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(spoiler alert)

I guess I should have seen this coming way back in 2007 when Gregory Maguire rescued the reputation of Oz’s Elphaba in Wicked. Postmodern feminist lovefests are rapidly replacing the old fairytale memes of evil queens and noble princes riding to rescue damsels. This can be seen most clearly in the most recent line of Disney movies, which all feature a kickass female lead who challenges the patriarchal bad guys. And the two most recent ones—the highly popular Frozen and this summer’s Maleficent—go even further by booting romantic love to the curb in favor of love between women. (Not sexual love, of course—we haven’t reached the point where Disney would feature a romance between two women.) To accentuate the point, in each film this female bonding twist gets revealed in the exact place in the narrative where the male lead is supposed to bring his love magic and win the day.


(Memo to Disney: We get it. It’s not a big surprise anymore, it’s the New Normal. So how about a story where love between women is expected and even taken for granted? And then do the same for men.)

Of course there’s more to it than a plot twist. Let’s take a look at these two movies.

Frozen distinguishes itself with not one but two princesses. One good and one bad, right? Not so fast. They actually love each other deep down, despite the bad one’s icy habits. And they both have what appear to be eyes from an alien species: huge, saucer-shaped, and floating tentatively on their plastic CGI faces, screaming “I’m cute!” in 142 different languages. So we know right off that, deep down, they love anime and are awesome.

Good Princess Anna, the goofball, falls head over heels for a gorgeous prince and his equally gorgeous horse, so the postmodern feminists know right away he’s gonna eat it, and he does. Anna eventually has a safe romance with an ice hauler who is strong and loyal but no royal. So it’s no real surprise when her frozen heart is rescued not by him but by her big sister Elsa.

What I found interesting about Frozen is that it has no backstory at all to explain Elsa’s peculiar ice-generating powers. Was she put under a spell by a witch? Bombarded by a radioactive ice storm? Or just born that way? I suspect that the under-12 crowd who make up the main audience don’t give a flying icicle. She just has it, the power that is both a wonder and a curse. For adults, it’s a different matter. I want to know who did this to her, and why, and what the ramifications are for the world of Arrendale, and how did their parents meet, and why was the Prince of the Southern Islands such a shmuck? Guess I’ll never know.

On the other hand, Maleficent—with a much more complex target audience—is virtually all backstory. It explains “what really happened” in the tale of Sleeping Beauty, so we need to know the fairy tale first, just as in Wicked we need to know The Wizard of Oz. And just as we learn how Elphaba is unfairly branded in Oz, we learn how Maleficent’s cruelty sprang from crueler treatment at the hands of a prince who could have been her lover.

And my goodness, once you get past staring at Angelina Jolie’s supernatural cheekbones, consider all the different messages and subtexts this movie has! Overly cute fairies and other sprites and goblins, check. Innocent princess eager for first love, check. Rampaging patriarchal madness, check. Doofus prince, check. Violence and war (without a drop of blood shed but plenty of sturm und drang), check. And a once-innocent, then kickass, then evil, then repentant witch queen with devil horns and wings of a Fury, check. Then underneath it all, hints of bondage and illicit desire. It’s like the bastard child of Spiderwick Chronicles meets Legend meets Neverending Story meets Once Upon a Time meets Batman. Too violent for kids, too Magic Kingdom glittery for adults, Maleficent tries to please everyone and fails, despite entertaining visuals and a reasonably good storyline.

I wanted to love Maleficent, I really did. And it almost delivered. I crave magic tales with dark themes and haunted characters. Without buckets of gore. I guess it’s good the story didn’t have any Ewoks or Jar Jars, but that’s not saying much. Now that Disney has postmodern feminist plots down, let’s hope they can put one in a real dark fairy tale without the cute stuff.

I have it on the authority of one George Lucas that Joseph Campbell’s magnum opus, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, is the ultimate blueprint for those who wish to fuse contemporary fiction with the timeless tales of the ancients. Since my many-twisted tale Kid Midas involves a teenage boy with issues who wants to be a hero and does so while getting tangled up with the gods of ancient Greece, I decided to consult Campbell to see what he had to saw about the matter. What I found was by turns enlightening, entertaining, and baffling.

