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The Circus as a Fantastic Device


I grew up devouring the works of Ray Bradbury, and I have no doubt that Dandelion Wine, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and The Illustrated Man all had an enormous influence on my love of fantasy. Add to that the fact that I grew up in New Jersey, where the dilapidated boardwalks of the Jersey Shore eerily embody the same carnival creepiness, and I suppose it is no wonder that I love stories that feature circuses, carnivals, freak shows or anything at all related to them. And now that I am a little older (and can look two out of three circus clowns in the eye without crying), and having just finished Robert Jackson Bennett’s The Troupe, I find myself considering what makes the device so compelling.

The Many Faces of the Circus

I group a pretty broad assortment of devices into my “circus” or “carnival” category: on one end of the spectrum, we have the traditional traveling circus as brilliantly depicted in Genevieve Valentine’s recent Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti or Charles G. Finney’s The Circus of Dr. Lao. The focus in these stories is performative: the players in the circus play certain roles which stand either in contrast to or in embodiment of their true natures. Where play ends and player begins is purposefully blurred, and the stories often explore this fuzzy gray area explicitly. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have the traveling carnival, such as those that Bradbury so adores or the one used in Jonathan L. Howard’s Johannes Cabal the Necromancer. In these stories, the roles that the performers play do matter but they are counter-balanced and contrasted against their lives outside of their performances, and further balanced by the devices employed in their show. The performances matter, but these stories feature an assumption that there is more to the players than their performances. Between these two extremes, lies the Vaudeville circuit that Robert Jackson Bennett explores in The Troupe.

The borders between these variants are fluid, and it is entirely possible that The Encyclopedia of Fantasy is right to call them interchangeable: they share many of the same structural and aesthetic features. What such enterprises represent for the reader is a portal into the world of fantasy. When we read a story that features this device, the circus marks the jumping off point between a representation of reality and the wild adventure of fiction.

As a device, the circus taps into a primal cultural touchstone (you can find my earlier thoughts on such touchstones and their relationship to reader trust here). By the time we are ten, most of us will have had the disorienting experience of going to an amusement park, visiting a fair, or seeing a circus. As a result, we will have already internalized the mental shift that the circus’ superficial fantasy demands of us. The process by which we accept the (clearly fictional) conceit of the real-life circus is close cousin to Coleridge’s suspension of disbelief when reading fiction. By tapping into this physiological and emotional memory, writers who employ the circus as a narrative device boost the signal of their fiction, and significantly accelerate the reader’s acceptance of the story. Everyone, after all, loves the circus.

The Real-world Circus as an Imperfect Portal

Despite its power as a cultural touchstone, the circus is not a perfect portal from reality to fantasy. And part of its strength as a narrative device stems from its very imperfection. When we go to the movies, we experience a complete immersion into the film’s fantasy. If we see the wires, if we see the camera, we scoff and complain about the film’s poor production quality. But at a real-life circus or carnival it is impossible to make such a complete break from reality. Even children will see the carnival worker smoking behind the tent, will catch the cracks in the face paint, or spot the smudges in the hall of mirrors.

This creates a certain level of cognitive dissonance: on the one hand, we want to immerse ourselves in the fiction of the circus, but on the other hand we are unable to divorce ourselves from its seedy reality. As a portal, the real-life circus is flawed. And the fictional portrayals of such circuses rely on that flawed nature by asking us to hold two conflicting thoughts in our head at the same time: that the circus is fake, a glamour, a sham. And that it is real, that the fantasy it asks us to concede is true. If that is not a perfect description of how fantasy – or fiction itself – works, I don’t know what is.

The Circus as a Means of Transition

Many stories that involve the circus device feature young characters signing onto the troupe or at least peaking behind its curtain. Whether it is Bradbury’s Will Halloway, Jim Nightshade, or Douglas Spaulding, Valentine’s Little George, or Bennett’s George Carole, it is children who are the natural window through which we can experience the circus. This extends the portal concept: we run away to join the circus, we transition from a “normal” existence into a fantastical one, and in many ways we grow from the innocence of childhood where we hew closely to the fantasy into the more cynical reality of adulthood where we sneer at the greasepaint.

Circus stories often use a child’s innocent perspective to deepen their basic cognitive dissonance. They use the circus, and their young protagonist’s gradual understanding of its nature as a concrete expression of the dissonance of adolescence. Whether it is Douglas Spaulding, Holden Caulfield, or Katniss Everdeen, every young adult must wrestle with the transition from childhood to adulthood: it is the literal foundation of every bildungsroman ever written.

