A Visit to the Circus

Travis isn’t the only one with associates.

I’m the one member of the staff here without a degree from Bowling Green. I fell in with these other motley characters when Alex and I met at grad school at the University of Chicago. And I still remember the first day our precept groups convened–there was a tall, thin, earnest man in my group who discoursed at length but so wisely, never with a trace of boredom, about all of our discussion topics that in a single moment I realized I had to step up my intellectual game more than ever, if he represented the standard for our program.

Later, he told me he just talked a lot when he got nervous.

That was after Adam Osborn and I had become friends. He actually lived in the Addison vicinity after we all finished school, only moving for the greener, brighter pastures of Auburn for doctoral work, but we have never lost touch and I’ve followed his work with much pleasure.

Recently, I read a book partly on his recommendation which captivated me in ways I didn’t expect. For certain reasons you’re about to hear, it is a book designed to be a very personal experience…and for that reason I wanted to discuss it with one who had also gotten enraptured by its magic. So on what happened to be my parents’ 34th anniversary, we hopped on GChat and had a three-hour conversation on Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus.

What follows is a transcription, slightly edited…particularly our tangential expression of frustrations over George R. R. Martin.

Adam
Perhaps the best thing about “The Night Circus” is that the back-of-the-book summary lies to you.
Andrew 
How does it do that? It certainly describes the plot in good, non-specific terms.
Adam
True, but… Well, the first paragraph is pretty accurate, but then the second one makes it sound like the story will be, at its core, about the two main characters, Marco and Celia, and their love story. That love story and those characters are all quite good, don’t get me wrong, but, well, there’s a reason that the novel is named after its setting, and Morgentstern wisely keeps the main energy of the story where it belongs: on Le Cirque des Reves.  In other words, the plot serves mainly as an excuse to spend time in the Night Circus itself, and I couldn’t approve more of that decision.
Andrew 
That is absolutely true. The first time I heard about “The Night Circus” was in an excellent Vanity Fair article last year documenting “The Art of Fielding’s” journey from the mind of its author through pitching, editing, and ultimately the best-seller list itself. Apparently at a major book convention, “The Art of Fielding” had all the buzz until the final presentation, which was “The Night Circus,” and the whole talk was about “two magicians in a duel to the death who fall in love.” It’s a giant bait-and-switch. They give you a plot straight out of a blockbuster movie and then the novel you read is completely different…it’s a journey through the entire world in which the duel takes place.Going further…I think that this is the main reason “The Night Circus” succeeds in what I think is its higher purpose. It allows the reader to luxuriate in the setting. The really tiny chapters with the flourishing titles have some of Morgenstern’s best writing, when she describes a single tent and its contents with vivid language but enough room for the imagination. I don’t think you and I have the same concept of what the Labyrinth or the Pool of Tears or the Ice Garden or the Bonfire look like. I don’t think any two people who read the book will. That’s also why I think this book will never be a film, will exist only as a book. You could never translate these particular words into a specific picture.
Adam
You also touch upon one of Morgenstern’s great strengths as a writer: her writing style is highly evocative, but also determinedly unreal. The titular Night Circus exists in the mind of the reader in the precisely the same way that it exists in the mind of the characters who visit it in the book, as an unreproducible, highly individual setting, all the more powerful for the lack of concrete details. I’m not sure how I’d describe the style — “unnaturalism,” perhaps? — but I found it immensely compelling. The simple act of reading the book turned me into a very willing Reveur, helped along by the very clever trick of presenting the origin story for Le Cirque des Reves (in third-person) in parallel with the story of a visit to it in the present day (in second-person). Which brings me to another interesting point, in fact — you first heard of the book through an article about books, but I came to it through an unknown number of essentially anonymous samples of Morgenstern’s writing found in the web-based game Fallon London (formerly Echo Bazaar). I won’t take too much time to explain it, but like “The Night Circus,” Fallen London’s primary engagement is through second-person narration of your adventures in its extremely memorable and enigmatic titular setting. So when the makers of that game began to promote “The Night Circus” as a novel by one of their writing team, I added it to the top of my must-read list. And indeed, there are any number of stylistic and aesthetic similarities between Fallen London and “The Night Circus,” but I was still unprepared for just how badly Morgenstern was able to make me want to visit Le Cirque des Reves.