The part most apropos to my purposes was his exploration of what he termed the Monomyth, in which he maps out the various archetypal stages a hero typically must pass through in order to complete his or her adventure. I won’t go into details, but it was pretty clear to me that Lucas applied much of this to his original (NOT the insipid prequel) Star Wars trilogy. The stages should all ring a bell: the hero is called to an adventure, at first refuses it, but then with supernatural aid commits to it and crosses the threshold into a different reality (the Underworld, Faerie, etc.). He battles demons, dragons, guardians, and other monsters, and is either crucified, dismembered, or abducted deeper into the pit, where with helpers he finds atonement and either steals an “elixir” or is given something of great value; he is then either rescued or resurrected after a chase scene, and crosses back into normal reality carrying the elixir that he uses for the benefit of the greater good.

I applied my own story line to this map and found that it actually followed the Monomyth pretty well, though my story is more of a family drama than one about a superhero or prince with high political or social stakes.

While the Monomyth is necessarily simplistic, Campbell does a great job showing how myths from different cultures fit the pattern in different ways. I found myself fascinated how he found common themes running through ancient epics and Maori folk tales, for example. He spends as much time delving into the heroic aspects of Buddha, Krishna, and other Eastern divinities as he does classical Western pagan gods and heroes. Everything he does is carefully footnoted, and he has an extensive bibliography. Clearly, he spent an enormous amount of time researching, connecting, and condensing this material.

Campbell is more than just an academic star. Though he died 27 years ago, thanks in part to a PBS interview with Bill Moyer he continues to this day to exert considerable influence on creative artists and thinkers, and is frequently mentioned in the same breath as such luminaries as Carl Jung. His writing can be astoundingly absorbing, and even amusing.

And yet…at times I found myself scratching my head as I tried to decipher a particular way he tries to apply poetics to sophisticated psycho/metaphysical concepts, resulting in something that sounds like it came out of an academic committee: “The constriction of consciousness, to which we owe the fact that we see not the source of the universal power but only the phenomenal forms reflected from that power, turns superconsciousness into the unconsciousness and, at the same instant and by the same token, creates the world.”

In general, Campbell is less successful at wrestling these tales into academic pigeon-holes as he is sticking to the stories themselves and how they relate to our cultural commonalities. Fortunately for us, he is quite successful at achieving the latter.

Having not read Ms. Russell’s previous two novels Swamplandia! and St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, I didn’t know what to expect from this acclaimed collection of stories. What I discovered about midway through the third story, “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979,” is that Karen Russell is fearless. She will pick up any wacked-out idea for a story, something that would get buried in my ever-growing pile of notes on old calling cards and shopping lists, and run with it. And not just run with it, she’ll find a voice that’s funny yet literate, that fits the bizarre nature of events real or imagined to a T. She’ll produce memorable lines that work on many levels—symbolic, graphic, sensory, slapstick humor—at once. Then just when you finish chuckling at an odd phrase or admire a clever twist, you realize that Russell cares so deeply about her characters that she has shared something precious about herself as well.

That’s “precious” in a non-sarcastic way, BTW.

But the ideas that run through her head! Who would have ever thought of old vampires hanging out in an Italian lemon grove, desperately trying not to revert to their old ways as they suck on the bitter fruit for decade after decade? Or a barn full of dead presidents reincarnated as not-so-special horses, who like the vampires cannot quite abandon their previous lives?

Based on my perusal of comments left on Amazon, some people who picked up this book thought it would a collection of horror stories, and were severely disappointed. The thing is, Karen Russell is a protean chimera—just when you think you have her sussed, she goes Monty Python on you and comes up with something completely different. Case in point: after bemusedly cruising through two funny stories, I ran smack into “The New Veterans,” a 50-page tale of a massage therapist caught up in a soldier’s terrifying memories of war in Iraq—as told by a monumental tattoo on the soldier’s back. Not exactly laugh-out-loud stuff!

