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The Circus of Dr. Lao Paperback – June 1, 2011
An Amazon Book with Buzz: "Sweet Sorrow" by David Nicholls
"With fully fleshed-out characters, terrific dialogue, bountiful humor, and genuinely affecting scenes, this is really the full package of a rewarding, romantic read."—Booklist Learn more
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to satisfy my curiosity finally. What I have found is one of the strangest, most unique tales I have ever read.
When reading this bizarre tale, the first thing I recommend that any reader do is set aside any memory of the Randall film and just take the story on its own merits because, beyond obvious surface elements the similarities disappear. The next thing I realized was that Finney published the novella in 1935, in the middle of the Great Depression. It also takes place during the Depression and, like the rest of the country, the isolated Western town of Abalone has been hit by the economic crash.
The strange Chinaman Dr. Lao arrives from nowhere and arranges to have an advertisement for a very different kind of circus published in the local newspaper. Being a small town with very little in the way of amusement or entertainment, its residents all have varied reactions to this strange oddity that interrupts the monotony of their lives. Nonetheless, all of them are curious enough to check it out.
The procession of bizarre, mythological hybrid creatures is contrasted with various townspeople's reactions to each of them. They include a medusa (with a mirror provided for your safety), a fifty-foot long sea serpent, a satyr, a walking, talking bisexual sphinx (containing two sexes, not sexual preferences), a 'hound of the hedges' (hybrid animal/vegetable/myth), a seer that is several thousand years old, a chimera (lion/goat/snake/dragon/?) and a bear that the citizens argue among themselves about for a few pages. It's either a bear or a man or a Russian. And, of course, the ancient Chinese ringmaster himself, who alternates his mode of communication from stereotypical Chinese pidgin to eloquent English.
The townspeople continue to attempt to categorize what they've seen into something they can relate to in their mundane fashion rather than accept the mystery and perceive the wonder.
Finney was a newspaperman himself. He would rather be a proofreader/editor than a reporter, so it is no surprise that the newspaper's proofreader is one of the speculating characters. He engages the sea serpent in a discussion in which each of them claims to be more free than the other and which the snake appears to win:
“The god that made you cunning made my eyes efficient enough to perceive objects without aid. In fact, the Lord of All Living dealt with me quite generously. Strength He gave me, and symmetry and endurance and patience. Viper and constrictor both He made me. My venom is more virulent than a cobra's. My coils are more terrible than a python's. I can slay with a single bite. I can kill with a single squeeze. And when I squeeze and bite at the same time, death comes galloping, I tell you. Heh, heh, heh! But look at you! You even have to hang rags on yourself to protect your weak skin. You have to hang things in front of your eyes in order to see. Look at yourself. Heh, heh, heh! God did well by you, indeed!”
The maiden schoolteacher is intrigued by the cloven-hoofed satyr. After he leers at her in the procession, she reassures herself that she has not seen 'Pan on Main Street'. However, she will go to the circus and view him on display to make sure.
When she wanders into his lair, she is caught in his spell immediately.
“He danced closer, his whirling elbows touching with their points her fair bare arms, his shaggy thighs brushing against her dress. Behind his horns little musk sacs swelled and opened, thick oily scented stuff oozing out—a prelude to the rut. He trod on her toe with one hoof; the pain welled up in her eyes, and tears came. He pinched her thigh as he scampered around her. The pinch hurt, but she found that pain and passion were akin. The smell of him was maddening. The tent reeked with his musk. She knew that she was sweating, that globules of sweat ran down from under her arms and dampened her bodice. She knew that her legs were shiny with sweat. The satyr danced on stiff legs about her, his bony chest swelling and collapsing with his blowing.”
The seduction escalates until Dr. Lao opens the door. Nonplussed, he proceeds to continue his guided tour, discoursing on the satyr and how he found him in his travels and added him to his circus.
The seer, Apollonius of Tyana, is compelled to tell the future, the whole future and nothing but the future for those who request their fortunes read, particularly a lonely widow who wonders when she will strike oil and meet the next man of her dreams.
“Well, then, when shall I be married again?”
“Never,” said the seer.
“Very well. What sort of man will next come into my life?”
“There will be no more men in your life,” said the seer.
“Well, what in the world is the use of my living then, if I'm not going to be rich, not going to be married again, not going to know any more men?”
“I don't know,” confessed the prophet. “I only read futures. I don't evaluate them.”
There is no plot to this story as such. The townspeople act as self-appointed pundits, evaluating each strange phenomenon that appears before them. Then there is a main attraction, a viewing of the ancient city of Woldercan offering up their fairest virgin to the god Yottle for sacrifice in order to bring rain so the crops can grow again. The rain comes, the ends of the tent come down and the circus of Dr. Lao ends.
