Friday, April 6, 2012

Dreams of a Night at the Circus

*****Author's note- I finished this book a month ago, and I hand-wrote the review.  It's taken me that much time to get it posted.  Sorry for the delay.  Hopefully I will have the next one posted tomorrow.*****

 I got one of my favorite types of presents from a coworker at Christmas- a new book!  Everyone roll their eyes in shock.  It's a lovely hardback copy of Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus.  Even more interesting though, is that this same coworker is the one who lent me the Juliet Marillier books.  Both my coworker and Juliet Marillier have raved about this story; such a small world!  Personally, I think they were right to be excited about it.  Magic, mystery, murder, all in a post-Victorian Europe (and well, the US too, for parts).  It's awesome!  Rich on description, but not overly flowery, with a subtlety that you're more likely to find in theater pieces.  Anything can happen in the Night Circus; your dreams unfold before your very eyes.

Two magicians disagree on a philosophical point.  To settle the debate, they each train a student, who then are expected to compete in a prolonged duel, much like a game of chess.  But a matter of paradigm difference and one-upmanship gradually become a collaboration, and then a dance.  Instead of wearing one another down, the students hold each other up, building upon each other's creations.  The end result is a realm of beauty and magic, where the line between illusion and reality is blurred, and possibilities live and breathe.  However, the love they find together threatens all those involved, and the game must have an end....

I'm going to do something a bit heretical here and compare a book to a movie.  The cardinal rule that the book is (almost) always superior to the movie is something I agree with; my imagination can always create better special effects.  However, by giving this comparison, I hope to give you the reader a better understanding of the mood and setting in this book.  If you have seen the movie The Illusionist with Edward Norton and Jessica Biel, then you will have an easier time understanding this novel.  (I actually envision one of the magicians in the book looking and sounding a lot like Rufus Sewell's character from that movie).  If you have not seen this movie, I highly suggest it, though it is not necessary to see it before reading this book.  Much like this movie, the author does a very good job of creating an air of mystery, the idea of seen-but-not-understood-at-the-time.  I'll come back to that thought in just a minute; for now, let's continue with the atmosphere of the story.

The time period of the book is the late 19th century.  It was a time of both suffocating social order and unprecedented universal change.  One really could change social standing and wealth with wit and opportunity.  Opportunities were seemingly endless.  The concept of a self-made person came to define the national goal of several countries.  Using this mood to her advantage, the author creates an atmosphere that possibility is imminent reality.  To give this feeling a concrete basis, she uses the medium of live performances.  At a time when live performance is the most common form of entertainment for all members of the populace, the use of a circus as a stage for a magicians duel is brilliant.  A live performance is an organic thing, a truly living entity of its own.  It is wholly dependent on the symbiotic relationship of the performer and the audience.  The performance brings the audience's imagination to life, and in return the audience fuels the performance with their very presence.  Without an audience, a performance is theory without application.  The author does an amazing job of showing this relationship; those patrons of the circus that are truly inspired by it are made into an informal network that describes their own experiences to others, as well as keeping track of the whereabouts of the circus.  Altogether appropriately, they call themselves Les Reveurs, The Dreamers, for it is the stuff of dreams that the circus, and therefore the author, brings to life.

To that end, the author makes an interesting philosophical note.  With this story she states that mystery is a necessary goad to stimulate innovation.  One cannot dream of possibilities if the situation is clear and resolved.  Conflict and mystery provide the opening necessary for people to imagine new solutions and be open to all possibilities.  Without knowing where the walls are, a room can look and be almost anything.  To illustrate this point, the author provides us with a masterpiece of clockwork, a definitive symbol of the circus itself.  Throughout the day it changes from one color to another, shapes coming and going.  It's cyclical, and yet it also seems to point to all possibilities.  The same can be said of the rides and other amusements in the circus, specifically the attractions created by both mages. 

Now, I don't normally read other reviews before I write my own, but this time I was interested to see what detractors had to say.  It helped to provide focus, an exercise in defining my own thoughts by contrasting them against other opinions.  Two notes were continually voiced, and I felt compelled to rebut them.  The first detraction is that the romantic side of the story was flat.  The second was that the author broke the cardinal rule of creative writing, "show, not tell".  I think in this case, the author's subtlety went under the radar; readers could not believe the showing, because it seemed like telling with all the dialogue.

The author chose a difficult viewpoint, or rather, she used an uncommon one.  Third person limited is more common in theater; you have to watch the interaction to gain insight into the thoughts and feelings of the characters.  As a viewpoint, it is uncommon in a novel, because the author has to let the reader imagine the interaction for themselves and let the dialogue stand on its own.  Third person omniscient is more common, because the author can then describe all the thoughts and feelings of the characters, without having to rely on the readers' imaginations.  By using this limited voice, the author created the symbiotic relationship of a live performance within the realm of a static object, echoing the theme of the book.

As a way to show the subtlety of human interaction, the author does something creative- she uses a multitude of characters, and she switches setting often, once again echoing the movement and flow of a live performance.  If the people around us reflect portions of who we are, then the more people looking at us, the better we can see ourselves.  The myriad personalities in the book are like prisms, reflecting back aspects of the two main characters.  What they don't say for themselves seems to be played out by others.  The multiplicity of people, places, and times is also how the author builds the mystery of the circus and the events that shape the outcome.  Like a burlesque dancer with ostrich-plumed fans, the audience never fully sees all that happens.  You're left with glimpses of identity, insinuating images, and dreamlike locations.  Much like The Illusionist (or Usual Suspects for that matter), everything is in plain sight, but you only get fragments of the whole picture.  For some, this might seem like the author is "telling" and not "showing"; she illuminates each fragment, but it is up to the reader to light the whole picture before the end.  The depth of description and bold imagery in a way acts as camouflage to the dialogue.  Your mind's eye keeps lingering on the texture of the setting, so that you are only giving half an ear to the conversation.  It's the author's slight-of-hand at work.  You can't see the plot steaming forward because you're caught up in the imaginative playground she has created.

The other criticism against this story was the romance aspect, namely that some reviewers felt it was lacking.  I don't think they were paying attention.  There are a few points to this that I'd like to discuss.  First, the two main characters seemed to have limited contact with each other.  For almost half the story, one did not know the other supposed to be the challenger.  This entire romance operated like a lot like a modern long distance relationship, given how little they got to be together.  Secondly, the setting has its impact on the unfolding of this romance.  In keeping with the time and place of the story, the author writes the development of love with an eye to the post-Victorian era.  The modesty of the commentary exchanged goes a bit against the modern sensibilities; we expect love stories to be a bit more vulgar.  I don't mean crude; I mean that we expect to hear outright how people feel, with open displays of affection, and descriptions of bodily reactions.  Instead, the author has to show us, through the characters limited interaction and the voice of the time, how much impact they have on each other.  Given the limited scope of the viewpoint, that's quite a job, and she pulls it off well.  She uses the rich imagery of the circus to illustrate how the feelings of the characters evolve, and the impact they have on each other.  They build new attractions within the circus, making a waltz out of a duel to the death.  The energy between them literally brightens a room, making lights flare.  As the characters grow through the story, they become each other's perfect complement, one fitting the other like a dovetail joint.  The result is beautiful symmetry, something that many of us aspire to within our own partnerships.

There were a couple of mysteries I did not solve in the course of reading this novel, which means I'll just have to reread it at some future date.  Overall, I felt this story was very moving, and the author did a phenomenal job of creating a piece of theater within the covers of a book.  I actually hope they do make this into a movie; I think that Neil Burger, director of The Illusionist could bring this story to life in such a way as to be a credit to the book.  Until then, je suis une reveure.....

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