Still, my favorite stories are the ones that did make me laugh out loud. The horsey presidents tickled my inner animal, and she follows that up with an amazingly creative satire, “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating,” a confounding mashup of sports fan culture, marine biology, and tough guy survivalism; she even gets in a not-so-subtle dig at Twilight fandome when she refers to fan groups with names such as Team Blue Whale and Team Krill. The narrator of this short but hilarious gem is so off-the-wall deadpan enthusiastic about such things as an Antarctic tailgate recipe (“1. Whale Meat 2. Fire”) and the dead themselves (“Nobody likes a litterbug. You can’t get much lower class than a boat of tailgators who just leave their dead around.”) that I found myself wishing that 1. I had written it, and 2. It would go on forever, with the tailgators fixing themselves permanently to the vaults of heaven in the dreaded Antarctic night.

Well, maybe not.

Anyway, I came away from this collection amused and enthused. Karen Russell is definitely going up alongside Kelly Link and Ramona Ausubel as Queens of Quirk Fiction.

firing squad on food truck

Opening Hook

I’m not good at beginnings, but then nobody at Penderstout, Inc. is. “We’re always looking for that opening hook” is a phrase I’ve heard countless times, not only from the mucky-mucks but from the Darlings themselves. Maybe that’s why they keep hiring people here—in the vain hope that, sooner or later, someone will come up with an opening that will knock the reader’s socks off.

So, how are your socks?

Feh. I crumple that one up and toss it vaguely in the direction of the company-supplied wastebasket. It falls amongst the countless other crumpled notes, candy wrappers, and assorted flotsam and jetsam that never actually make it inside the gleaming cyclinder. Oh well, at least it gives the custodian something to do.

Maybe I should start by saying I’m an employee at Pendersnout. But maybe that’s not entirely correct. I suspect I’m an employee—that would be more accurate. I say this because others here appear far more “employee-like.” They have actual desks assigned to them on a permanent basis—at least until, you know. Whereas I have…if I’m lucky, part of a desk. Shared by someone else. Sometimes it’s only just a corner of a desk, barely large enough to keep the scraps of paper I’m supposed to be keeping track of.

Paper. Pendersnout, for some reason not fully comprehended by the up-and-coming Millenials, insists on still using it.

But my “desk” isn’t my job, is it? Then what is my job? Is it to hang out and schmooze with the Darlings at lunch break, or is it to spend all day combing through the manuscript, looking for excess buts? Of course I don’t have the actual manuscript—that’s for the mucky-mucks. I’m stuck with pieces of the previous drafts, because as we all know, Pendersnout is one anal retentive CEO.

Schmoozing with Darlings is fun, but risky. Because as everyone knows, Pendersnout eventually kills his Darlings, and associated Schmoozers are at risk, too. He has them marched out at dawn into the courtyard next to the food truck, where they get one final burrito before the firing squad puts them out of their misery.

Inciting Incident

Today I hear that the Inciting Incident is under review. Everyone’s talking about it: “Did you hear about the Inciting Incident?” “Who hasn’t?” “It’s critical to the story, so I’m not surprised.” “Nothing about this place surprises me anymore.”

“I hear Pendersnout’s going all post-modern on us.” It’s the new receptionist, who’s deranged in an adorable way—rumors are she’s on a fast track to make it into a side plot, or at least a back story. She wears flashy hoop earrings and proudly shows off a tattoo of a pert hamster on her thigh. How did she find out Pendersnout has a thing for hamsters? I’ll never know, that’s for sure.

“Post-modern? Not likely.” This from an Ink-stained Wretch. Nobody knows why he’s here, or what he does either. But he has narrative cred, so we all listen. “Pendersnout’s too old school for that.”

“Hah!” says Hamster Thigh with a sneer. “Post-modern is old school. Fiction is totally retro now, or haven’t you heard?”

“Then if post-modern is old school, it’s also retro, which makes it totally now, Hamster Thigh. Or haven’t you heard?”

Ah, an argument—are things heating up? Could this be the Inciting Incident?

“Lunch break.”

Employees and unnamed visitors wander off in search of food. Guess this isn’t the Inciting Incident, after all.

Faux Pas

Oh my God. I’ve been writing Pendersnout instead of Penderstout. If any of the mucky-mucks see this, my hide is history.

Though perhaps that wouldn’t be such a bad thing. I could get taken off copyediting and put into sales, for example.