Except that it's not quite the end. The 'catalogue' at the end of the book, including a complete cast of characters, human, mythological and incidental, follows. For anyone who thinks this may simply be a reiteration of what they have just read, think again. This glossary/cast of characters illuminates much of what has come before. Nothing is considered as too trivial for inclusion. There is even the following description of one of the finest meals the sea serpent ever ate.
“LITTLE FAT BROWN BOY: For seven years he was a diner; then for a few minutes he was a dinner. Ultimately he was incorporated into the cell structure of the sea serpent, a distinction he did not enjoy.”
Aside from its oddity, 'The Circus of Dr. Lao' possesses a cynical, satirical, eloquent wit not seen this side of Mark Twain. Rather than giving us “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg”, Finney gives us “The Chinaman That Revealed Abalone”.
As the master of the circus and the designer of its marvels, Dr. Lao usually steps back to allow the curiosities to make their impression without his commentary. However, occasionally he steps in to admonish his philistine audience, either through the pidgin he uses to upbraid hecklers or the articulate English with which he addresses an uncomprehending witness disappointed that the werewolf metamorphosed quickly to a shriveled old woman rather than a luscious nude female.
“I might have known your only interest in this would be carnal. You have seen a miracle, by any standard sacred or profane, but you are disappointed because it gives no fillip to your lubricity.”
Abalone, Arizona to entertain the folks with his unique circus. This is not the down and out sad collection of alcoholic clowns, strippers shaking worn out bodies, and mistreated mangy animals, but a fabulous display of the bisexual sphinx, a mermaid,
a dragon, an ancient Greek fortune teller who tells the whole truth about these rustics' dismal futures, and if that is not enough Medusa can then turn the locals to stone if they ignore warnings not to look a her directly but in a mirror, good
advice that of course is not taken.
Author Charles G. Finney was great grandson of a man of the same name, renowned as the father of Presbyterianism
Revivalism (with its belief in Calvinistic Predestination), and this unfortunate background combines with a bit of Jonathan Swift and such native American mordant talents as Ambrose Bierce and H.L. Mencken (Mark Twain lacking enough of an edge to join this illustrious company). Starting in the late nineteen twenties,
Finney served in the Army in China, and as this book reviewer can attest, military service in the Orient can be a corrective to American middle class expectations of hygiene and norms of behavior.
Add to this Finney's wide range of literacy, a newspaper career that induces one to cynicism, publication in such
high end periodicals as The New Yorker and Harpers, and an early prototype of the National Book Award for most original book published in 1935. The Circus of Dr. Lao looks backward to Gulliver's Travels and forward to Thomas
Pynchon, and provides proof that life is a tragedy to those who feel and a comedy to those who think.
The Circus of Dr. Lao can be very hard to find, and these inexpensive good quality paperbacks from U. of Nebraska are a delight, including the original illustrations of the Russian surrealist Boris Artzybaysheff, who actually provided wonderful covers for, of all things, Time Magazine, that citadel of provincialism.
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The people of Abalone visiting the spectacle are average types, yet no less compelling for that, and none are spared Finney's wry observations. He sounds somewhat world-weary, salvaged only by a detached amusement at mankind's habits and foibles. Dr Lao a sort of Willy Wonka for grown ups.
At the close, in a curious postscript, Finney catalogues his characters with dry, acute descriptions. I enjoyed particularly, 'The Monk From Tibet":
"He lived in a yurt, ate tea thick with butter, wondered a lot about life, took a vow of chastity but broke it when he was in Alexandria, discovered the Ovis poli and the spectacled bear, not knowing what he had discovered, knew some good jokes, and died without ever being really satisfied."
I shall not pretend that I understand all - if any - of the Lewis Carrollisms for I am not an expert on the history of America, it's mannerisms and affectations, and looking at them through this dark but clear glass is often disconcerting anyway. Stereotypes are here, being mocked but yet loved. Wilful blindness and self-delusions abound, and are sometimes abhorred or sometimes chuckled over.
There are nods and hints to the writings of the horror and fantasy genres. There are influences from Lovecraft, Poe and Howard - I can (I think) possibly name some of the stories knowingly alluded to - The Terrible Old Man; The Man That Was Used Up; The Black Monolith... There are moving passages; moments/hints of depravity; the glimpse of evil; shocks and frights; non-sequiturs and unanswered questions (thoughtfully drawn to the attention of non-attentive readers in the quite extraordinary appendices).
Perhaps there is no easy way to write about this disconcerting, fun, novel novel. Do read it and make up your own mind. Or minds. Prepare, in any case, to be discombobulated!
Addendum: The film, The 7 Faces of Dr Lao, based on this book is significantly different because it follows the essential need for visual narrative. It does, however, contain verbatim quotes from the novel. It is also, in my opinion, a melancholy, bittersweet film. Watch it for its own merits, but it is not the film of the book. The film of the book would be art house, noir and quantum.