Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus

The Circus arrives with no warning.

So begins Erin Morgenstern's ambitious not-quite-fairy-tale The Night Circus.  It's the story of two young magicians locked in a challenge neither of them understand.  The venue is the Le Cirque de Reves--which I assume is French for the Night Circus--a traveling circus with otherworldly wonders that appears in cities across the globe with no warning and leaves just as mysteriously.  

The two magicians are Marco and Celia, one trained on steady regimen of books and detail and the other relying on natural talent.  It's also the story of Poppet and Bailey, two teenagers bound to the Night Circus in different ways.

I'm on the fence about this book.  Which is probably appropriate because I'm convinced Morgenstern is as well.  Is this supposed to be a serious novel or a lengthy fairy tale?  On the one hand, she paints her characters in broad strokes, with barely enough detail to make them pop.  On the other, we're treated to intensely vivid descriptions of the Night Circus itself.  But the rules of the world she creates are blurry at the edges with enough give to allow her to paint herself into a corner, then make that inconvenient corner disappear with a wave of her fountain pen (I like to imagine that she wrote The Night Circus with a fountain pen).

You get the point.  There's some schizophrenia going on here.  Morgenstern seems to realize that The Night Circus has serious problems as a novel and tries to provide cover by using the old "mysterious whimsy in place of substance" trick (like referring to the Night Circus as "Le Cirque de Reves" or naming characters things like Poppet and Widget).

But you know what?  Midway through The Night Circus, I decided I wasn't going to view it as a novel anymore.  I'd view it as an extended fairy tale--something I could read to my daughter in a few years.  If I ever actually do read it to her, I'm sure it will be grand in scope and dark wonder for her 8 year-old self  (she'll be at least 8 when--and if--I read this to her).  Once I dropped the literary pretensions I brought into The Night Circus when I picked it up, I found myself enjoying it for all its absurdity. 

And then Morgenstern hit me with this near the end:
There are no more battles between good and evil, no monsters to slay, no maidens in need of rescue.  Most maidens are perfectly capable of rescuing themselves in my experience, at least the ones worth something, in any case.  There are no longer simple tales with quests and beasts and happy endings.  The quests lack clarity of goal or path.  The beasts take different forms and are difficult to recognize for what they are.  And there are never really endings, happy or otherwise.  Things keep going on, they overlap and blur, your story is part of many stories, and there is no telling where any of them may lead.  Good and evil are a great deal more complex than a princess and a dragon, or a wolf and a scarlet clad little girl.  And is not the dragon the hero of his own story?  Is not the wolf simply acting a wolf should act?  Though perhaps it is a singular wolf who goes to such lengths as to dress as a grandmother to toy with its prey.
Well, darn.  Now I'm confused what to make of this book.  Ambitious but deeply flawed novel?  Or an epic fairy tale?

So is The Night Circus worth your time?  Sure.  Just don't expect too much from it.  It's a good, quick beach read from a first time novelist.

Shifting gears, I hate it when reviewers cherry pick single sentences to show that an author's prose is overwrought or somehow inferior.  But I do enjoy me a bad sentence or an ill-conceived piece of dialogue that makes it into a novel--especially one that has undoubtedly been edited to the hilt by large publishing houses.  All authors have these lapses, and I don't judge them for it.  But that doesn't stop me from laughing when it happens.

So, in the spirit of good fun, I'll be sure to share these gems with you as I come across them.

To understand the absolute worst piece of dialogue in The Night Circus, you need to understand who speaks it.  The honor belongs to one Bailey--the teenage protagonist who will undoubtedly be played by some Hollywood heartthrob in the movie version.  Bailey is a young man obsessed with the Night Circus and one of its performers, Poppet.  Poppet is a red-haired beauty who asks Bailey to run away and join the Night Circus.  Bailey takes her up on the offer, and, along the way, utters the most ridiculous piece of dialogue in the novel:
I feel like one of those girls in fairy tales, the ones who don't even have shoes and then somehow get to attend a ball at the castle.
Good lord, I hope that makes it through to the inevitable screenplay and someone like Channing Tatum or Robert Pattinson is forced to say it on film.

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