It has been said of young adult fiction that much of the appeal for a writer lies in the act of reduction, in stripping their young protagonist of everything that makes the world familiar or comfortable for him or her—parents, siblings, a home, a country even—and then exploring through the means of story how that protagonist will deal with and eventually overcome such bereavements and progress to adulthood. Such a wholesale rendering down can be trickier to accomplish in general fiction. An adult protagonist usually has greater agency within and a fuller understanding of the world in which the story takes place, more experience, and more ties to society. Short of providing your characters with a full-blown apocalypse to deal with, the sense of loneliness that is the bedrock of much of the most affecting YA literature can be harder to contrive. One way of achieving this is to create a microcosm of alienation, a world within the world, where pettier jealousies can stand in for more far-reaching conflicts, and where the monstrous, the illicit, and the fantastic become instantly credible by virtue of being so specifically localized. As a venue for the exaggerated, the excessive, and the arcane, it is easy to see why circus has proved such a popular backdrop for so many memorable narratives, especially within the canon of the fantastic.
The childhood fantasy of "running away with the circus" will be familiar to many, and the circus in literature is often a working out of such dreams of escape. People in books join the circus because they want their world to end, and as the catch-all home of the disenfranchised, the malcontent, the destitute, and the disadvantaged, of freaks both singularly disabled and preternaturally gifted, the traveling carnival provides a ready-made, self-contained universe of strangeness that is instantly recognizable and with a useful number of preexisting tropes and character types. The writer may add individual embellishments, but he or she can feel confident at the outset that many of the difficulties of building a world from scratch have been removed.
Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust (1939) is set on the fringes of the Hollywood movie industry rather than in the circus as such, but the narrative, populated as it is by dropouts and freaks united mainly through their desire to make it big, has much in common with later novels that are more specifically circus-based and could be said to be their progenitor. William Gresham's 1946 noir Nightmare Alley, inspired by the author's acquaintance with an ex-carnival worker during the Spanish Civil War, is one of the first modern circus narratives. The novel portrays the itinerant lifestyle of sideshow performers as a constantly fermenting cocktail of violence and uncertainty. Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962) famously reveals the dangers of giving up what you know in favor of what you dream of. With its intertwining of nostalgia for vanished childhood with some of the more sinister aspects of adult-child relationships, it has proved a model of inspiration for later writers. Circus novels are now numerous enough to classify as a sub-genre.
Stories about the circus have tended to center themselves around three core plot dynamics: a "normal" protagonist running away to join the circus (Something Wicked This Way Comes, Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus , Patricia Geary's Strange Toys , Will Elliot's The Pilo Family Circus ), escalating rivalries among the company threatening to tear the circus apart from within (Katherine Dunn's Geek Love , Tod Browning's 1932 film Freaks, Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus , Cecil B. DeMille's 1952 movie The Greatest Show on Earth), or a destructive, predatory, or competitive force from outside threatening the circus's existence (Karen Russell's Swamplandia! , Genevieve Valentine's Mechanique , Kim Lakin Smith’s Cyber Circus ). The circus has featured so often now in literature and film that even the most gifted writer would find themselves hard pressed to bring even a scrap of originality to a circus story of any kind, and especially to that kind of story that is "about circus" as opposed to merely being set there. Any writer wishing to avoid falling prey to this cycle of repetition must necessarily take it upon themselves not so much to reinvent the wheel as to invent something else, something to talk about other than the wonder and alienation of a life spent learning to perform bizarre acts within the confines of a secretive and closed community.
For the speculative writer, the immediate temptation is to base the action on another planet, or in an alternate reality, but this once innovative approach has proved so attractive it is itself rapidly becoming a core part of the canon. Some writers have found a greater power and interest in stripping the circus of its glittery trappings. Hilary Mantel's novels The Giant, O'Brien (1998) and Beyond Black (2005) could be described as circus novels without the circus, as could Patrick McGrath's Martha Peake (2000), all narratives of non-normative experience in a normative world.
I was first attracted by Chandler Klang Smith's new circus novel Goldenland Past Dark because its premise seemed to suggest that the author had found another similarly interesting new angle on carnival narrative. Goldenland Past Dark is set in the 1960s, setting it immediately apart from other, more traditionally retro-feel circus novels. Webern "Bernie" Bell, disfiguringly crippled in a childhood accident, is driven to escape an increasingly unhappy adolescence by joining the embryonic old-time carnival of Dr Schoenberg. Dr Show, as he is known to all, discerns in Bernie a talent for clowning, and promises him a magical new life in this the noblest of the theatrical professions. He adapts quickly to life on the road, finding fellowship with Brunhilde the bearded lady, Al the giant, and Vlad and Fydor the conjoined twins, and eventually love with Nepenthe, a young woman with reptilian scales whose real first name is Eliza. The cast of characters is long familiar from other circus novels. Each character is deftly evoked, but when we look for something new here we don't really find it. I had hoped to see Smith making full use of her 1960s setting to explore such themes as the decline of circus in the post-war era, the impact of more modern forms of media entertainment on the lives of artists who depend on centuries-old skills to make a living. But for its first 150 pages, Goldenland Past Dark is not so much a story about the shock of the new as a traditional "running away with the circus" tale that could equally have been set half a century earlier.
