Saturday, August 11, 2012

Genre and the Lit Life

The Night Circus is the best example of literary fantasy I've read in a long while, a hybrid book that stirs elements of steampunk, romance, and legends into a bubbling cauldron to make something exciting and new.  It’s like Water for Elephants, but with wizards instead of critters.

The word I thought of most often while reading it was “agon,” the classic Greek term for a contest between two forces which meet in a final climactic battle.  Morgenstern’s clever take on this story structure asks what would happen if protagonist and antagonist fell in love?  What if underneath, the forces were one and the same?

As I read through the reviews of friends on this site I find myself agreeing with some of the complaints.  Yes, the scene sets are sumptuous, with descriptions of dinners and spectacle that sometimes become wearying.  Erin Morgenstern excels in her use of imagery, all captured with a third person limited omniscience and told in present tense, which adds forward momentum to the plot.  Yes, some of the minor characters like Poppet and Widget become more interesting than the main characters.  Yes, the emotional landscape of the novel will leave some empty.

Professional reviewers also expressed mixed views.  The New York Times review was less than flattering:   Stacey D’Erasmo concludes the novel is bloodless, writing that “[m]agic without passion is pretty much a trip to Pier One: lots of shrink-wrapped candles. One wishes Morgenstern had spent less time on the special effects and more on the hauntingly unanswerable question that runs, more or less ignored, through these pages: Can children love who were never loved, only used as intellectual machines? What kind of magic reverses that spell? It’s not as pretty a spectacle, but that’s a story that grips the heart.”   Contrast her take with Ron Charles’ review in the WaPo, and you can see why readers will be divided about this book.    While he complains about “too much going on” Charles also notes how  [t]he author mingles a sense of adolescent delight with a mature chilliness that reflects the circus’s stunning black-and-white decor, and the abiding potential for violence gives the plot a subtle charge.”  His review positively glows.

Ultimately, after reflection, this is still a five star read in my mind, a book that does what good books should do:  transport a reader into another world.  It’s a book that works the oldest magic of all, enchanting the reader.  The Night Circus is a richly layered story, using Shakespeare’s Tempest and elements of Potter-esque fantasy to tap into the current zeitgeist.  How?

I liked this take from Christine Ziemba, who pointed out that “[a] quick answer lies in DNA. Human wiring brings along its appetites, and one of these happens to be a fascination with the unknown, with possibility beyond plausibility. It’s why we humans can fly now. It’s why our cities light up at night.”

In short, our dreams.  It’s fitting that the final section includes this quote from Prospero in The Tempest:  “We are such stuff/ as dreams are made on; and our little life/Is rounded with a sleep.”  This is why you should read this book.One of my favorite quotes from the novel captures for me what makes it such a charming, original and compelling read.  I’ll conclude with it.

“Stories have changed my dear boy,” the man in the grey suit says, his voice almost imperceptibly sad.  “There are no more battles between good and evil, no monsters to slay, no maidens in need of rescue.  Most maidens are perfectly capable or 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 your sister’s story is part of many other stories, and there is no telling where any of them may lead.  Good and evil are a good 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 as 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.”

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