Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Reading Journal: "Nights at the Circus"

Angela Carter, Nights at the Circus. Penguin 1985. 295 pp.

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.

2 comments:

Hannah Stoneham said...

Thanks for this fascinating and candid review. i am a big Angela Carter fan - but I think that the height of her accomplishment is her final novel Wise Children. I think that in Wise Children she uses all of the same ideas of reality and subversion that exist in Nights at the Circus - but slightly more flawlessly...

Having said that, I do think that Nights at the Circus is extremely good. I know that it can be seriously strange but I find that quite liberating - it is quite fun to totally throw off convention - not something which, as a reader, you get to do very often.

I know what you mean about it being unlike anything else - I always get that feeling with magical realist writers - I emerge at the end of the book kind of blinking into the light!

Great post - thanks very much for sharing your thoughts,

Hannah

Jim H. said...

Fevvers is almost a homonym for feathers (a Cockney pronunciation?), which makes it not very clever.

I like Rob's use of the word 'pinioned.'

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