It is quite interesting to read a book named The Eight Mile Suspended Carnival when the carnival in question is neither eight miles long, nor suspended (though it is a carnival). However, a discerning reader willing to suspend disbelief and plunge into the story will find themselves rewarded with a carnival of intrigue and emotion, as well as with prose that seems to pulsate with life of its own.
When a tornado drops a young woman with no memories and no name at the entrance of “The Eight Mile Suspended Carnival,” the carnival residents name her “Mim” and adopt her as their own. As Mim adapts to the rhythms of carnival life, she discovers she has the ability to access and relive the memories of those she meets, and is quickly swept up in the lives and plans of others, even as she is torn between the conflicting demands of her budding sexuality.
Combining the surrealism of Tim Burton and the dark whimsy of Roald Dahl with the hardscrabble grittiness of John Steinbeck and the feminism of Margaret Atwood, The Eight Mile Suspended Carnival is a noir-fabulist tale of identity, revenge, and sexual awakening in a time of rising war tension and industrial ravage, featuring picaresque characters freewheeling across the grimy, gothic landscape of a Depression-Era alternate reality.
Situated on the banks of an unnamed river, in an unnamed country that appears to be a pastiche of Europe or the United States in the Interwar period, The Eight Mile Suspended Carnival caters to the emotional needs of workers from Mr. Spurlock’s Munitions Company—“the death pill factory” across the river—and the residents of the nearby town of Wistmount. Described as a collection of “metal monster machines” and “spidery structures” resembling “giant metal flowers” arranged around “spines of steel sprung from the ground,”,the Carnival is later interpreted by Mim in more numinous terms:
a living beast […] its arms the tents, its legs the rides, wheels, gears; its blood the wine and food and excrement that flowed through the bodies of carnies and guests, the air in the beast’s lungs breathed by the humans who worked and wandered inside the cave of the beast’s body. Its head the hotel, its mouth and ass the doorway into and out of a corrugated skin of wonder.
The personification of systems, buildings, and inanimate objects is a recurring theme throughout the novel, indicating the organic connection between the humans and their habitats, as well as the symbiotic relationship between their individual lives and surrounding economy and society. Featuring “self-perpetuating” attractions as varied and colorful as the “Tower of Misfortune,” “Mount Detritus,” the “Electric Trampoline,” and the “Camera of Illusions,” all fed with renewable power generated by a “HydroWheel,” the Carnival is the brainchild of “Suspender,” the enigmatic leader of the Carnival and an engineering genius who appears to have constructed everything out of “bits of detritus,” “metal bits,” scrap from the factory, and other assorted flotsam that has washed ashore.
A collection of misfits, the “carnies” (as they call themselves) all live in the abandoned “Oasis Hotel” on the Carnival grounds, and use code names to mask their true identities and guard their new lives. As Mim accesses and re-lives their past traumas, she realizes everyone around her is in a state of trying to escape their past (“each with stories inside, stories new and old, their bodies the carriers of stories”), and that her amnesia might actually be a blessing in disguise. Under the leadership of Suspender, the carnies form a vibrant community on the margins of society, and Mim comes to form deep bonds with her fellow carnies Cleopatra (an abuse survivor and clairvoyant), Nelda (a Black seamstress), Lo-Lo (a closeted gay chef), and Beatrice (a mysterious, sentient, and bipedal “shaggy animal” covered in “feather-fur”). Together, they serve as a metaphor for traditionally marginalized subcommunities, and endure everything from social discrimination and violence to the perils of nature (including “a punishment of rain” that threatens to wash away the Carnival overnight), leading Mim to accept that she “had worn her name long enough for it to fit.”
Things get complicated when Mim encounters “Beede,” a strapping young lad from the factory with a “square, succulent mouth” who becomes a fixture in her life after seducing her on the banks of the river. As she falls under his spell and their torrid relationship escalates, Mim gradually becomes aware of Beede’s evil and sadistic nature through his memories, and his interactions with her friends, but asserts her agency nonetheless by visiting him regularly for her carnal satisfaction even as she comes to hate him. With Suspender (who reveals his true name to be “Pelle”) also as her lover, Mim comes to learn more about Beede’s past through Pelle’s memories, and discovers the terrible crime that binds them together—and which fuels Pelle’s animus towards Beede. Having conceived a child with Pelle, Mim decides to help him consummate his vendetta against Beede, which culminates in an inventive but tame showdown at the Munitions factory where Beede works.
