Posts Tagged ‘Erin Morgenstern’

Book Review – The Night Circus

The Night CircusThe Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Erin Morgenstern is in the same set as Lev Grossman and Susanna Clarke: fantasy writers of the past decade, obviously intellectual and well-versed in the Western classics, whose work can make the jump out of “just” fantasy and into literary fiction. You know. Their book jackets have impressionistic drawings of trees or silhouettes of animals, instead of the hyper-realistic gnomes of a pulp fantasy paperback. The kind of thing that young professionals aren’t embarrassed to read on the subway.

I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it. I can’t say I didn’t find the elements clever or the premise interesting. It combines a centuries-long rivalry between two magicians with a dreamy vision of a very special circus, which only opens at night. The narrative jumps forward and backward in time; geographically from New England to various cities in Europe; and to timeless, second-person interludes describing the experience of entering the circus, which are quite effective. As timelines and POV-characters finally converged, I turned the pages faster and faster–the response any decent book should get from its readers. Yet, ultimately, it isn’t a great book.

Morgenstern’s prose is, to be frank, annoying. There are too many vague statements, waffles, abstract nouns, circumlocutions, and complex sentences. Like this gem:

“The charming smile that accompanies the statement catches Celia off guard, as she has rarely seen anything but varying degrees of reserved attentiveness or occasional nervousness on his countenance.”

Or this one, a piece of dialogue:

“‘It would not be any different if I were still as I was when this started.'”

Um. Okay. I know what you mean, but what human being actually puts it that way? It might be less distracting if this style was exclusive to a single character, but every one plus the narrative has the same voice, vocabulary, and tone. I know this style is irritating because I used to write like this (and sometimes still do). And fortunately, someone always calls me on it.

Unfortunately, while starting off with a nice sense of danger, the story here quickly succumbs to the mannerliness of its Victorian characters and its prose. All these people get along too well, even when they’re in love with the same person, or suspicious of one another’s motives. I’m not arguing for a death on every page, but please, Erin–give us more darkness, more conflict, more tension. Much of the text is describing surreal delights, both products of magic or more mundane arts like perfumery (and apparently a limitless budget). While it’s nice to read about, say, a garden made of ice, or bottles of scents that transport the sniffer to a specific setting, there has to be more than wonder to make this a story. A series of surreal illustrations would do just as well–and I do wish the book was illustrated.

The protagonists are the two magicians’ proxies in their latest contest, which involves seeing which magician’s student can outlast–and outlive–the other’s. Alas, poor Celia and Marco, destined to be combatants, are also destined to fall in love. The venue for the contest is the rather unique circus, pulled together by a flamboyant theater promoter who doesn’t realize, at first, that his personal assistant (Marco) and his hired stage illusionist (Celia) are actually bona fide magic magicians. Using their abilities, they make the circus into something far more fantastic than the creators planned, while at the same time trying to one-up each other and figure out the rules of the game they’ve been magically bound to play.

For being a book about a traveling circus, this novel is remarkably Euro-centric. Though the circus is described as traveling to every habitable continent, nothing in the narrative actually takes place outside of Europe or New England. The large cast of characters are generally white, American or European, all apparently of the same educational level and background (even though two are born in the circus and remain with it their entire lives). The most interesting character fits least into the Euro-academic-bohemian model: Tsukiko, the Japanese contortionist. But her character is developed so little (besides endless reminders that her smile in enigmatic), she really only fills that tired trope, mystical minority. I was hoping she’d turn out to be much more, and while she almost does, her story line never paid off.

The Euro-centrism points to a larger problem, that too many characters simply don’t have distinct personalities of their own. They are meant to be unique in their own rights, artisans and performers and impresarios, yet we really only learn what they do within the scope of the narrative, not how they do it, with what qualities. Remembering this many people and keeping track of their relationships with one another in a nonlinear timeline is too much to ask from readers when the characters just aren’t very memorable.

Part of the problem is that they don’t feel like complete people who have lives that go on when they aren’t on the page. The Night Circus takes place in historical time, as carefully dated section headings tell us. And in real places, too, like London and Prague. Yet it may as well take place in Fantasyland X, for all that historic place and time matter to the narrative. The characters don’t interact with the social upheavals of the Victorian period, and while some technological innovations are giving a passing glance (the World’s Fair is mentioned once) these hardly matter except as set dressing. There is no economy. No one works. There’s a brief mention early on that Celia’s too-gauche father forced her to perform as a medium in her teen years. Beyond that, I don’t recall a single instance when money is a concern, even for the non-magical characters, who presumably believe (living at the historical moment they do) that they have to work, steal, or beg to put food in their mouths or keep a roof over their heads. Yet, keeping their jobs at the circus or whether the circus is a successful business venture is never a discussed (though tickets apparently cost something). The circus is transported from place to place, set-up and dismantled all by magic, so of course we don’t have any colorful roustabouts or train conductors to write about (do such people not belong in Literature? I guess not…). The one real job that anyone in this story has is performing, and even that never seems like work: their performances are few and far between, leaving plenty of time for they themselves to eat caramel apples and play in the Cloud Maze. There’s nothing close to social commentary here, because there’s nothing close to a society on which to comment.

All of which makes the climax, well, anti-climatic. The story line requires that the circus’ survival be really important, because without the circus… well, without the circus… I guess no one in the world can wander through a jungle made of paper? Besides the performers losing a cushy gig, and the circus fans losing the object of their affection, really, who cares? It’s not like we’re saving the world here.

I know I’m being a humbug. There’s some kind of moral in there about people really needing a place to play, to experience wonder, to dream. Which is all fine and dandy, and actually I kind of sort of believe that myself. But if your story is going to make that argument, then the whimsy has to butt up against something that isn’t whimsical and dreamy and wonderful.

None of this is unfixable. And Morgenstern strikes me as a writer with enough imagination and work ethic (it must have been a headache to put this complex story together) to give her a second try. Just not right now. Not when there’s more Octavia Butler and China Mieville to read.

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