On second thought, sales? Feh. Better to be shot with the Darlings. Note to reader: please replace Pendersnout with Pendersnout wherever you see it. Thank you for patience.

Story Arc

Just the look on the face of Joan the Serious Editor as she trundles out of the meeting clutching her tablet is enough to send hamsters and other assorted rodents scurrying for cover. I focus on the one remaining square inch of desk that has not been overrun by Ink-stained Wretch’s collection of antique fountain pens and assorted bottles of ink, but it’s no good. Joan the Serious Editor has perfected the art of the Voice of Doom, and we are compelled to listen.

“Why are you here?” she says in a deceptively upbeat warble. “I mean it, people. Can you answer that question?”

Everyone looks at their shoes. Finally, Ink-stained Wretch, while expertly rolling a cigarette, holds forth. Or at least starts to. “Perfectly good question,” he mumbles through his moustache. “I believe Camus had the best answer to that one. Or Artaud, actually, in The Theater and Its Double. He said—”

“Artaud?” Joan the Serious Editor’s voice grinds the Ink-stained Wretch’s vocal meanderings into the rug. Okay, bad metaphor, but you get the drift. “Why do you think anyone here gives a damn about Artaud? I’m asking you a question. And you need to come up with an answer. Jesus.” She shakes her head and sighs. “I’m sorry. It’s just…”

“It’s the Inciting Incident, isn’t it?” interjects Hamster Thigh.

“No, it’s more than that.” Total silence now. “It’s…the Story Arc.”

We all gasp.

“The whole thing?” squeaks Ink-stained Wretch.

“Yup. Everything’s under review now. Nothing is sacred.”

“Good God,” says Hamster Thigh. “Does that mean…”

“I know what you’re thinking,” Joan the Serious Editor says. “But I just want to assure you—all you people—nobody’s going to lose their job.” She clears her throat. “But I want each of you to draft a statement summarizing your job function here at Pendersnout, Inc. Tell me how you can improve our productivity.” With that she spins on her heel and leaves us with her best authoritative stride.

“We’re fucked,” says Ink-stained Wretch. “She said the P word.”

We all know what that means. Anytime management says the P word while claiming you’re not going to lose your job, guess what happens.

Even Hamster Thigh looks downcast. “What are you going to say in your statement?” she says to me.

“Not sure yet,” I reply. “But I can start by deleting a few buts.”

“And saying Penderstout instead of Pendersnout,” adds Ink-stained Wretch.

Whatever.

Voice

A new directive has come down: the voice is no longer first person present, but omniscient third past tense. That’s not surprising, but why did it take so long for the mucky-mucks to figure it out?

Climax

Harry Penderstout looked puzzled at first, but immediately clamped on his winning smile as the visitor strode confidently into the executive suite of Penderstout, Inc.

“My son,” said Harry Penderstout, beaming widely. “Harry Penderstout, Jr., my beloved son. What brings you here?”

Harry Penderstout, Jr. chuckled softly. “Beaming widely, Dad? Really?”

His father’s smile wavered for a split second before catching itself. “My son,” he boomed, “have I ever told you that this”—here he made an expansive hand gesture toward a non-existent window—“will all be yours?”

“Two clichés in a row. Impressive, even if not ironic. Except that I’m not Penderstout now, Dad. Nobody’s named Penderstout. So now I’m Pendergast.”

The old man sighed. “I suppose the mucky-mucks insisted on the change?”

“With help from Joan the Serious Editor.”

“You might have asked me first.”

Harry Pendergast shifted uncomfortably. “That…brings up something else, Dad. I’m not asking you first anymore.”

“You’re not?”

“No, in fact I’m not asking you at all.”

The old man’s brow furrowed. “Like storm clouds?” he pondered.

Pendergast smirked. “That’s your third cliché, Dad. Your entire idiom is tired. You’ve lost your story mojo.”

Penderstout reeled with indignation. “No son of mine is going to treat me like this!” he roared. “Apologize, or I’ll have you taken out and shot with the next round of Darlings!”

His son couldn’t hide the gleam in his eye, even as he spoke softly, with concern. “The Darlings won’t be rounded up and shot anymore, Dad. They’ll be put to rest peacefully, instead.”