Andrew
I find it amazingly appropriate that Morgenstern worked in games before writing “The Night Circus” as the novel has at its core a message of self-determination, agency, and choice. That’s what made me love this book. Indeed, I was not prepared for how much I would love this book. I consider it now, along with “Blood Meridian,” “The Stone Diaries,” “Everything is Illuminated,” and “Wolf Hall,” to be the best novel I’ve read which has come out in my lifetime. And a major part of that is in Morgenstern seizing a grand opportunity which so few writers of fantasy grasp even though it always stares them in the face: to use unreal elements to make a meaningful commentary on our everyday world.Robert Jordan (who has been featured at length on the Recorder) didn’t do that. JRR Tolkien arguably didn’t. George R. R. Martin started out that way and then fell into a maelstrom of other ideas and plotting he found more interesting. Morgenstern, in contrast, has written the GREAT twenty-first century fantasy novel, and it sneaks up on you in the end, when Marco and Celia give Bailey leadership of the Circus. The key lines are in my favorite chapter, which I want to talk about more in a bit, when Alexander says to Widget “He’s nothing but a dreamer, longing for something he doesn’t understand,” only to have Widget reply “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being a dreamer.”We live in a world which, for all its wonders and globalization and advances, is becoming more and more confining to individuals. 80% of Americans are going to go through poverty and/or unemployment during their lifetimes. Our possibilties are limited, our political systems are broken, the economy is nuts, and so much creativity is drained by the sheer effort of getting through the ordinary day and facing the realities of this existence. What Morgenstern is saying in this book is that people who dream, even those with the most unlikely dreams, can make something which will last, can become more than they are, can transcend the boundaries of life in the way Celia and Marco literally do. The entire novel is an exhortation to dream and try to make it a reality, no matter what string-pullers try to stop you. And I think this is a vital message for our time, and really for any time.
Adam
I agree, but I think it’s also necessary, both to the success of the novel and to any discussion of its themes, to discuss the costs. “The Night Circus” would have been a very different, in my opinion much less powerful book if the dream had been secured through force of will alone. To be specific, the fact that it consumes those who love it and labor in and for it is not just poignant, but important. In order to preserve their love for one another and their love for the circus and its denizens, Marco and Celia must essentially sublimate themselves entirely out of existence. Chandresh and Isobel are held prisoner by it for years on end, while both Herr Thiessen and Tara (correct me if I’ve got the wrong sister) are killed in connection with it. Even the twins have been irrevocably altered, separated from the world by their connection to the Night Circus, and they weren’t given any choice in the matter.The novel is absolutely an exhortation to dream, but I would add that it’s an exhortation to dream *hard*, and a warning that dreams are difficult to realize. That the book succeeds in being invigorating and even uplifting instead of enervating and melancholy is a testament to the power and worthiness of the dream of Le Cirque des Reves. Which actually gives me an excuse to bring up *my* favorite chapter: Reveurs.  When I read it, I had to put the book down and steady myself. It’s at the beginning of the middle of the novel, which is fitting, since it marks the point at which the dream, the Circus, begins to grow beyond its initial dreamers. You could almost say that it’s the equivalent, in the origin story of Le Cirque des Reves, to the “I’ll use these powers to fight crime!” moment in a superhero origin story; the Night Circus has settled into its nature, and now gains purpose beyond the individual motivations of its creators. And that that purpose is to animate the imaginations and, if it’s not too saccharine to say so, the spirits of those people who choose it as their own dream.I remember writing up a tweet when I put the book down after “Reveurs” that read: “‘Rêveurs’ Chapter in ‘The Night Circus’ evoked the feeling I get when returning to NOLA so powerfully that I am still teary & short of breath.” To me, in that moment, the book became about more than just a neat place to imagine, and instead became about discovering where it is in life that you belong — about the very concept of “home.” To my thinking, that is an idea very much connected to the contemporary challenges you describe the book engaging with; where, in a global society with so much going wrong and so very many different places (geographical, social, and otherwise) to offer, do I as an individual fit? “The Night Circus,” it seems to me, instructs us to find or, failing that, create for ourselves a space in our world that speaks to us, and then love it enough to give ourselves to it entirely.
Andrew
All of what you just said is so absolutely right and ties together better than you realize. Circumstances today make “dreaming hard” even harder than it already is; our culture is one attuned to instant gratification, the immediate sensation of one of Hector’s tricks (which may explain why he always comes across as more malevolent than Alexander…Hector’s point of view is the most dangerous one), and people seem less and less prepared for the strength and sacrifice necessary in fulfilling a dream, time being a sacrifice in itself–the conception of working so long at an ideal with no guarantee things will turn out as planned. And real life is full of dreams–the civil rights movement, the women’s movement–which have crushed and killed so many. Yet these dreams carry on because people “love them enough to give themselves to them entirely.”Le Cirque du Reves is obviously not a grand sociopolitical endeavor, but perhaps that’s why Morgenstern can make the point so well–she steps away from ideologies to apply the lesson in a more universal setting, a setting which is designed to attract and then, hopefully, make people think as well about putting the lesson into real action. The Reveurs are the key example of this…when one steps back and looks, so little is written about the world outside Le Cirque du Reves until Thiessen and those not YET part of it step in, and then we realize how the circus, this flight of fancy, has become something of importance in a much broader world. In the end, there is no separation between Le Cirque and the rest of civilization, in part because Morgenstern blends the two settings with increasing frequency, in part because she makes US as readers reveurs by proxy, so fully immersing us in the circus, giving us multiple opportunities to find some idea within to hold onto, an idea that fits us.And in writing that, I am reminded of what was my own personal favorite chapter. Now, the moment in the book which made me tear up was at the end of “Suspended,” when Marco and Celia make their choice…and Marco describes what he wished for at the tree…that was my “catch your breath” moment… But my favorite chapter, which I referenced before, is “Stories.” It completely blew me away, and I now realize how that was the point. It’s Morgenstern’s clever way of being explicit about the deeper themes without being explicit. Alexander starts the chapter by saying that stories have no power. It’s a test and Widget–and we if we’re paying attention–pass it, for he reveals his true thoughts when he says that yes, stories have such immense power, that every story will affect those who are told it differently, that the right detail, the right thought, will spark a revolution within a soul with possibly the grandest of consequences for the positive. And only if these stories are told from the heart, not from empirical observation but deepest principle, passion, conviction.”The Night Circus” says the hard, overpowering dreams, the dreams which will take your life from you but could make a better world in the process, are necessary, but it says so in a way which has no political or sociological overtones, or at least keeps them buried deep. It raises the thought of the hard dream in your mind through her storytelling, and then, as you think on it, and remember, the application to real existence becomes all the more clear…and so much more effective than if she’d written a novel with those overtones too much on the surface. It doesn’t even seem like an allegory or symbolic until you’ve finished the wandering and let it wash over you…and that surprise is indeed the best thing a story can do. And we need it. We crave it. That’s why Isobel’s fortunes are so sought after, and why Thiessen tries to document everything, and why Alexander in the end simply wants a story. Even the all-powerful of us want to think and discover something new.
 