The Circus as the Anti-Quest

There is an (over-simplistic) interpretation of Joseph Campbell’s theory of the hero that has given us the “hero’s journey” as an almost write-by-the-numbers recipe for fantasy. With its nature as a portal device, its coterie of unusual characters, and its predilection for young protagonists, one might think that circus stories naturally lend themselves to the heroic quest model. It is a tempting theory, but from a thematic perspective, I find that circus stories are almost the anti-thesis of the traditional quest narrative.

Consider the object of the quest: it is an object, an achievement, a moment that is distinct in both time and space. The destruction of the ring in Mount Doom. The recovery of Henwen the Oracular Pig. Such specificity is anathema to the circus: they are traveling shows, by their very nature transient. From the perspective of the performers, there is no quest: there is simply a never-ending progression of indistinct towns. From the perspective of the towns they visit: there is merely a brief sojourn in a fantastical realm. When the circus itself is given a specific goal, as it is in Howard’s Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, its thematic efficacy is sorely weakened. And when, as in most narrative fiction, our characters create for themselves a tangible goal – as in Valentine’s Mechanique, Bennett’s The Troupe, Howard’s Johannes Cabal, Philip Reeve’s A Web of Air, or Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn – they will leave the confines of the circus to ultimately achieve it. To do otherwise would elide the cognitive dissonance the device relies on.

The Troupe as the Anti-Band of Heroes

The attractions of the circus – in real life as in fiction – are invariably the characters that it invites us to meet. They are always distinct, extremely varied, and most importantly led by a charismatic, engaging, and mysterious leader. In much heroic fantasy, especially in the hero’s journey school of quest fantasies, one might think that a circus offers the perfect source for our hero’s plucky band of entertaining companions. But just as the hero’s quest structure eviscerates the circus’ effectiveness as a narrative device, its performers are the antithesis to the stereotypical band of companions.

The Encyclopedia of Fantasy talks about how companions in heroic fantasy tend to either appear in “dirty dozen” configurations (where external circumstances force them together) or as “seven samurai” (where their association to achieve a shared goal is voluntary). Despite their superficial resemblance to a pariah elite, the circus performers by definition do not conform to either configuration. The defining characteristic of circus performers is their independence: both from each other, and from the broader society. This independence further heightens their fantastical disassociation from reality, and gives greater scope for the exploration of character themes. They are not brought together by some external circumstance, even if it might seem that way. Even if – as in Something Wicked This Way Comes – they serve the circus under duress, it is almost always their choices that put them there. Yet despite this, their association is rarely voluntary: they do not share goals with their fellow travelers, and their friendships are tenuous at best. Three threads bind them: the circus master, the circus itself, and the fact that they are all – in some way – broken.

And this represents the greatest departure from either the Dirty Dozen or Seven Samurai trope: in most heroic fantasy, and especially in the bildungsroman, the youthful hero’s companions represent facets of the fully mature ur-hero. From the disreputable thief companion our hero might learn tactical flexibility and cunning wit, the noble knight companion might teach honor in the face of certain death, the magus might teach wisdom, etc. Each companion plays a certain role and embodies a certain facet of the mature hero’s ultimate personality. Not so in a circus story. If anything, the youthful protagonist must build their mature self in opposition to their companions.

And this is something which Bennett nails perfectly in The Troupe. Each of the members of Silenus’ vaudeville troupe is, as all fictional circus performers are, broken. Their fracture lines are intensely private, and tie directly into the themes of the book. The unity with which Bennett structures his story is very impressive, and a significant improvement over his debut Mr. Shivers. But his young hero, George Carole, must navigate the minefields of his companion’s tragic histories. In some cases, he pours salt on their wounds. In others, he is oblivious until almost too late. But he grows to define himself not as an amalgamation of his companion’s value systems, but with a worldview distinctly his own.

And it is this, the defining of oneself, and negotiating the border between fantasy and reality, that lies at the heart of every circus story. It is the primary theme of Valentine’s Mechanique, of Finney’s The Circus of Dr. Lao, and of just about every circus story I have ever read. And I suspect that is a greater truth that lies at the heart of every fantasy. And, for that matter, at the heart of every work of fiction.

Why bother with science fiction, fantasy, or horror?


Article first published as Why Bother with Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror? on Blogcritics.

“That stuff’s for kids.”

“Elves and trolls and aliens are silly.”

“None of it’s real, anyway.”

“It’s all escapism.”

“Those are boy books.”

Many people wouldn’t be caught dead holding onto The Hobbit, or Stranger in a Strange Land, or The Haunting of Hill House. Of course, everyone’s entitled to their own opinions. Not everyone is going to enjoy SF, some people won’t get a kick out of fantasy, and others may shudder at the very thought of horror. That’s a question of taste, and really who am I to argue with individual’s tastes? But saying that a particular genre isn’t to your taste is very different from blithely discounting the entire oeuvre. The latter is like a toddler insisting that they don’t like a dish they’ve never tasted before.

