Friday, February 20, 2015

Nights at the Circus, Part Three


(goodreads.com)

Magical Realism is a curious thing. It asks the reader to accept things that are "out of place" in the narrative, but that the characters take in stride. It is a test of our ability to believe whatever the narrator is telling us.

'Look, love,' I says to him, eventually, because I'm not in the mood for literary criticism. 'If I hadn't bust a wing in the train-wreck, I could fly us all to Vladivostok in two shakes, so I'm not the right one to ask questions of when it comes to what is real and what is not, because, like the duck-billed platypus, half the people who clap eyes on me don't believe what they see and the other half thinks they're seeing things.

Even in the more fantastic genre categories, there is an expectation of internal consistency.  When things just happen we are placed in the realm of fairy tale, the realm of story-teller and dream-weaver. But as Alice asked, who exactly is dreaming who?

Fevvers felt that shivering sensation which always visited her when mages, wizards, impresarios came to take away her singularity as though it were their own invention, as though they believed she depended on their imaginations in order to be herself. She felt herself turning, willy-nilly, from a woman into an idea.

And this is what our heroine Fevvers has become in the last third of the book; she's lost control of the carefully-constructed narrative of her life. The circus train has derailed and all is helter-skelter. She is no longer Scheherazade staving off death, stopping time through story-telling, but has started to age.

So, as Walser recovered from the amnesia that followed the blow on his head, he found himself condemned to a permanent state of sanctified delirium -- or, would have found himself condemned, if he had been presented with any other identity but that of the crazed As it was, his self remained in a state of limbo.

Jack Walser also ages, growing an impressive grey beard in the process, due to the influence of the tribe who have brought him in as a shaman's apprentice. Or, we should say, the influence of a different kind of time affecting an ancient way of life. This year's mid-winter festival brings with it the turn of a new century, and the threat of the modern, progressive world. And so we have two main characters without the protection of their fiction-suits, facing the ravages of narrative time.

It was a panopticon she forced them to build, a hollow circle of cells shaped like a doughnut, the inward-facing wall of which was composed of grids of steel and, in the middle of the roofed, central courtyard, there was a round room surrounded by windows. In that room she'd sit all day and stare and stare and stare at her murderesses and they, in turn, sat all day and stared at her.

There is a wonderful aside set in a prison for females who have murdered their husbands. The black widow warden spins in her chair all day, watching her wards for signs of penance. Today, we are probably over-familiar with Foucault's take on Panopticism as a model for a society where all information is controlled, but Carter shows this type of prison as imperfect. Her Russian prison falls apart when the guards silently fall in love with their prisoners, through slight gestures of touch and messages written with bodily fluids.

A miracle of frail violets, frost-nipped and pale, the colour of tired eyelids, yet big with perfume and optimism, were in full bloom among the sheltered roots of the big pine. Violets!

 The Panopticon was just another attempt to stifle time's flow, and so fails. The long, arctic winter has to give way to the shaft of light coming from the first sunlight of the year. And the stories woven by the virgin to stave off the king have to come to an end.
  'We told you no other lies nor in any way strayed from the honest truth. Believe it or not, all that I told you as real happenings were so, in fact; and as to questions of whether I am fact or fiction, you must answer that for yourself!'
The book itself is an attempt to keep the reader strung along in a fiction that benefits it's main characters in that they don't have to face change. Every focus on a secondary story gives Fevvers and Walser another opportunity to avoid the implications of coming together and forming a new narrative. It's a novel-as-prison, framed in an argument brought to the fore in second wave feminism.

'And, when you do find the young American, what the 'ell will you do, then? Don't you know the customary endings of the old comedies of separated lovers, misfortune overcome, adventures among outlaws and savage tribes? True lovers' reunions always end in a marriage.'

 As fictional men are often portrayed as having to sacrifice a bit of their individuality, their masculinity, when entering into a marriage with a woman, Fevvers has to face her own loss of identity. As a modern woman, the story she tells of her life is one of self-reliance, of meeting men on their own terms. She isn't a princess waiting to be rescued, but even with role-reversal, this fairy tale still seems intent on ending in marriage. The question raised by Carter seems to be whether the narrative of female independence can be as stifling as that of housewife-in-training. The answer seems to hinge on whether "modern" men can be created to match the give-and-take of a modern woman.

And then she saw he was not the man he had been or would ever be again; some other hen had hatched  him out. For a moment, she was anxious as to whom this reconstructed Walser might turn out to be.

And so the second function of this novel would be to weave a story that can communicate to men the position that women find themselves in. Our waltzing Walser was doubtful from the beginning about the veracity of feathered Fevvers life story; by joining the circus and having his own narrative re-built from the ground up,  he may just be able to meet her as an equal.

'That's the way to start the interview! she cried. 'Get out your pencil and we'll begin!'

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