 
Adam
Very well said! I’d append an additional, minor point to the exchange between Alexander and Widget: in that framework, the storyteller *can’t* set out to affect anyone in particular, or in any specific way. Alexander makes that much explicit when he describes how stories have power; the most powerful stories are the evocative ones, like “The Night Circus,” because unlike designed to invoke specific outcomes in the reader, they don’t try to predict individual reactions to the story, but instead merely try to be worthwhile and trust the reader to react individually. In a way, it’s an idea that brings our discussion full-circle — reading “The Night Circus” is a tremendously particular experience, and no two individuals’ journey into its world would look, sound, smell, taste, of feel the same… and according to Alexander, that’s what *makes* it powerful. It also, come to think of it, encodes another powerful, even subversive (though still not ideological) idea into the book: the idea that individuals *are* individuals, anonymous only until they are known, and that individuals are important. The world, as we have characterized it, does not, I daresay, have much room for the individual, while the Night Circus quite literally revels in each unique person it contains and encounters.
Andrew 
Precisely! The power of this book comes from it being so perfectly designed to make it an individual experience, and I would take your ideas to the logical conclusion that what each reader would be inspired to do with such knowledge of the theme is left up to them. It’s the same basic result, just as we all read the same words, but the path we take through those words…and what we’ll be inspired to do with the conclusion…that’s a matter of personal choice…………. Your comment reminded me of one of my favorite lines of Robert Hunter’s: “Storyteller makes no choice/Soon you will not hear his voice/His job is to shed light/And not to master” So many authors today, and definitely writers in the media, write to produce a definitive conclusion for their audience, they want people to think about things in a shared and specific way. “The Night Circus” refuses that possibility. Morgenstern’s ideas are only a part of the final response to the work by a reader. She does not try to master the material…she is the greatest reveur of them all in this sense. She merely describes, tosses out a few tantalizing ideas, and asks us to complete the cycle.
Adam
Well, asks us to complete it in a way that, in my case at least, compels us to do so. (I really can’t overstate how hopelessly captured I was by “The Night Circus,” clearly.)
 