“What are you saying?”

“What I’m saying is that you are no longer in charge of Pendergast, Inc. I have the Board on my side, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Sorry, Dad. I love you, but you’re expendable.”

“Damn you!” Penderstout picked up his phone. “Security!”

“I agree,” Pendergast said. “Security?”

The door to the Pendersnout suite opened and four men in lab coats entered. They carried tasers and red pencils. “Come with us, Mr. Penderstout,” they said.

“Don’t worry, Dad. You’ll be well cared for in a new facility with all the modern conveniences.”

“My own son. I don’t believe this.”

“Save the histrionics, Dad.” Pendergast nodded to Security. “Take him.”

After Security efficiently hustled out Penderstout, Pendergast gingerly set himself in the old man’s chair, feeling the soft leather, inhaling its intoxicating dead animal scent.

“Finally,” he whispered to himself, “I can put this thing to rest.”

Denouement

Do you suppose Hamster Thigh got it right? Is Pendergast, Inc. now committed to post-modern fiction, or will Pendergast continue to churn out the usual pulp?

“Know what I heard?” said Hamster Thigh as she munched on her food truck burrito. “I heard this isn’t a novel, after all. It’s a short story. Almost flash, even.”

“I could have told you that all along,” Ink-stained Wretch said.

“Then why didn’t you?” I said.

Hamster Thigh cocked her head, as though listening to the wind. “Did you hear something?” she said.

“Nope,” Ink-stained Wretch said.

“I thought it was that guy.”

“The all-about-me guy?” Joan the Serious Editor had just joined the conversation. “He’s no longer here.”

Hamster Thigh and Ink-stained Wretch didn’t say another word as they finished off their burritos.

There are two basic kinds of fairies: Fairies and Faeries.

Everyone knows about Fairies. They’re the little winged ones who hang out in buttercups, help Cinderella, and grant you wishes. Disney pretty much has a patent on them.

Faeries are another matter entirely. They come from the Land of Faerie, and they have their own agendas. They can be small—or they can be human-sized. They can be a nuisance, or even deadly. If dealt with the right way, they can be a help. They can also be an enemy, a lover, or both. If you enter their land, you may never return. If you do return, you may be changed, for better or worse, and you may not remember any of it.

Recently I checked out two books on Fairies/Faeries. The one I found to be more useful is Through the Faerie Glass, by Kenny Klein. The other is The Ancient Art of Faery Magick, by D.J. Conway.

What I really like about Klein’s book is that it revels in the literary origins of Faeries. He explores myths, legends, and even old song lyrics to get at the essence of these otherworldly beings. Of particular interest to him are the ancient Welsh legends in the Mabinogian, as well as Irish legends in such tales as The Voyage of Bran Mac Febal. He also covers traditional English, Scottish, and Irish ballads about Faerie encounters, such as Tam Lin. But this is no stuffy academic study—he touches on popular culture as well, ranging from folk-pop group Steeleye Span to Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and J.K. Rowling. Though his writing style is breezy, his content is packed, and had me scrambling to Wikipedia and other sites to find out more about Queen Mab’s Wild Ride, the English antlered god Herne, and other goodies. If you like Faeries and their literary origins, this is a great book to have on your bookshelf.

Conway’s book starts right off with a poem by Conway herself, and that sets the tone for the rest of the book. After an introductory chapter, the first thing one reads is How to Find Fairies and Befriend Them. Pages are accompanied by illustrations of Fairies (not Faeries) sitting on toadstools, etc. I found no references to the Mabinogian, and few references to traditional songs and legends. Instead, the book presents itself as a guide to Faeries and the use of Magickal spells, rituals, and charms to evoke and control them. One chapter categorizes Faeries quite neatly, and includes some Faery Tales in the last chapter.

It’s easy to thumb through it and find out little interesting tidbits about Faeries. The problem is that interspersed throughout are cute little tips and advice about dealing with them that I found inherently irritating. I realize that, for some people with a deeply abiding faith in Faeries’ existence, these tips are the best part of the book. But I’d rather have the meatier approach that Klein takes. Of course, Klein professes to believe in Faeries as well, enlisting Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and W.B. Yates—literary lions who also believed in them—to the cause. But Klein seems a bit more grounded than Conway, with a few more winks in his prose. And I can fully attest that dealing with Faeries is vastly safer if done with a fair dose of winkage.

