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Circus of the Grand Design cover

These days, we expect our lives to be stories. Not great stories, necessarily, not grand or exotic adventures, but story-shaped, nonetheless, with character development and plot points and an arc. What we actually get is this:

All the long years of school provided an easy identifier for his life: Cheryl Moskowitz—tenth grade girlfriend; fight with that guy he couldn't remember the name of—eighth grade; he had read The Golden Sail his first year of college, finishing it late one night after studying for a history mid-term. But after college things blurred, months, years with nothing to hang onto them. (p. 36)

A right muddle, in other words. Meet little lost Lewis, thirty if he's a day, working in PR (for which he has an aptitude but not a talent) and an expert at travelling without moving. It's November and he's alone in drizzle, on his way to the coast for what would have been a romantic weekend if he hadn't just argued with his girlfriend. (He blames her "cold soul" for a lot, to start with; we know the chill is in Lewis.) The house he's renting turns out to be—of course—dark and damp and without a working phone and, quite by accident but without really caring, he burns it down.

Unwilling to report the incident, he finds himself hooking up with the enigmatic Joseph Dillon and his itinerant Circus of the Grand Design, partly to evade justice, partly because he finds circuses conveniently fascinating, and partly because it seems like his best shot at adventure. The Circus are a raggedy bunch, from the philosophical, lecherous juggler Garson Gold, to Bodyssia the giantess (and her performing capybaras), to Dawn and Leonara the elephant riders, to Cinteotl the chef and his exotic cuisine. Lewis has an excuse to meet and interview each of them in turn, and to tour the private train they call home, in the course of preparing biographical notes and other publicity material for the Circus's next tour.

So much for the slightly mechanical set-up of Robert Freeman Wexler's first novel. It quickly transpires that what Lewis has done is no less than jump feet-first down a rabbit hole. The train is gradually revealed as a place of claustrophobic and somewhat cruel strangeness. When it's in motion, the windows are blanked out by a milky translucence, and time seems to lose its grip on events; when it's not, it's inevitably arrived at a location that's not quite right. We work out almost immediately (it takes Lewis a little while longer) that it's traveling between worlds.

The members of the Circus, though, seem unfazed by any of these oddities. Indeed, more than one of Lewis's interviews takes a turn for the surreal; they often feel loaded, arcanely symbolic, in a manner reminiscent of (if somewhat earthier than) a story such as Zoran Zivkovic's "Compartments" (2004). In an attempt to regain a measure of certainty about the world, Lewis sets out to explore the train properly: measuring the size of each carriage, mapping the relation of each carriage to the next, marking events in his journal in an attempt to fix their reality, and so on. All he succeeds in doing is uncovering further oddities. The train is much bigger than it should be, for example; and his biographical sketches turn up, completed, and are hailed as a great success, without Lewis being able to remember writing them. After two-thirds of the book is done, the facts as Lewis knows them are:

1. The train visited places he had never known to exist;

a. when the train began transit, his stomach lurched;

b. the windows clouded

2. None of the other performers commented on any of this. (p. 190)

Lewis is frustrated by the paucity of his knowledge, and so are we. Events happen, but they seem somehow sodden; few of them connect satisfyingly, either with each other or with us. A succession of emotionally detached sex scenes do little to enliven the proceedings. More impressive is the strikingly savage sight of the Circus in full performance pomp, complete with the star attraction: Attis the mechanical horse. Lewis also finds himself haunted by someone who certainly acts like the lemon-fresh ghost of the Phrygian goddess Cybele; whether this is a result of boarding the train (as the name of the horse suggests) or the result of stealing a picture of the goddess from the burning house back at the start of the book is unclear. What does finally become clear is that if Lewis was looking for a story to hang on to, he's found one—or at least one has found him.

And as its claws close, so the novel becomes increasingly compelling, coming close to matching the sustained unease that distinguished Wexler's earlier novella "In Springdale Town" (2003). Lewis recognises the plot he's working through even as he enacts its stages: he finds himself drafted to ride Attis, he finds himself the vessel through which Cybele's fertility is passed to the other Circus members, and he starts to wake up:

Though the understanding came to him in a rush, as he fell the four or five feet from the loading dock, he knew that in a sense it had always been with him, locked up and unusable for conducting his life. And his rootless life was but a symptom of this buried awareness. In psychological terms, he was hidden from himself. (p. 224)

Watch out: hard landing ahead. It comes in a green and pleasant land, turned to a red and dusty land and then a grey and misty land by Lewis's actions, and it comes in the shape of a final confrontation with The End. If there is a tonal problem with the story's conclusion, it's only the sense that everyone we've been reading about except Lewis turns out to be entirely irrelevant. The members of the Circus are bit players in a story they never even know about: a procession of shadows and children designed only to nudge Lewis towards renewal. But they do get him there, and for Lewis and for us it's a renewal worth having. Things could have been a lot worse all around.

When he's not editing reviews for Strange Horizons, Niall Harrison can be found co-editing Vector, blogging, or writing reviews for various other venues. (He gave up on sleep a few weeks ago.)

Niall Harrison is an independent critic based in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK. He is a former editor of Strange Horizons, and his writing has also appeared in The New York Review of Science FictionFoundation: The International Review of Science Fiction, The Los Angeles Review of Books and others. He has been a judge for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and a Guest of Honor at the 2023 British National Science Fiction Convention. His collection All These Worlds: Reviews and Essays is forthcoming from Briardene Books.
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