While the plot is fairly linear (and at times, plodding), what makes the novel particularly rich is its use of visual imagery and symbolism to capture the unease and uncertainty of life in the interwar years, infusing the setting with an ethereal mystique, and sinisterly foreshadowing the bloodletting to come. For example, frequent references to metal, “blood and oil,” appear to refer not just to the material construction of the Carnival and the effort needed to run it, but also to the industriousness of the carnies (“the carnies became one of Suspender’s contraptions”) and the machine-like nature of the people they serve. It also refers to the horrors of the recently concluded war and the frantic preparations being made for the next, all joined together in “a big life machine of sticky dark.” Life, it seems, merely alternates between death and destruction, is lived in-between periods of dark and mechanistic chaos, and therefore only has meaning because of these. Creative destruction means life is only appreciated in the context of an ever-present death (as symbolized by the vibrancy of the Carnival in a surrounding wasteland rife with poverty and pollution), and in its dependency on the factory and the surrounding towns for sustenance—both in terms of the customers they supply, and the building materials needed for its ongoing existence—presents a picture of life and death, nature and industry, all locked together in symbiosis.
In addition to foreshadowing the violence between characters, the oncoming bloodbath of war, and Mim’s capacious sexuality, frequent references to “blood and oil” (and “bones” and “metal”) also allude to the systemic violence that is threaded through the socioeconomic template of this world, binding together all of its activities together in a cycle of death and cold-blooded commerce—and so serves as a critique of industrial capitalism. Reducing humans to the levels of machines or automatons organized around profitable war-driven activities, Mr. Spurlock’s “corpse” of a munitions factory runs on labour supplied by a nearby prison (also owned by Spurlock, and darkly referred to as the “Spurlock Hotel”), and with its “grindworks,” “black powder works,” and “bone-beams,” it is likened to a carcass or a charnel house, a place that turns life into dust and embodies death in more ways than one. That it is poisoning “the unsuspecting river” in its ruthless pursuit of profit, and is alluded to have caused the deaths of numerous children downriver in the nearby towns (“That box maker … says more than usual Wistount coffins are half-sized lately”)—even as Spurlock and his family live upstream in an affluent enclave with access to clean river water—only serves to complete its characterization as a parasitic entity, draining life from around itself.
Even the Carnival, as nature-centric and nonviolent as it tries to be—with its emphasis on living off the land, using renewable power, minimizing consumption, and reusing and recycling materials—is still tethered to the socioeconomy of the towns and the factory, and assembled from the detritus of both, and so has an indirect stake in this cycle of death and violence. Environmental degradation is thus directly and inextricably linked to capitalism and the machine of the military-industrial complex. Inhabiting a world assembled from metal (material), blood (toil), and oil (fuel), the humans are reduced to cogs in this machine, an organo-synthetic world built through struggle, sacrifice, and suffering that damages or severs their connections with Nature, poisons and enmeshes them within itself the longer they remain, and allows them to shape and be shaped by it in turn. Industrial activity, then, is likened to a natural extension of life, with organic and synthetic life merely forms of an underlying continuity manifested as symbiosis: “Innovating, copulating, creating. Wire and metal, muscle and bone, the material you choose is nearly irrelevant.”
Other symbols are no less profound: the “slimy” river that “divides and unifies,” separating the Carnival from the factory, also represents a symbolic boundary—like the River Styx—between a celebration of life (the Carnival) and an exaltation of death (the factory), dissolving and accepting everything it is offered as it “slithered past.” With its mercurial personality—sedate one day, ravenous the next—it reflects Mim’s inner states (“Without intent, she had bloomed between brother enemies astride the river”), but also serves as a zone of transition where “things change but don’t disappear,” and presents a metaphor for the duality that recurs throughout the novel: Mim can access everyone’s memories, but not her own; Pelle’s creativity, used to turn garbage into joyful art, contrasts with Beede’s sadistic creativity, used only to torture and kill (like Spurlock’s twisted genius). Like the river, creativity too can be a source of life or destruction based on how it is channeled, and threads together all the activities it touches—the carnival, the factory, the towns, the surrounding landscape—into a continuity, an ecosystem of biological, socioeconomic, and ecological codependencies woven together and undergirded by the universal laws of supply and demand. Thus, it is both a natural formation which shapes the outlook and behaviours of those who live beside it, and a symbol of the unending flow of time and fate.
As a counterpoint to the serpentine river are the ubiquitous, snake-like ropes that dot the story like critters. In one form or another, “ropes” refer not just to the sinews of the Carnival structures, but also to the theme of continuity, memory, and connection. “Rope has memory,” says Lo-Lo to Mim, suggesting that they have personalities of a sort, despite being inanimate. “Impossibles” in particular are “ropes that had become too tangled, so bad that no one could untie them … dense, snaky bundles … but still muscular, with a lick of venom waiting.” But Mim is able to untangle them, and starts to form relationships with them: sleeping with them, wearing them on her body and beneath her clothes as part of her self-expression (“the rope whispered along her cheek, having slithered up her arm, and wound itself around her … learning her body with each breath”). She ultimately deploys them to play a crucial role in Pelle’s revenge (cementing her direct participation in the plan against Beede). The ropes, like the river, are non-human characters who play a role in linking the behaviours of the humans, and symbolize the interconnected threads and fibers of life that are twisted together to form the braids of conscious experience.
