Waaaaaay back in the day, when the Internet was just something my dad did to ruin my life by hogging the phone line with his modem when I really, really needed to talk to my friend about my maybe-boyfriend, I made a zine called Great Day for Up with my awesome artist friend, L. GDFU was dedicated to “the pursuit of Dr. Seuss and smoking” and we were pretty serious about that mission statement. Fortunately, our book nerdishness could not be contained by Dr. Seuss’s oeuvre, and we devoted many a page to our love of various other delightful book-makers.
One of these book-makers was, of course, old favourite Francesca Lia Block. I was smitten and young with a venue to gush, so I sent her a letter (a letter! on paper and everything!) and asked her if I could interview her for my zine. And being the incredible fountain of everything good that she was, she sent me a card back, saying sure, call her at this number and we’ll do this thing. I think I nearly passed out from the delight of holding in my hands a card to me from my hero-at-the-time. Then I called L. and squealed, “I’m going to interview Francesca Lia Block!” It was an exciting time.
So I did some test runs of my phone recorder with friends, overcame the many, many technical issues (what I would’ve given for Skype!), and nervously dialled the number my favourite author had so kindly provided. We talked for an hour or so, she was great, the recording came out fine, I didn’t go total fan girl on her: everything worked out well. And when we were talking about books, she told me about this incredible book she had read recently, The Circus of the Earth and the Air. I frantically scribbled down the title in case the tape (tape!) failed. I wanted to make sure I read this thing. Not only because the woman who wrote Weetzie Bat was recommending it (to me! on the phone!), but because it sounded so incredible and unreal, like it couldn’t actually exist and yet it did.
Of course, the bookstore did not have it, but I special-ordered it, at a time when my dollars to spend on books were non-existent. I promised myself that I would eat more rice and less fancy food—like Kraft dinner—to pay for it. When the shop called to say it was finally in, I dragged my brother, who was visiting me, across town to pick it up. He was grumbly and perplexed at the sudden postponement of our previous plan, but when I held the thing in my hands and we gazed upon the cover, he grudgingly admitted that it looked “pretty cool”.
The Circus doesn’t just look pretty cool. It is a half-realized dream coming to haunt your waking life. Alex Barton is on vacation with his wife Iris and they are swimming on the beach, when a white horse suddenly appears on the crest of a dune in the horizon. It approaches and rides past, and they follow, curious at the sudden appearance of this magnificent animal. The trail leads them to a circus tent with a line of people waiting to buy tickets. Not having enough money to get tickets themselves, Iris agrees to be the volunteer for Father Fish’s act in exchange for admission. The act turns out to be of the disappearing variety, and the box Iris enters is burned in front of the entire tentful of spectators. But when it comes time to bring her back, Father Fish claims that he is having “a temporary failure of communication”, and the show ends with Iris disappeared.
Naturally, Alex figures that there were just technical difficulties or something, and so he hangs about after the show, waiting for Iris. But none of the circus people will tell him where she is, and she keeps not showing up. So he heads back to their inn, thinking that they just missed each other. But she’s not there. And she doesn’t show up the next day. Or the day after that. Or the week after that. Alex drops everything to look for her, but everyone thinks he’s crazy since no one has heard of this circus he is raving about. He doesn’t give up, though, and spends the next two or so years looking for her, ending up tortured by unknown captors, a soldier in a private army, and a performer in a kind of circus cult. No, seriously, these are all things that happen. And there is a lot more than that.
But I won’t tell you all that stuff. Because it would wreck the book for you, and you should probably read this if you have even the slightest interest in magic realism and its offshoots. Or even if you don’t. The foundation of the whole thing is the love that Alex and Iris have for each other, so it is pretty much a romance? I mean, a romance with a lot of action, very little of it of the sexy kind, some of it of the turn-away-and-wince kind.
Stevens writes with this kind of distance that is so in line for the character of Alex, who has trouble connecting with the world and the people around him. But there is also a stiltedness to the dialogue, to the other characters like everyone is playing a part, everyone knows their role and sticks to it. Like Ava, who Alex becomes quite close to during his search:
‘I became crippled with a fear,’ she said.
Alex took her hand and looked up at her dark eyes. ‘A fear of what?’
Ava whispered so quietly he could barely hear her. “Vanishing… Do you know what I mean?’
I’m pretty sure no one not playing a role says the words “became crippled with a fear”. But this stiltedness is so perfect for this context, for a book about performing itself, about the roles we play, about the need for stages and personas. And how we come to be ourselves through the roles we play. I’ve read this book so many times, and each time, I come to some new realization about what it is saying to me. This time, I noticed that Iris never speaks, with one exception.
She has one line of one word, which I will not give any context for because then you would know everything. But I found it so interesting that Iris is the catalyst for everything that Alex does in the book, and yet we never see their relationship as it actually is. We only get the version in Alex’s head. We get what she means to him, why he needs her, the reasons he has to find her. It reminds me of the film We Have to Talk About Kevin in a way, in the sense that the titular Kevin is so monstrous, but all of it is through his mother’s eyes. We never see another perspective. The Iris we see may be nothing like the real Iris. She is the Iris in Alex’s head, she is what he wants. To put my arty deep pants on, he looks for her and finds himself. But in a circus. Eating macaroni. That is my kind of journey of self-discovery.