Friday, May 24, 2019

Best Book of 2011 - Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Published by: Doubleday
Publication Date: September 13th, 2011
Format: Hardcover, 387 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

Hector Bowen, the stage magician better known as Prospero the Enchanter, has a secret. Every night when he packs the stalls his audience has no inkling that what they are about to see is real magic. They assume that he is just adept at illusion, never thinking that it's possibly real. After one performance in New York in 1873 Hector gets a shock, finding a young girl in his dressing room. This small child is unmistakably his own and the note pinned to her coat informs him that his lover, the girl's mother, is deceased and he must take over the charge of their child. At first he thinks it will be an encumbrance until he realizes that Celia has inherited his abilities and an idea starts to form. The great game might be played once more! For more years than he can count he has been involved in an increasingly complex challenge with the enigmatic Alexander. A.H. is also magically inclined but holds different teaching beliefs and practices than Hector. The challenge is that they must each train a competitor for the challenge, the winner supposedly proving the correct method of magical learning. Hector is convinced he can win with his own flesh and blood, whereas Alexander is sure he can pick any child off the street and train them to beat Celia. Once Alexander finds Marco in an orphanage the game is afoot.

Years pass as the two competitors train apart without any inkling of when or where the challenge will commence. But then an arena is conceived. A traveling circus, Le Cirque Des Reves, will be opening in London on the night of October 13th, 1886. Marco has insinuated himself behind the scenes as the assistant to the circus's founder, Chandresh Christophe Lefèvre, while Celia gets hired as the illusionist. The challenge is to create tents of wonder and awe in a game of one-upmanship. As the competition continues, stretching on for years, it soon becomes clear that the two of them feel adrift with only each other to relate to. Over time their moves become almost love letters to each other. Yet they have no idea what the rules are or how a winner is declared as their feelings for each other grow and they desire a decision to be made by Hector and Alexander. What is clear though is that the circus has become bigger than the two of them. While Celia and Marco maintain and expand it it has also taken on a life of it's own. When Celia finally realizes what the endgame is she sees that lives are at stake and all this beauty could be lost forever. If only there was some way to cheat. Some way to preserve the arena after the competitors have quit the stage. Some way for them both to win.

When I first devoured The Night Circus after going to an Erin Morgenstern event which was a perfect day worthy of a song in Dear Evan Hansen it instantly became one of my favorite books ever. I wanted everyone I knew to read and love it which made me suggest it to my book club. Here's a good rule of thumb, if you love something to an insane degree it's perhaps not a good idea to have all your friends read and dissect it. The more you know. This was literally the first time I realized that The Night Circus is a very polarizing, divisive book, you either love it or you hate it. And boy, did most of my book club hate it. I seriously do not get it. But then again, I just read a book that one of my fellow members views as one of his favorite books and really disliked it, so I just have to take deep breaths and remember book tastes aren't universal. We all like what we like and I'm never letting anyone in my book club read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell because I wouldn't be able to survive that betrayal. Getting down to the nitty-gritty of what most of my fellow members objected to is that they were caught up on the aesthetics of the world Erin Morgenstern built. They thought it was all about the visuals, all surface, no substance. I of course heartily disagree with this statement and am now going to illuminate why.

Yes, The Night Circus is a very visual book. There is no doubt about this. The tents, the costumes, even the food, are all described in loving detail. This visually Burton-esque world leads many to say that the book feels as if it was written for the inevitable movie adaptation. Perhaps by Tim Burton himself. Here's the thing that drivers readers and authors crazy, a book is a finished product not just something that is sitting around to be used as the basis for another art form. Yes, I love adaptations, but reading and watching are two totally different experiences. The experiences I had while reading this book could not be replicated by a movie or miniseries. I was fully immersed in this world in a way that can never be achieved by cinema, even if theaters were to bring back the disastrously kitsch idea of Smell-O-Vision. And I'm sure Erin Morgenstern wasn't sitting around going, and now lets add some more Tim Burton touches just so I can get to Hollywood! No, she was thinking, how can I make this world more immersive for my readers? How can I make it so it feels they are walking the spiraling paths of Le Cirque Des Reves with a warm cider in their hands?

In fact I think the immersive nature of the book was really ahead of it's time. Since it's publication there has been a veritable explosion in immersion events. What started out with smalls roots in LARPing (Live Action Role Playing) and Renaissance Faires has just grown and grown until every town has an escape room and conventions catering to Cosplay have exponentially expanded. It's more and more I wouldn't say acceptable, because that gives immersive events a negative connotation, but more prevalent to see people escaping into worlds of imagination than ever before. Who knows if it's a desire to leave behind the shit show that is the daily news or a way to express their creativity, but immersive events are here and they're hot and I think a lot of their popularity can be traced back to this book. The first real world experience I had with immersion was at the North American Discworld Convention, where they turned the hotel into Ankh-Morpork. For years after I was still calling certain hotel rooms names out of Discworld. But my deep dive was at TeslaCon, the Steampunk Convention held in Wisconsin every year. People created the most elaborate costumes and even personas. One year they even did The Night Circus, but in their ever scheming ways to get out of copyright, it wasn't "this" Night Circus... sure...

Moving beyond the emotive nature of the book I want to discuss a writerly technique. Throughout the book the chapters are interspersed with little experiences the viewer would have while visiting Le Cirque Des Reves. These sections are written in the second person. Here's the thing about second person, it's a very tricky POV to get right without coming off as pretentious with all the "yous." In fact when I read John Scalzi's Redshirts the codas written in first, second, and then third person drove me to really hate that book. Scalzi has since redeemed himself in my eyes, but he will never live down those codas. Never. This hatred has made me leery of anyone attempting second person and therefore I want to stand up and applaud Erin Morgenstern. You nailed it! The way you brought me and other readers into your world with just a few lines on how we would experience the world around us gave me chills. It didn't come across as pretentious in the least, it came across as a magical spell. You will feel this way when you enter the circus. You will have these experiences and marvel at the wonders. You will become a participant, not just an observer. The repeated use of "you" wasn't annoying, it created the cadence of a spell that all these years later I am still under.

And spells and magic are what it all comes down to. Going back to the argument that this book is heavy on visuals and light on plot I would counter that that is because the reader is ignorant of what has historically happened to great wizards and magicians. They often become trapped by their own skills and magical abilities. In one version of Merlin's end he is trapped in a tree. Hell, even in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell they end up trapped in Hurtview Abbey. Therefore the book leading to the binding and trapping of our leads seems a bleak ending to some, I say it's historically significant. Of course this opinion of mine was reached after several readings of The Night Circus. The first time I read it while I felt the ending was satisfying, I didn't fully get all the layered implications and callbacks. This reading what struck me most wasn't the idea of the Merlin connection and how being trapped would be fine so long as you loved who you were trapped with but the more Shakespearean angle, we do after all have a magician named Prospero who wished his daughter had been named Miranda. The quote from Hamlet seemed to apt, "I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space." Infinite space in something considered a trap by others... perhaps even a metaphor for this book and it's detractors?


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