Taken together, these various symbols work in tandem to cement the connection between the personal and the societal, the temporal and the universal, suggesting that our lives are both lived in a moment, but also expressions of underlying and universal themes.
Two other themes merit exploration as well: those of the hidden world of marginalized communities, and the resilience of fringe communities. While it may not seem obvious to most cis-male leaders, in more traditional societies women create and inhabit their own world away from prying eyes, while constantly battling against being reduced to objects of sexual conquest, attention, and ownership by the men around them. Most of the cis-male characters in this novel are exploitative in some manner, whether directly—like Beede, who uses women for his sexual needs— or indirectly—like Pelle, who uses them to further his ambitions (while also accepting sex from them when offered), and exhibit an assumed right to power over women in an informal gender hierarchy. Pelle exercises power over the Carnival as its formal leader—but Lo-Lo, despite being a member of a sexual minority and further down in the Carnival power hierarchy, seeks to assert a natural authority over Mim on the basis of his birth-sex. As the only three women in the Carnival, Mim, Nelda, and Cleopatra receive looks from the men all the time, and have to consciously fend off advances to avoid being impregnated. Indeed, one reason Mim accepts a relationship with Pelle is to avoid remaining the target of attempted rape by the Carnival’s hired hands. Trapped in a world built by men, the women form their own closed world and provide Mim with the support she needs to buttress her actions and fight back, asserting her agency and ownership over the men by wielding her sexuality as a weapon: “These women were part of Mim’s armature, her sisters. Even after they were no longer together, that circle would burn, a sisterhood intact, open but unbroken.”
Additionally, it is through Mim’s eyes that we encounter the other marginalized victims of this ravaged world. From the feral “boy wrapped in rags” on the road to Wistmount, freighted by “vigilance and weariness” and with a face like “an old man”; to the “line of men in dust-red clothing” being “herded inside” Spurlock Hotel by rifle-wielding guards; to the animals who often have to suffer as silent victims to the depravities of humans—embodied by the treatment meted out to Beatrice by the factory workers, which is only later discovered when Mim finds her traumatized and wounded, and accesses her memories—Kuder invites us to reflect on the often unseen and unsung victims of society’s basic rhythms.
Life at the margins of formal society may seem ramshackle and limited, but it belies an underlying ability to embrace and adapt to change that makes the Carnival community more resilient than those of Wistmount and the factory. Despite being economically dependent on the town and factory for their livelihoods, the carnies regularly practice decamping for “The Crossing”— “a grand, vague pilgrimage, across the plain, across everything, to where people were naïve and lonely, and wanted a good time”—requiring them to pack up and be ready for travel within a day. And when the drill is over and they set up camp again, they rearrange the Carnival in a different pattern. After surviving a flash flood and days of deluge, the ability to alter the layout of their Carnival camp to suit the changed landscape allows them to continue earning a living, even as Wistmount and the Spurlock factory are devastated. As a mobile community, they may lack the permanence and local power of a town or factory, but their ability to uproot and move in response to changing climatic and economic conditions affords them a flexibility that is its own source of power.
Punctuating the chapters are the mysterious musings of an unnamed narrator that help create thematic continuities across the plot and setting. The world of The Eight Mile Suspended Carnival thus emerges as a richly-layered and well-constructed setting for a plot that stands out for its memorable characters. In its evocation of society as an integrated organism prone to bloodletting and exploitation as a routine of its existence, it presents a vision of an organism at odds with its true nature and lacking in self-awareness. The novel’s clever use of visual imagery and symbolic repetition forces us to acknowledge an inconvenient truth: that we still live in imagined realities largely built for and shaped by men, and perceived by them to be perfect, in which everyone else more or less has to make do with identities that they’ve worn long enough to force a fit. It holds out the possibility that with a little imagination, we could better tailor and shape these worlds to ensure tolerance, inclusion, and empowerment for all forms of life—and that our lives are simultaneously also expressions of higher truths that we can choose to make real by incorporating them into our thoughts, words, and deeds. Whether we achieve this realization through experience or intuition, we are what we choose to pay attention to and value, which in turn shapes the choices available to us at critical junctures … and ultimately who we choose to be.