“What if?”

These two words provide the impetus for an increasingly popular class of novel known as the alternate history. What if the Allies had lost World War II? What if Jesus had organized an army and overthrown Rome? What if the Black Plague had eradicated European civilization, leading to world domination by Asian countries?

Bring the Jubilee, by Ward Moore, asks: What if the South had won the Civil War? Published in 1955, it was one of the first modern alternate histories to be published. It’s also fairly unique in that it combines the alternate history with the more traditional time travel story, replete with time travel’s inherent philosophical conundrums. Moore manages to converge these two plot devices in a way that makes for a generally good read and an exciting, if predictable, ending.

That’s not to say it’s a typical sci-fi read: no science enters into at all for the first four-fifths of the story. But I found Moore’s post-Civil War world compelling, if not terribly convincing. That’s because he’s essentially written a proto-steampunk novel that takes place in the middle of the twentieth century. Cars don’t exist; instead the fortunate few drive the occasional “minibile,” a steam-powered carriage. Electricity is virtually non-existent; illumination is here provided by the ubiquitous gaslight. It seems that, while the Confederate victory has led to a wealthy South and an impoverished—dare I say dystopian?—North, technology itself has fallen into a kind of Odin sleep.

The main character, a man strangely named Hodge Backmaker, is a bookish sort, lacking in social skills and possessing, even as a teenager, the vocabulary of a formal scholar. He constantly questions himself and his relationship with other members of Haggershaven, a quasi-Utopian community of scholars has joined. As he follows his natural bent to study history, philosophical questions about time, personal responsibility, and the role of the historian crop up now and then, either as part of his nature to mull over his own shortcomings, or in conversation with his fellows at Haggershaven. An action-packed tale this is not, though there is some romance (mixed with the usual recriminations and self-doubts).

At first I found some of Backmaker’s ramblings humorous, particularly when he winkingly references famous people from our historical line in a quotidian way in the alternate history—“Carl Jung,” for example, is a police chief. He presents a brief, but marvelously funny picture of a “Southron” gentleman who gloats over Yankee racism while teasing Backmaker for associating with a “Nigra”:

He made a gargling noise which I judged was laughter. “Wouldn’t know about your damyankee laws, boy. For myself I’d say there’s no harm in it [associating with a black person], no harm in it at all. Always did like to be around Nigras myself. But then I was rared among em. Most damyankees seem to think Nigras aint fitten company. Only goes to show how narrerminded and bigoted you folks can be. Present company excepted.

Unfortunately this sort of interchange, which reveals subtle differences in racism between our history and the alternate one, are few and far between. After he finds his way to Haggershaven, most of his interactions are with other scholars and conflicting love interests.

SPOILER ALERT: The following paragraphs reveal plot information that you may wish to remain hidden should you decide to read the novel. If so, skip to CONCLUSION.

One of those love interests is the founder’s daughter, an intense woman who has a prolonged, difficult affair with Hodge. But it’s not until late in the story that we learn that she is a scientific genius—genius enough, it turns out, to invent a time machine, even though Einstein, if he did exist in this history, was probably just a lowly bank teller, and quantum physics lay on nobody’s event horizon. This stretched my credulity—not that the inventor would be a woman, but that she could do this is in a virtual scientific vacuum. Nonetheless, she is rarin’ to go with the “HX-1” (as she calls the machine), and after it proves timeworthy it’s only a matter of, ahem, time before our man Hodge decides to take it on a spin back to the pivotal point of the Civil War—the Battle of Gettysburg—as part of his historical research.

Since the reader knows he is stuck in the past, Hodge’s fate is pretty well cast. Indeed, out of laziness or carelessness, he interacts with some Confederate soldiers just as the battle begins—and the soldiers, rather than advance to where they should have been, instead retreat. That was all that was needed to tip the battle in the Union’s favor, and the North went on to win the War.

