something more than pretty descriptions of circus tents and costumes.


I'm half-way through another "circus" book, Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus, which the author conveniently sets aside as Part One. I usually love her work, but I'm wavering a bit on this one and trusting the writer to actually take me somewhere.

The first half is set up as the life story of Sophie Fevvers, swan-winged circus acrobat, as being told to a visiting American reporter. Carter plays a lot with the authorial voice here, raising doubts about the veracity of the story as Fevvers' "cockney" dialect is infused with well-read references and the voices of other characters within her story.

And that voice is causing a slight problem for me. I think she's trying to get across the feel of a fairy tale, told in a modern voice, but popular literature has thoroughly absorbed this sort of "tough independent" female character to the point that it holds no surprise for me as a reader. Instead of hearing a riff on Eliza Doolittle, I'm reminded instead of Warren Ellis' Jenny Sparks, Back in 1986, Bette Midler was a shocking comedian, now she'd be a super-hero.

Still, I'm intrigued by her authorial tricks, and also by her dark portrayal of a Victorian culture that uses these Thumbelinas and Dust Witches as entertainment in a newly rational world. We'll see what the second half of our narrative holds as the circus heads to fin-de-siecle Russia.

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