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Rather academic (post-modern, fantastic, feminist, etc.), spinning out of control, and completely crazy by the end
on June 3, 2015
Angela Carter is a terrific writer with a Brobdingnagian vocabulary and extravagantly rich style of writing. She shifts points of view, invokes a number of post-modern feints, and mixes fairy tales and actual history for her own purposes. It starts with great promise but can't maintain the high-wire act. "Nights at the Circus" is broken into three equal parts:
-- London. This realistic section of the novel introduces the two major characters: Fevvers and Walser. Even in this section time is slippery and some stories about Fevvers don't make sense, but it all seems like a terrific set-up for a fabulous (literally, "fabulous") story.
-- (St.) Petersburg. This is a lengthy description of Colonel Kearney's circus and its performers. Walser joins the troupe and eventually sheds his life as a journalist eventually to become a clown. This section contains a fascinating discussion of clown theory that I'll remember and think about every time I see a clown.
-- Siberia. This section is the least realistic. Events become magical and then outrageous with an impossible collection of coincidences and wild back-stories for the new characters. Carter tries, and almost succeeds, in tying up all the loose ends in the final pages, but it's too late. The novel has swung too far out of control.
The characters are all over-sized and truly carnivalesque:
+ Fevvers– The big, beautiful aerialist (half blonde bombshell, half angel, half bird) who kicks the story off, shifts to the shadows in the middle section, and almost disappears before she tries to tie it all together at the very end.
+ Walser– The US journalist who interviews Fevvers, and then joins the circus to get the truth.
+ Lizzie– Fevvers' adoptive mother and support system, who always knows what to do, sometimes perhaps supernaturally.
+ Madame Schreck– The owner of the freakish whorehouse who originally employs Fevvers.
+ Christian Rosencreutz– The religious maniac who buys Fevvers from Schreck and from whom Fevvers must escape to save her life.
+ Colonel Kearney– The outlandish owner of the circus that employs Fevvers and leads the circus to its final resting place.
+ Sybil– Kearney's absurdly intelligent pet pig that makes Kearney's major decisions.
+ The Princess of Abyssinia– The silent but talented tiger tamer for the circus.
+ Mignon– The absurdly thin young woman who escapes from her abusive husband to work with the Princess of Abyssinia and her tigers.
+ The Strong Man- The traditional muscle-head who unsuccessfully courts Mignon and deals with The Educated Apes.
+ The Professor of The Educated Apes- The leader who parodies academics and appears more human than some of the other acts.
+ Buffo the Great– The head of the clowns who is eventually driven crazy by the clowns and the circus.
+ Olga Alexandrovna– An escaped prisoner who assists the troubled circus performers in Sibera.
+ The Shaman– The spiritual leader who saves Walser and helps him restore his memory in Siberia.
+ The Maestro – The music school teacher who also helps the doomed circus performers in Siberia.
The novel is fun at first, but winds up being mostly for academics. I think that feminists and socialists will have plenty to discuss. The writing itself is brilliant but the plot waivers, especially near the end. I thoroughly enjoyed the setup in the first section and much of the clown and circus discussions in the second section, but felt that Carter lost control of the material by the end, or lost my interest in making sense of the new characters and their resolutions. Still I give it four stars and have thought about the possibilities of the extended metaphor of Fevvers and the circus for more than a week now.