The Night Circus is Erin Morgenstern’s first novel, published July 3, 2012. I’m reading and writing about it now because it’s the April selection for CapRadio Reads, Capital Public Radio’s book club.
First, the relevant details. Le Cirque des Rêves, (“The Circus of Dreams”), shadowy, ethereal, and open only at night, is the elegant central character in this late-Victorian yarn—circa 1885-1902. From Canada to Constantinople, it materializes and vanishes. Its vaporous but tangible black-and-white striped canvas mansions house amazements so breathtaking that they spawn a globe-trotting cadre of devoted camp-followers—Rêveurs—who also swear their fealty by wearing black or grey with a splash of red while in attendance and through furious, adulatory correspondence between appearances. In truth, this peripatetic feast for the senses is a chessboard onto which two rivals in prestidigitation place their young wards, Celia and Marco, to settle between them—and, by projection, their mentors—who is the greater illusionist. Alas, the star-crossed youngsters fall victim to feelings, desire, and other weaknesses of the flesh, so complications, love, and threats to their very mortality arise, to the consternation of their dyspeptic guardians and feckless disciples alike.
Suffer me to admit here that judging another’s story is subjective, unsatisfactory, and can be unkind.
Ms. Morgenstern includes among her acknowledgements—
[F]irst and foremost, (to) my agent…who saw potential in something that was once truly a god-awful mess…
Further, in an online interview, she responded to a question about the story’s origin as follows:
The story came as a location created out of desperation. I was working on a different story altogether, one that was becoming progressively more and more boring because nothing was happening. I needed something exciting to happen and I couldn’t figure out how to do it with the locations I had so I sent the characters to the circus. That circus was immediately much more interesting and eventually I abandoned that other story and its characters entirely and focused on the circus instead.
Unfortunately for them and for us, she abandons her present characters to focus on the circus, as well. Exposition and narrative disclose every conceivable detail about the splendor that is Cirque, as is lavished on other venues the characters inhabit, whether drawing blueprints, making clocks, or simply using their transformative powers to make their cluttered quarters more livable. Meanwhile, these demigods of magic stand by and what comes out of their mouths is revelatory—but not about them. Aprés denouement, we know precious little more about them, other than changes in circumstances. Along the way, there appear some muddy but unrealized metaphors. The supervening rivals are named Hector and Alexander (Paris?). Are they the figurative, combative brothers of Troy whose internecine intrigue would bring down the city? Does that make the Celia they’re fighting over Helen, and Marco her Menelaus—or maybe Achilles? Probably not; see, Hector’s stage name is “Prospero the Enchanter,” and Morgenstern leverages that to get the real McCoy’s last speech from The Tempest (Act IV, Scene 1) in at the end. Cool—but, why? Other than obvious conflict, I never learned enough about them, or anyone else, to make a satisfying connection.
Morgenstern employs some mechanical and stylistic features that knocked me off her path:
- Tense. Cirque is a story planted firmly in Thomas Hardy’s Victorian heyday, between 122 and 128 years ago. It’s told in the present tense. Really?
- Structure. The narrative is divided into five Parts with impressive titles, each consisting of well-christened subdivisions that contain enough fragmentation, hop-scotching, and time travel to nauseate H. G. Wells. Okay; it’s magic. But if it serves neither the plot nor the characters, what’s the point?
- Adverbs. My man Sam Clemens—as Mark Twain—is oft-quoted as follows: “If you see an adverb, kill it.” Here’s his more incisive assessment, in long form:
I am dead to adverbs; they cannot excite me. To misplace an adverb is a thing which I am able to do with frozen indifference; it can never give me a pang…There are subtleties which I cannot master at all—they confuse me, they mean absolutely nothing to me—and this adverb plague is one of them…Yes, there are things which we cannot learn, and there is no use in fretting about it. I cannot learn adverbs; and what is more I won’t.
—“Reply to a Boston Girl,” Atlantic Monthly, June 1880
Not a plague, perhaps, but the first half of the book is infested. They all but disappear at midpoint—as if by magic—but reappear, albeit more sparingly, in the last quarter. Their effect on me was like running over verdant turf toward a city of gold on the horizon and, every 10 yards or so, tripping over a sprinkler.
- Fragments. There were enough of these to make me suspect they were intended to be a device, rather than merely lazy editing. A specimen:
“The candlelight catches only the edges of her father’s form as he hovers nearby. Highlighting the creases of his jacket, the collar of his shirt. Glinting in the hollows of his dark eyes.”
A dozen years ago, Elmore Leonard published the tersest, most comprehensive compendium of writing advice I’ve ever seen, in the New York Times online. It’s his 10 commandments for writers, called “Easy on the Hooptedoodle.” [NOTE: He borrowed the term from two chapter titles in Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday.] Up front, I’ll say that Morgenstern violates Commandments 2-4; 6; 8; and 9, but it’s Number 10 that’s most applicable here:
10. Try to leave out the part that readers skip.
A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading in a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head and the reader either knows what the guy is thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.
Dear Ms. Morgenstern: Next time, more dialogue—from the characters—and easy on the hooptedoodle.