Book #2 for 2012: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
What is it about magicians that continues to fascinate not only on stage but in books and movies? The great age of theatrical magic would seem to have passed by now, having taken place roughly at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th (the period during which this novel is set) and yet there seems to be a slow but steady stream of books, movies and stage acts that appeal to a kind of ex post facto nostalgia for an era that took place before most of us were even born. There were those dueling magician movies a few years ago, The Illusionist and The Prestige. There is the enduring appeal of traditional magicians like David Copperfield and the more physically oriented showmanship of men like David Blaine, who seem determined to carry on in the aggressively athletic tradition of Harry Houdini. And there is this book.
The conceit of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus is that, while ordinary magicians use deftly executed trickery to produce the illusion of the supernatural, the magicians of the Night Circus (the actual circus, not the book) use the supernatural to produce the illusion of deftly executed trickery. The circus of the title is, in fact, made up of nothing but magic acts or traditional circus acts abetted by magic, each performed by a practitioner of genuine magic and each act allotted its own tent in an expanding geometric arrangement that proliferates like a slowly constructed chessboard (a description that turns out to be more than just metaphor). And these are extraordinary magic acts. The Night Circus, so-called because it only opens at dark and closes at dawn, is to an ordinary circus what a world-class restaurant is to a Denny’s, each act a superbly prepared meal enhanced by the sheer wonder of its artistic and stylistic presentation. The Night Circus (also known as Le Cirque des Rêves or Circus of Dreams) is a nightly work of art, one that steals away silently during the day after staying for a week or two in one spot and then appears unpredictably in some other location, followed by a band of fans so dedicated that they make Deadheads seem lacking in enthusiasm.
Appropriate to the subject matter, The Night Circus is more a novel of mood and illusion than it is of plot. In fact, one of its illusions is that it actually has a plot. Yes, there are pairs of lovers who could have come straight out of Shakespeare, and a pair of ancient enemies, one of them named Hector Bowen, once a stage magician himself (who, speaking of Shakespeare, used the nom de plume of Prospero the Enchanter), and the other simply known as the man in the grey suit. There is a long-standing wager between these two men that for some reason reminded me of the wager between God and Satan in that most literary of Biblical texts, the Book of Job, though this is more because that’s who the two men reminded me of; the nature of the wager is more like a series of bets on a chess tournament, a tournament that seems to have been going on for so long that its origins are lost in the mists of time. What gives the book its poignancy is that they are wagering on the lives of real human beings who are raised from childhood to be unwitting competitors and never given a choice as to whether they want to grow up to become part of what amounts to a battle to the death.
That sounds like an awful lot of plot for a book that I suggested had only the illusion of one, but Morgenstern never really explains the backstory here in any particular detail. Instead, she leaves a great many of the details for the reader’s imagination to fill out and whether you consider that to be a strength of the book or a weakness is a matter of taste. (I may need time to decide.) The real star of the book, though, rather than any of its characters (who tend to be more sketched than fully drawn) or the story, is the circus itself, which is described in loving and often thrilling detail. The book is a grand and elegant banquet of magic that will probably make a spectacular movie if filmed (and though I haven’t checked to see if any film versions are in the works, I can’t imagine one isn’t already being prepared for production). It is Morgenstern’s loving portrait of this elaborate arena of magic, spectacle and splendidly old-fashioned style that makes the book worth reading, and in the relatively brief time it takes to read, it goes down like a rich confection filled with flavors you may never have tasted before. If they leave you feeling slightly unsatisfied in the end — and for me they did — it’s only because you wish you’d had more of them before the meal was over.