This problem is compounded when we consider the fact that Smith seems so wrapped up in painstakingly evoking the already-very-familiar ambiance of circus that she forgets to enliven her actual story with any genuine sense of narrative tension. Part One of the novel opens with an altercation between Dr Show and Mars Boulder, a sword swallower who seems intent on destroying Schoenberg because of a long-running feud over a stolen sword. Boulder is subdued by a blow to the head and left unconscious. The company makes a run for it, abandoning their scheduled list of performances and skipping from one obscure town to the next in a procession of declining audiences. A hundred pages later and with no clear story emerging they have a minor run-in with the law and once again find themselves on the run. The cycle of events repeats itself. Now halfway through the novel, we cannot avoid the sense that nothing has happened.
Equally confounding to me was the novel's tendency to slither away from its historical background. There are frequent references to Brunhilde's life in Germany prior to World War II. She carries her few possessions in a suitcase shellacked all over with photographs of the destruction of Dresden, where she lived with her family, and her constant harping on this atrocity makes her unpopular with the rest of the company. Yet for the purposes of this narrative Smith seems to have forgotten the existence of the Nazis and the actual pre-war conditions inside the Germany they terrorized:
She had lost the crowds that would pay any price to see her long ago, in the firebombing. She had also lost her glockenspiel and her teacher’s metronome, the stages on which she’d danced—the Grimms' Tales and the cuckoo clock, the kid gloves and the dainty suede boots, the thick carved headboard of her childhood bed with its scenes of villagers sleeping. (p. 104)
This idealized, fairytale evocation of pre-war Germany would seem odd in any circumstance. The fact that Brunhilde herself, with her very visible genetic abnormality, would most likely have found herself among the Nazis' first victims, makes it even more so. Similarly, towards the end of Part One, Dr Show tells Bernie the story of his life, his glorious past as a magician on the European carnival scene:
"Europeans have a flair for spectacle, you see. When I arrived, my notions of theatre came primarily from the vaudeville houses of my youth. But in Europe, theatre is everywhere. Mimes perform on street corners, puppet theatres dot the marketplace, and Shakespeare’s words echo in the public square. . . . I first visited London and the British Isles, then travelled onto the continent. In the Basque country I joined a clan of gypsies, posing as a marriageable suitor for their daughter." (p. 133)
This feels to me more like "The Pied Piper of Hamelin" than 1920s Europe under hyper-inflation. Aside from a passing reference to Tod Browning, there is nothing in Part One of the novel that acknowledges that Goldenland Past Dark is supposed to be a narrative of the modern era, and what it reminds me of most of all is the sepia-tinted, inevitably nostalgic atmosphere of the widely enjoyed HBO TV series Carnivàle. There is much that is attractive in such nostalgia, perhaps, but for me it is an attractiveness that appears too solidly derivative.
The second half of the novel feels rather different, and it would seem it is here that Smith finally becomes alive to the possibilities of her subject matter. As calamity follows calamity, Dr Show's circus succumbs to the powers of entropy and when a larger, more successful circus shows up in town at the end of Part One, Bernie and Nepenthe and Show's other remaining performers accept the inevitable and defect. Part Two of the novel opens some five years later. Bernie is now a successful clown, well paid and with his own traveling compartment which he shares with Nepenthe. Nepenthe is also successful, one of the chief attractions in the Parliament of Freaks. But it's not just the characters' fortunes that have changed. The texture of time itself seems to have altered. The high romanticism and sepia-tinted shadows are gone. Here at last are the brash colors and moral freedoms of the 1960s. The new circus is a business like any other, and its performers ply their wares with a determined professionalism and the worldly cynicism to match:
There were no children here. These performers got divorced, cashed their paycheques, talked about joining the army or quitting the sauce or going back to school. They visited the doctor, an old man who'd once botched a nose job and now worked out of a seedy bunk with a 1958 calendar on the wall and a trash can full of bloody gauze; they went to the funeral for the guy from the motorcycle cage, who’d died not from a burst tyre but from diabetes. Even on sunny days, walking around this circus gave Webern the feeling of being inside a thin grey cloud. (p. 150)
The atmosphere here has a raunchy reality that I found infinitely preferable to the idealized melancholy of the first half. Freed from its too-familiar backdrop, the characterization also acquires more clarity and sense of purpose. All the more pity then that these positive developments are once again stymied by the author's mishandling of plot. No sooner do we begin to enjoy the banter and rattle of coinage on clown alley than we are sent off on a pilgrimage to visit Bernie's dying grandmother. We've had hints of Bernie's troubled past before—his accident, his mother's post-natal depression and premature death, the reign of terror exerted over him by his weird twin sisters. Part Two of the novel, it now transpires, will not be a circus story after all, so much as a series of revelations about the circumstances that brought Bernie to run away with the circus in the first place. As a narrative choice this need not have been a problem—only here it is, because the story has been bifurcated too much already. One particularly odd revelation has to do with Bernie's name. As his grandmother explains, Bernie's father Raymond has not been entirely honest about his past, specifically the role he played as an American soldier in Germany in the aftermath of World War Two:
"Your father wasn’t a war hero. . . . He was a fry cook in the mess hall. . . . Raymond took an assignment with the military police to catch some local toughs, men in the black market. He wanted a story to take home with him, I expect. . . . From what I understand, he was told to wait outside for trouble. That boy never could handle a weapon. When a stranger walked out, he shot without seeing. The man died on the spot. The worst of it was though, the man was a professor—wrote music—had nothing to do with the black market at all. Raymond was torn up, of course. . . . He named you after the man he’d killed. He believed you were his last chance to make right." (pp. 186-7)
Any reader with an interest in the history of twentieth-century classical music will already have taken note of Bernie's full first name. They will probably know also that one of the fathers of twelve-tone music, the Austrian composer Anton Webern, was indeed killed by a single bullet in a case of mistaken identity by a US army cook named Raymond Bell. (The real Raymond Bell took to drink through remorse at his action and died, as a result of his alcoholism, in 1955.) Smith clearly has an interest in classical music—a writer doesn't name her characters Webern and Schoenberg through idle chance. Why she has taken the decision to introduce this theme, yet failed utterly to develop it, or even to let readers who don't happen to be acquainted with Webern or his music know who Bernie is in fact named after, is not so much a mystery as further evidence of a muddled approach to story.
I also found that the very strangeness of Bernie's family—Bo-Bo the raccoon-eating grandmother, Willow and Billow the crazy evangelical twins, Marzipan the all-but-talking chimpanzee—worked against the novel as it failed to provide a clear contrast with Bernie's life in the circus. If anything, his home life is the freak show. In Wags, the tiny golden-haired boy who no one else can see, I found echoes of Jonathan Carroll's Mr Fiddlehead from A Child Across the Sky (1989), but one of the chief glories of Carroll is his ability to depict a benignly quotidian reality which is then gradually transformed or darkened towards the fantastic. In Goldenland Past Dark, everything is weird, everything is whimsy. As readers we are constantly left wondering what we supposed to be taking note of, and what is just stage dressing.
Which is why I find it difficult to summarize, in the end, what Goldenland Past Dark is chiefly about. Is it the withering away of the old ways, the conflict between pre-war and post-war sensibilities, a revelation of family secrets, or the effects of changing fortunes on personal relationships? It is ostensibly about all these things, and while any one of them might have been enough to carry the novel forward, Smith's attempt to bring all of them together might leave even the most patient reader feeling frustrated. The fact that the story as such only begins halfway through the novel means it’s all too little, too late in any case. My personal feeling is that Part One of the novel, with its overused tropes and idealized Mitteleuropa, is mostly redundant, and that Smith would probably have done well to substantially cut it, or even to dispense with it entirely. The rationale for what is essentially a novella-length prologue—Doctor Show’s obsession with a derelict automated amusement park called Goldenland—is, like the subplot involving Raymond Bell and Anton Webern, barely developed at all and except for one later mention which seems to exist chiefly so that the novel's title can be quoted within the body of the text, the theme never recurs. In terms of plot it is entirely irrelevant. For this reader at least, a leaner, more focused novel about Bernie Bell and the latter days of circus would undoubtedly have provided greater overall satisfaction.
The writing though is never less than competent, and in its richly textured tapestry of scents, sights, and sounds it is frequently much more than that. Certain passages towards the end in which Bernie relives his relationship with the now absent Nepenthe are genuinely moving and insightful. There is considerable skill here, and even more feeling, and in the end how much you enjoy this novel may simply come down to how many circus novels you have already read. If this is your first, you will probably love it and believe me churlish for not loving it equally. If it happens to be your fifth or sixth, you might feel somewhat less enamored of the enterprise.
Chandler Klang Smith is clearly a writer of promise, with an eloquent and poetic imagination and a feel for language that more than matches it. Now that she has her circus novel out of her system, I will wait with interest and optimism to see what she has in store for us next time around.
Nina Allan’s stories have appeared in Best Horror of the Year #2, Year's Best SF #28, and The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2012. Her story cycle The Silver Wind was published by Eibonvale Press in 2011, and her most recent book, Stardust, is available from PS Publishing. Nina's website is at www.ninaallan.co.uk. She lives and works in Hastings, East Sussex.