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The Circus of Dr. Lao, reviewed by Mike Simanoff

Charles G. Finney's The Circus of Dr. Lao regularly shows up on various best-of lists and has remained in print fairly consistently since it was first published in 1935. The University of Nebraska Press reissued the book in April 2002 as part of their Bison Frontiers of Imagination series to the benefit of each and every reader of imaginative fiction.

The story covers a day in the life of Abalone, Arizona, during the Great Depression. It is not a normal day. A strange Chinese man has placed a flamboyant ad in the local paper promising a wondrous circus. No one knows how this man and his magnificent retinue have landed in Abalone.

But before the morning ends, citizens of the town are treated to a baffling parade featuring a sample of Dr. Lao's "unbiological" bestiary: Lao rides a wagon containing a sea serpent and pulled by a unicorn, and is joined by the mage Apollonius of Tyana, a bear that might be a Russian, an old satyr, the Golden Ass of Apuleius, and a "hound of the hedges" that is a perfect blend of flora and fauna.

But this is nothing. Despite the initial disappointment of the parade, Lao has told the town to expect a circus midway "replete with sideshows wherein were curious beings of the netherworld on display, macabre trophies of ancient conquests, resurrected supermen of antiquity." Lao has also promised a main event that would be beyond belief:

Before your eyes would be erected the long-dead city of Woldercan and the terrible temple of its fearful god Yottle. And before your eyes the ceremony of the living sacrifice to Yottle would be enacted: a virgin would be sanctified and slain to propitiate this deity who had endured before Bel-Marduk even, and was the first and mightiest and least forgiving of all the gods. Eleven thousand people would take part in the spectacle, all of them dressed in the garb of ancient Woldercan. Yottle himself would appear, while his worshippers sang the music of the spheres. Thunder and lightning would attend the ceremonies, and perhaps a slight earthquake would be felt. All in all it was the most tremendous thing ever to be staged under canvas.

This would not play well at Madison Square Garden. Indeed, it out-Barnums old P.T. himself.

Their curiosity stirred, and having very little else to do, the townspeople patronize the circus in the afternoon. Various citizens are teamed up with mythical creatures from diverse traditions -- chimera, werewolf, medusa, mermaid, sphinx, satyr -- in a series of vastly different encounters. A mere summary of the plot cannot do this book justice. The book is not about plot, not in the traditional sense -- climaxes are interrupted and desires left unconsummated, as when the satyr awakens the desires of a prudish schoolteacher. Most people are unchanged (with the exception, perhaps, of the one who gets turned to stone) and remain impudent, deceitful, and deceived. We are not privileged to judge what effect the wonders of the circus have on the town of Abalone. Finney does not allow for a moral analysis during the story and stops short of resolution.

The book may be faulted for its uneven pacing, though Finney builds on this effect to his great advantage by imbuing the speech of Dr. Lao and his serpent with jarring, shocking moments of comic (but not funny) patois in order to parlay the more provincial citizens of Abalone with their own expectations. But often readers are introduced to events with a great rush or a complacent reticence that feels awkward in a story too short and rooted to be labeled episodic or picaresque. Nonetheless, this unnatural narrative rhythm is entirely appropriate for a story in which magic assaults complacency. Perhaps most telling is the late revelation of the true nature of one Frank Tull, lawyer, the ultimate patchwork man of a type that has never been so well portrayed with the written word -- not by Mary Shelley, nor by William Gibson -- as by Finney.

The University of Nebraska Press is to be commended for reprinting the original surrealistic art of Russian-born (or bear?) Boris Artzybasheff. In Artzybasheff's smooth drawings are studies of chiaroscuro and grotesque, phantasmagoric ruminations on the text. An uninspired and utilitarian foreward by John Marco replaces that of Edward Hoagland in an earlier printing (Vintage, 1983), which is a shame, since Hoagland was an eloquent naturalist. In general, Finney's writing abounds with lizards, toads, brush, water -- as much of the natural as the supernatural.

The crowning achievement of The Circus of Dr. Lao is the catalogue. It is a parade of minutiae, explanations, and additional stories. It proves that good fantasy, like the devil, is in the details. The catalogue's coy moralism turns the book around and contextualizes the story. And it's great fun.

The catalogue is also a triumph of form. Why shouldn't speculative fiction have extra-textual experiments? Important books, full of substance and controversy, have always produced creative commentary, like the Talmud. Finney's catalogue helps preserve a tradition and forms a bridge to contemporary efforts such as J.G. Ballard's masterful index in War Fever and Jeff VanderMeer's "The Ambergris Glossary" in City of Saints and Madmen.

The influence of The Circus of Dr. Lao, however, has been wide, from Ray Bradbury's dark midwestern fantasies, to Tom Reamy's posthumous novel Blind Voices, published in 1979. There was even a movie in 1964, The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao, starring Tony Randall. The book holds its own today, as it blends in with the exciting changes taking place in imaginative writing. Like Dr. Lao's circus, it is full of magic, and exists outside the boundaries of time.


Copyright © 2003 Mike Simanoff

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Mike Simanoff lives and works in New York City. You can find out more about him at his website.

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