There’s an important place in fantasy literature for places and events that are just flat-out amazing — colorful, fresh, spectacular, and beautifully fleshed out by the author. But is an amazing spectacle all that’s needed to propel a novel, or are readers entitled to expect more?
This question forced itself on me as I read Erin Morgenstern’s best-selling 2011 novel The Night Circus. Amazement the book has in abundance. There’s also a plot of sorts, within which are deployed falling in love, mysterious machinations, and a suspenseful ending. But when examined in the cold light of day, the plot is tissue-thin. As are the characters.
The generous way to view this is that The Night Circus isn’t properly a novel at all — it’s a fable. This is not necessarily a fatal failing. William Goldman’s The Princess Bride is a fable, and well loved. A case could be made, for that matter, that Lord of the Rings is a fable, not a novel.
In a fable, the people aren’t real people and the settings aren’t real places. The people and settings exist only as elements in a design.
Morganstern’s story (and here we’re going to get into some serious spoilers, so stop reading if you want the not entirely unalloyed pleasure of discovering The Night Circus for yourself) concerns a long-standing rivalry between two men whom we may as well call wizards. We never learn how old they are — centuries, certainly. The setting is the 1890s in Europe and the United States, and magic is quite real, but most people prefer not to know that.
These two have contests. They’ve done it more than once. But they’re much too civilized to engage directly in magical combat. Instead, each of them teaches magic to a protege. The proteges are then set against one another. (The exact manner in which they’re set against one another is never made at all clear, and even in a fable the reader would like to see and understand this.) Hector chooses his young daughter Celia, and Alexander finds a young man named Marco at an orphanage. Celia and Marco are schooled for years, until their abilities are truly amazing.
They grow up. Eventually they meet, and — who would have guessed it? — they fall in love. The nature of the contest remains very shadowy, but it gradually becomes clear that one of them will have to die. The winner will be the one who remains standing when the other dies. And they cannot withdraw from the contest. If they try, they suffer unimaginable pain.
The venue in which the contest takes place is, of course, a circus. A very special circus. It’s special because it’s only open at night, travels quite mysteriously from one city to another, and features spectacular, magically engineered performances (though really we see only a few of them). Morgenstern devotes many, many pages to describing the wonders of the circus and the exotic midnight parties thrown by the man who owns it. Page after page after page of wonders, while the plot lies dormant.
I won’t call the plot a Norwegian Blue parrot, because it does twitch occasionally. After a while, though, I started skimming the descriptions of the circus and the parties, looking for the bits where the story moved forward. As Elmore Leonard once said, “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.” Morgenstern seems not to have taken Leonard’s advice to heart.
Celia and Marco are not real people. They exist on the page only as pawns of their wizard tutors and as producers of spectacular magical circus acts. They have no doubts, no quirks, no weaknesses, no interest in the lives of anybody outside the circus. Eventually they enjoy a night of bliss, and Morgenstern mentions how Marco unlaces Celia’s corset — this is the 1890s, remember — but the fact that corsets produced cruel wrinkles in women’s flesh is beneath Morgenstern’s notice. Celia’s corset is not a real corset, it’s just a stage prop.
The same can be said of the entire circus. It’s just a glittery tinsel stage prop. Audiences throng to the circus, but there are no real people among the audiences — no crying children, no unhappy old men with bad teeth, no drunken women falling down. People stroll among the tents, ooh and ahh at the circus acts, and then depart into the night. The people are stage props too.
In a sort of veiled O. Henry ending, Celia and Marco are each planning to immolate themselves to save the other. But they manage to self-destruct together, thus producing a stalemate in the contest. At the end they’re still alive and together in a sort of half-life, solidly flesh to one another but able to pass through the stuff in the circus like ghosts. What they will find to eat in such a situation is of no concern to the author.
The young man who is recruited at the end to keep the circus going, a lad named Bailey, has no visible qualifications for the job. Morgenstern has plucked him up like a rabbit out of a hat. In a telling passage, he pursues the circus from Boston to New York, arrives in New York, and rushes out to the field where the circus has been set up. But this is not the real New York! In 1902, the air of New York was laden with smoke from railroad trains, which burned coal. There were still thousands of horses on the streets, producing horse manure and, in consequence, swarms of flies. Thanks to the recent inventions of Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, the skies above the streets were liberally festooned with crisscrossing wires. And of course there were beggars, including occasional Civil War veterans with no legs. But Bailey encounters none of this. His New York is nothing but a stage prop.
The worst thing about the plot, however, is that the two wizards who put Celia and Marco through years of vague but impressive torment pay no price. They’re evil wizards, and at the end of the book they’re free to go right on being evil. Celia and Marco entirely fail to combat their tormenters. The story, that is to say, has no moral corset stays. Oddly for a fable, it’s cynically amoral. It’s about two pawns who are never anything but pawns.
It’s sure pretty, though.