Nights at the Circus is like a 295-page Decemberists song, a bizarre feminist fable about a circus aerialiste with enormous purple-feathered wings, a story that begins in a London music hall dressing room and ends in a shaman's hut in Siberia on the first day of the twentieth century. It's strange, meandering, often peculiarly florid, and frequently mesmerizing. New characters and situations materialize out of nowhere, perform their tricks, and disappear from the narrative. There are bravura set pieces, often involving clowns. There are hallucinatory episodes, also involving clowns. There is, in the last third of the novel, a spectacular train wreck, which the reader maybe tempted to take as emblematic of the entire novel. The novel often seems like a work of academic feminism reimagined by Tim Burton. Strange and daring, if not always entirely successful. Here's a sample of Carter's writing:
The Shaman and Walser did not live alone. There was a bear, a black one, not yet a year old, still almost a cub. This bear was part pet, part familiar; he was both a real, furry and beloved bear and, at the same time, a transcendental kind of meta-bear, a minor deity and also a partial ancestor because the forest-dwellers extended considerable procreational generosity toward the other species of the woods and there were bears in plenty on the male side of the tribal line.The novel, like the bear which is both a real bear and a meta-bear, is a strange hybrid of storytelling, philosophy, and feminist anthropology that compulsively glosses and deconstructs its own artifices. Is Fevvers, the pinioned aerialiste, fact or fiction? Is she genuine or fraudulent? Is she a protagonist or a metaphor?
"She found herself turning, willy-nilly, from a woman into an idea," Carter writes of Fevvers, in the last pages of the novel.
It's a tough act to pull off. The narrative juggles so many ideas while swooping around from place to place on the gaudy purple wings of Carter's prose. It's dizzying, exhausting, and unlike anything else.