 
Andrew 
Just as clearly on my end. I also had two questions in mind.To begin with a mutual friend of ours just reread the book, and loved it this time…the first time she disliked “The Night Circus” for being slow. I cannot understand this criticism at all. The book covers a span of almost two decades in under 400 pages, compared to Jordan and Martin spinning 800-page epics one after the other with no end in sight. Of course, the book focuses on tiny moments within that span, but the moments themselves are so packed with intensity and transition so well into future chapters that I couldn’t call the book “slow” at all. What do you think lies behind such a conception?
Adam
I actually talked to her for a bit about that. According to her, it really didn’t catch her attention until the last third, when things start to unravel, and reminded her of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, another book I recommended to her that failed to capture her as it had me. My girlfriend had a similar reaction, as well, and managed to explain it to me a bit. Now, JS&MN is both long and slow, but as a stylistic decision (it mimics the 19th-century serial novel in form and style), but it does share something with “The Night Circus” that I think does factor in: a lack of jeopardy. That is, while there is always something happening, there’s not usually very much at stake, compared to the high-fantasy points of contrast you’ve been citing.If you’re not invested in the idea of the Night Circus, or at least in the characters at the center of the book, then there’s nothing that will *make* you care. I cared deeply about Marco, Celia, Isobel, the twins, and especially the Cirque just for being what and who they were; if that had not been the case, then I might have wished that there was something other than their hopes at stake. Especially if you’re used to high fantasy (which is partially defined by its cosmic threats) or the Dan Brown school of plotting (with its cliffhangers and conspiracy plots of escalating stakes), then it’s not hard to imagine that “The Night Circus” — in which the highest stakes are the continued existence of a place you may or may not resonate with and whether or not individuals you may or may not care about continue to be happy — might not engage you very much. I would argue that such a case is due to misaligned expectations, but as the saying goes, there’s just no accounting for taste. On top of which, it took me until well into my 20s to realize that not everyone in the world reads the same way that I do, my immediately and completely empathizing with the main characters — the “Neverending Story Method,” as I sometimes call it. That might well be a factor, too.So in short: I don’t think it’s really a matter of “The Night Circus” being *slow* as it is a matter of it potentially seeming that way to people for whom the central points of engagement — especially the Circus itself — fail to resonate as strongly as they did for me or you.
Andrew 
And hence us going on at length about the book after reading it…when you care about something, when your sympathy is provoked, you are enticed beyond measure. And I actually was attracted to the lack of jeopardy. In so many books, even mundane problems become set on the highest level of conflict simply because an author deems them so and drags them out at length. Conflict is always necessary, it’s what drives real and fictional life, but a mark of real life is trying to determine what conflicts are important to you and worth going after. “The Night Circus” allowing a reader to patiently wade through its world and discover the true nature of the conflict over time was a welcome change.And regarding the conflict…the greatest mystery for me is who exactly Hector and Alexander are. In “Stories,” Alexander broadly defines them as the polar figures of chaos and control, reflected in the immediate action v. study/plan/execution modus operandi they teach to Celia and Marco. But Morgenstern plays the nature of their true identities tight to the vest…why they are immortal, how they wield such power in the Games. They seem almost akin to Gaiman’s Endless…not gods, but elemental and eternal forces, who can still be hurt. Who or what do you think Hector and Alexander are, and this is an honest “I don’t know” answer from me!
Adam
Heh, I don’t want to have an answer. I think they’re… exactly what we see of them, and whatever else the reader wants to imagine them as being in the space that Morgenstern leaves us. That said, to speak in relation to the themes of life in the present we’ve been discussing, I think they can operate in some way as the world we inherit. They set the parameters and create the circumstances for the Game, for the story we read, and have done for generations… but they wane in importance as their players come into their own, and their ability to enforce their desires becomes more and more tenuous. It’s their children who have to live in the world they’ve created — who have come to love the Circus for itself, as well as one another. Yes, they are fundamental, polar forces in the story, but their agendas are so vague that they could be anything the reader wished to assign to them: rationality vs. dogma, intellect vs. intuition, etc.But to me, their function is to simply be Those Who Put Us Here, the creators of the conditions in which our main characters must live, so that those characters may then decide for themselves how they wish to relate to those conditions. Which is of course what each new generation in our own world must do as their predecessors and the conflicts they carried slowly fade into the past.  But mostly the enigma thing. I’m big on ambiguity in such figures in fiction, so it didn’t even occur to me to wonder about their nature after the book ended. (*During* the book, sure, but…)
Andrew 
All true. I just find it interesting because Morgenstern is very specific about who the characters are in every other case apart from these two…but this makes sense if they are the ones who are perceived to be in control until the events they set in motion slide away from them. (Another important theme for our time.) And it is just as much a welcome change to not have a giant revelation.
Adam
For my nagging question, I direct you to J.K. Rowling’s epilogue to the Harry Potter series for the opposite of how Morgenstern handled the conclusion to “The Night Circus.” On the topic of explaining characters though, I actually found that one of my few gripes about the book was related to the book explaining a character who I’d just as soon remained mysterious: Tsukiko. What did you make of her and her eventual, somewhat sudden role in the book’s climax?
Andrew 
Tsukiko attracted me right away as the first true performer of the circus. She’s described with such care, and with tiny little hints revealed chapter by chapter, and I knew she had to have a deeper story because there is no way she would have turned up for Chandresh out of the blue as she does…she was there for a purpose. And when her true identity is revealed, I think it speaks to Morgenstern’s theme of the power of stories and the ongoing work of the hard dream. It situates “The Night Circus” itself as one chapter of a longer and greater story, the Game going onward since Hector challenged Alexander, and raises the possibility that the Game is still being played on other grounds. In a way, Tsukiko is the other side of Thiessen, as the two people who understand Le Cirque du Reves the most, Thiessen the actually observable parts, Tsukiko the true nature of it and how it is held together. That both of them come to love Le Cirque…Tsukiko’s friendship with Celia and her final exchange with Bailey hint at this for her…is a testament to Le Cirque’s power as the dream which succeeds, that even those who are in an analytical position get intoxicated by it, and that someone who has sacrificed so much in pursuit of the hard, crushing dream can find lightness in its great manifestation.(Also, it is so rare to find a strong gay/lesbian character in fantasy and I majorly support this, a nice alternative to Martin’s “tits with a chance of dragons” approach. I didn’t make up that line, but it fits ASOIAF really well and does NOT fit “The Night Circus” at all. The sex scene is tender, and the emotional bonds between people are described with love and respect.)
Adam
I like your perspective on Tsukiko more than the one I had coming into this conversation (that her sudden emergence into the plot was a necessary, if not graceful, device), and agree that it’s nice to see a human rendering of a queer character, though I almost feel bad bringing it up, because it’s partly the *lack* of fanfare that makes Tsukiko’s rendering so remarkable.Jumping back to the reference-points you’re using, though: I wonder if it isn’t a bit misguided to talk about “The Night Circus” as a fantasy novel. I mean, it clearly is, but I found my copy in the Fiction/Literature section, rather than the rather more ghettoized Sci-Fi/Fantasy section. And it’s true that it doesn’t fit at all into high fantasy (most of what you’ve been contrasting it to), nor is it entirely comfortable among urban fantasy (being neither fully modern nor particularly urban much of the time). I certainly related to it as a fantasy, but more along the lines — as Morgenstern’s bio suggests — of a fairy tale than anything in the tradition of Tolkein. (Come to think of it, perhaps that’s another reason why some reader’s don’t connect as strongly with it as you or me; it’s not comfortably genre-circumscribed.)
 
