Every year, in a small Massachusetts town near where I grew up, there's a county fair straight out of Charlotte's Web: pigs, chickens, and cows, cotton candy and fried dough, tractor pulls and sulky races, and some pretty tame rides with brightly colored light bulbs. While it was always fun it was never what you might call magical. Except, maybe, driving by the empty fairground rising out of the monochromatic, flat salt marshes in the middle of December: that was far more evocative—not so much of the fair itself but of a crisp, imaginative whiff of what might be.
This fair from my childhood came rushing back in an almost Proustian way, complete with the smells of fried food and manure, the sun burning the back of my neck, and Keds scuffing in the dust, when I learned that Erin Morgenstern, the author of a debut novel, The Night Circus, grew up in that town. I have no way of knowing if this annual Norman Rockwellish 4-H Club fair—and perhaps even more the fallow wintertime waiting for it-—became transmuted through Morgenstern's imagination into something rich and strange, but it did make me wonder. And I wonder, too, that someone named "Morning Star" should write a book so steeped in midnight. But of course isn't the Darkest Lord of all, Lucifer himself, another instantiation of the morning star?
The Night Circus is a rich, riffing amalgam on the possibilities contained within the idea of "circus." Or, at least, the idea of a circus without clowns, bleached of color and rid of garish effort and pratfalls. The Night Circus is perhaps an anti-circus or its photographic negative: elegant and beautiful, subtle and mysterious, still and silent. The contortionist is graceful rather than grotesque. There are living statues and fire artists. There's an illusionist who can turn books into birds. There's an Ice Garden, a Pool of Tears, a Cloud Maze, and trained kittens. Even the food is delectable. Its guiding aesthetic: "Better to have a single perfect diamond than a sack of flawed stones."
The proper name of the Night Circus is Le Cirque des Rêves, the Circus of Dreams.
It opens at nightfall and closes at dawn. Its color scheme is black-and- white. If it's possible to have a collective Gesamtkunstwerk, this is it. And part of its genius is to let the audience think it can be part of the masterwork. Its fans, votaries even, are not ravers but "rêveurs":
They are enthusiasts, devotees. Addicts. Something about the circus stirs their souls, and they ache for it when it is absent.Their contribution to the circus's magic is, partly, the red accents of color they choose to wear as a secret badge of allegiance—but even more to the point is their formalized aesthetic reverence for the dreamy, uncanny experiences of the Cirque des Rêves. "Chasing [their] dreams around from place to place," they form a circus of true believers.
They seek each other out, these people of such specific like mind. They tell of how they found the circus, how those first few steps were like magic. Like stepping into a fairy tale under a curtain of stars. They pontificate upon the fluffiness of the popcorn, the sweetness of the chocolate. They spend hours discussing the quality of the light, the heat of the bonfire.
It's a circus of dreams, but who can dream up such magical wonders? Dueling magicians, that's who—in fact, two sets of dueling magicians. But the duel itself tends to recede into the background: Morgenstern's novel is longer on atmosphere—including enticing scents-—than plot and character. She has created, as her Diaghilev-like circus impresario says, "Theatrics sans theater, an immersive entertainment."
The novel begins in 1875 and ends whenever you happen to be reading it. But most of the action takes place between 1884 and 1903. This is the heyday of tales of supernatural love like du Maurier's Peter Ibbetson, eerie evocations of otherworldly inspiration like Trilby's Svengali and The Phantom of the Opera, and the creepy uncertainties of M. R. James's and Henry James's ghost stories. Do the red splashes of the rêveurs call up the green carnations associated with Oscar Wilde? Is the spell behind the magical youth of Dorian Gray replicable?
Morgenstern's fin-de-siècle secrets and romances are suitably garbed in the most luscious descriptions of clothes, but she avoids the claustrophobic experiments in living of Huysmans's heroes. Despite the international exoticism of the circus, her world is far from the morally questionable decadence of the continent. In fact, one of Morgenstern's most enchanted rêveurs is a young boy from Concord, Massachusetts, home to the Transcendentalists, who were one with all of nature (except sex).
In The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern seems to be aiming for the caught breath at the moment of amazement, suspense rather than release. Perhaps suspense is a sufficiently elegant trick, especially when we're talking about dreams rather than nightmares. Take the Night Circus act based on the tarot card of the hanging man, horrifyingly suspended by one foot upside down, falling, spinning, faster and faster toward the ground, until—
He stops at eye level with the crowd. Suspended by the silver rope that now seems endlessly long. Top hat undisturbed on his head, arms calmly by his sides.That's the Night Circus. Out of Morgenstern's darkness come sweet dreams and happy endings.
As the crowd regains its composure, he lifts a gloved hand and removes his hat.
Bending at the waist, he takes a dramatic, inverted bow.
Alexandra Mullen left a life as an academic in Victorian literature to return to her roots as a general reader. She now writes for The Hudson Review (where she is also an Advisory Editor), The New Criterion, and The Wall Street Journal.
Reviewer: Alexandra Mullen