And poor Hodge, after failing to return to his own time in 1951, realized that his own time no longer existed. Haggershaven no longer existed, and the loves of his life (the founder’s daughter, plus a woman he’d rescued earlier named “Catty”—don’t ask) no longer existed. The time machine now never existed. And he was stuck in the past forever.

CONCLUSION

I give Moore credit for creating a hero who wasn’t a martial artist, didn’t have any superpowers, and at times revealed an unpleasant personality. The colony provided an unusual social medium for him, and his philosophical thoughts on things historical provided interesting intellectual counterpoint to a plot which, for all its faults, came together in a satisfying way. I cut him some slack, too, for writing in a period—the early fifties—in which female characters were commonly depicted as emotionally overwrought or intellectually vacuous. The main character’s voice was, oddly, convincing for a man in the 1800s but not the 1900s. It was as though the entire culture of the late 1800s got frozen in time. Evidently the Confederacy, as well as other world superpowers, had achieved wealth and culture not evident in the impoverished “United States,” but the story itself takes place entirely in New York and Pennsylvania. And what about the American West? Almost nothing. Subsequent alternate histories by other authors would more creatively flesh out their worlds, but I do recognize Moore as a pathfinder for his efforts.

Postscript: As a copyeditor, I couldn’t help note the recurring, seemingly random absences of apostrophes throughout the text. Example: couldnt, no apostrophe. But on the same page: don’t, with apostrophe. It was as though the editor responsible for the final copy lived between two histories, one in which apostrophes existed and one in which they didn’t.

Since the world went mad for Harry Potter a few years back, magic—and magical realism—have made respectable inroads into literature aimed beyond the juvenile market. (That The Night Circus positions itself thus was evident to me when the word “fuck” appeared on page 10—though it’s the only time that or any other “objectionable” language is used in the story, which takes place in Victorian times and is mostly quite restrained and proper.) The Night Circus is a spellbinding tale of magical intrigue, fantastic scenes that amaze and excite the senses, and intricate storylines woven together with the Circus as the central motif. It’s a great love story, not only between the two main characters who find themselves impossibly pitted against each other, but between the narrator and the circus he so lavishly describes.

This circus is both a plague that creates pain and a passion that ignites the impossible. As I read along, I continually felt like I was actually there, part of a drama with philosophical echoes more in line with stories by Hesse, Kafka, or Calvino, with a touch of Victorian Steampunkish spice to boot. The story is written entirely in present tense, which I found annoying at first, but eventually came to realize was absolutely fitting—the narrator is less a storyteller than a scene setter, someone who paints the picture of an elaborate show unfolding before you.

I also found myself drawn in by a continual barrage of clever conversations, philosophical conundrums and, like in a good mystery, descriptions of things tilting oddly with an emotional resonance hard to resolve. At times it felt a bit much, but Morgenstern uses a brilliant narrative technique to drive the tale: she employs two story lines, one following the main characters from the time they are children, and another following a boy from a time some years in the future who also becomes involved with the circus. As the climax looms, both storylines merge, with flipping pages following like bits of flotsam sucked into a whirlpool. (Or something like that.)

Sound exciting? It is. I do have a few reservations, however. One is that I found the ending…not disappointing, but somehow weaker than I expected it to be. The story is driven by two impeccably dressed gentlemen magicians who show little sympathy at all for the people they imperil: of the two lovers, only one is supposed to survive (Hunger Games, anyone?), and it was clear to me that one of them essentially murdered another character. Evil, right? Yet as the story ends and their plans are foiled, they seem but grouchy old men, without edge or consequence.

The other reservation concerns the Muggles…er, the “ordinary citizens” of the story. These are represented solely by the “rêveurs,” fans of the circus who follow it around the world like a bunch of Deadheads following Jerry Garcia. But what about the circus employees? You know, the ones who feed the tigers and clean the cages and sweep up the popcorn and do the dirty work? Well, this circus of dreams doesn’t have workers, it seems—everything happens by magic, and the magic comes basically from one person. There are no photos here of clowns in the alley, smoking cigarettes and looking beat. And this applies to the narrative when it leaves the circus as well: everyone seems well-to-do and culturally refined, except for our young hero at the end. After all the magic fireworks, I longed for an unflinching look at social realities, if only to put things in proper perspective.

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