 
Andrew 
I agree it doesn’t comfortably fit into the genre the way swords and creatures and magic do…but it’s fantasy the way Borges’s work was fantasy in its way…it takes the real and recognizable and injects it with something beyond all that, makes it extraordinary and all but impossible except for the maddening willingness within us to believe it.
Adam
Oh I absolutely agree; my intention was not to argue that it wasn’t fantasy, but rather that it was almost unique among fantasy novels, with nothing else *I’ve* read, at least, quite like it.  And that is another of the mammoth accomplishments of “The Night Circus:” it achieves true uniqueness, and does so without resorting to some of the crutches that, say, post-modernism has some to rely on for its originality.
Andrew 
I knew we were on the same page in this matter…people want things to be categorized, and “The Night Circus” is not a pigeonholing type of book. It draws so much on history and research and the classical narrative arc, yet those elements are combined into something remarkable and different. As such, it is a book which needs to be read. And celebrated. And wept over. Because I’m sure our mutual friend and your significant other each had at least one part they connected to. It seems impossible not to.

 

 

Andrew Rostan

Andrew Rostan

Andrew Rostan's first graphic novel, "An Elegy for Amelia Johnson," was named one of the best comics of 2011 by USA Today. His second book will be published by Archaia/Boom! Studios in 2015. When not telling fictional stories, he enjoys nothing more than conversing with his fellow Recorder members and the rest of the world.

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