Many grown-ups wave genre fiction away by saying that it’s for kids. I get it: it’s an easy argument, really. Society’s perception already pigeon-holes it, so playing to that misconception is an easy out. And history – genre’s roots in the pulps, the Victorian fairy tales for children, etc. – all lend it credence. But on closer examination, this argument falls apart on several levels:

On the one hand, it is factually inaccurate. No one can seriously argue that Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, Frank Herbert’s Dune, or John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War are books for children. Thoughtful kids might get some enjoyment out of the adventure, but the themes these books wrestle with are definitely of concern to adults. This applies across the genres, where at least since the 1950’s the majority has been written with an adult audience in mind.

On the other hand, this argument forgets that kids are much more discerning readers than adults. Consider how easily kids see through weak plots, how quickly they stop caring about milquetoast characters, how they lose interest when the pace sags. When was the last time you saw a ten-year old enjoy a Saul Bellow book? If the purpose of literature is to entertain, and to broaden our understanding of the human condition, then I think we’d be hard-pressed to find books that execute better than middle-grade and YA fiction. Consider Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, or A.A. Milne’s Pooh books, or J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. They’ve sure got some fantastical elements to them (teleportation to alien planets, talking animals, and Never Never Land respectively), don’t they? But they employ fantasy as entertainment and to highlight themes that speak to our hearts. Kids books – and all genre books, whether targeted to kids or not – use fantastical elements as tools to highlight their themes. Bear in mind that kids see right through pretension, and have no patience for it.

One can argue that elves and ray-guns and monsters are silly, unrealistic, and as a result offer no value. They might be entertaining, but who cares about entertainment? All of us, I’d wager. We read books, watch TV, listen to music to be entertained. Sure, we also want to have our horizons broadened but first and foremost we want to be distracted from the concerns of daily life. One can sneer at such escapism, but escapism relaxes us and makes us more productive. How is that a bad thing?

I’ve seen folks denounce genre fiction to a room full of fans as “mindless entertainment” – strangely enough, I’ve never seen anyone say the same about watching football at a sports bar. Entertainment in and of itself has value, and genre fiction simply employs a bigger toolkit than “mainstream” fiction. Using monsters to provide a concrete visualization of humanity’s dark side is a time-honored storytelling tradition that dates back to the first fireside ghost stories. If we reject genre for employing such tools, then so too must we reject classic myths, legends, and folk tales.

Sure, it’s not real. And there are plenty of people out there who don’t like fiction. Fine: if you only like reading non-fiction, more power to you. But if we accept that fiction of any kind has inherent value, then so too must all flavors of fiction. Why would realistic fiction have value and fantastic fiction not? Do George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, H.G. Wells have nothing to add to our understanding of humanity? All three wrote plenty of realistic fiction as well as speculative fiction. What are they remembered for?

The last argument I find most pernicious, since it continues to consistently crop up in circles where it shouldn’t. Just several days ago, Ginia Bellafante published a review of HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ in the New York Times. Putting aside her comments on the actual show, she patronizingly fobbed off George R.R. Martin’s bestselling Song of Ice and Fire series (and all of fantasy) as “boy fiction”. I guess twelve year old boys have much greater buying power than I thought. After all, the latest installment (A Feast for Crows) debuted at #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list. Such misogynistic disdain for genre fiction is equivalent to saying that only women enjoy romantic comedies. I’m a red-blooded, steak-eating, bacon-enjoying American male, and like many others I enjoy a good rom com with the best of ’em!

Science fiction, fantasy, and horror is enjoyed by people of all ages, all genders, all religions, all backgrounds. Yes, it is entertaining. But like Whitman, it contains multitudes. There’s something for everyone’s tastes on the genre shelves: Looking for Jane Austen-esque comedy of manners? Check out Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw, or Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey. Looking for beautiful magical realism? Check out Jorge Luis Borges’ Labyrinths or Italo Calvino. In the mood for fast-paced quasi-corporate thrillers? Take a look at William Gibson’s cyberpunk (Neuromancer, Idoru). Want some light-hearted parody? Pick up some Terry Pratchett (any of the Discworld novels) or Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). Want blistering social satire? Pick up James Morrow’s City of Truth or Walter Tevis’ Mockingbird. Want political intrigue? Pick up George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. In the mood for some thoughtful, soul-searching philosophical musings? Read some Samuel Delany, or Ursula K. Le Guin.

The science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres do as much as the mainstream literary genre. Yes, mainstream literary is a genre. In many ways, its reliance realism as a storytelling tool is one of its defining characteristics. Mainstream literary fiction and speculative fiction have the same job: to entertain and to elucidate. Rejecting the fantastical genres just because they have a greater variety of screwdrivers and hammers in their narrative toolbox is silly.

Would you do the same when hiring a plumber?

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