Marco and Celia, the two young, late-Victorian protagonists of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, have been trained all their lives to take part in a non-specific magical challenge – a duel of sorts which (it’s been impressed upon them both) they must win. They have never met each other. They do not even know when they will meet each other, and when the challenge will begin.
That’s where the circus comes in: a fantastical, elegant, refined affair, confined to a palette of black, white and shades of grey, that opens at sundown and closes at dawn. Here, Marco and Celia’s works of real enchantment are concealed among more mundane wonders – contortionists and performing kittens rub shoulders with tents filled with impossible mazes and memories captured in glass bottles.
This is what circuses are for, after all. Formally speaking, literary circuses function as sites of suspension – the suspension of the rules and laws of ordinary daytime life; and the suspension of disbelief. It’s necessary that these laws be suspended, not removed, because the key thing about the circus is that it allows the anarchic energies that potentially threaten those laws to be expended safely, while normal life continues outside. Hence, liminality and uncertainty is central to the functioning of the circus: the boundary between reality and illusion is not just blurred, it is functionally non-existent. Time, too, is subject to different rules: one of the central attractions at Morgenstern’s circus is a “dreamlike” clock which turns from white to black and back again over the course of the twelve hours that the circus is open; and midnight is a significant hour for performers and audience alike.
The Night Circus is a gorgeous novel precisely because it achieves that delicate state of suspension. It’s told in the present tense, inhabiting a permanent enchanted Now; Morgenstern’s prose has a quality that is precisely dreamlike, in that past and future seem to have little hold; all is spectacle, all is immediacy. In describing the circus, Morgenstern walks the line between declaring things definitively magical or definitively illusionary; we’re allowed to inhabit a space outside rationality, where events follow a more primal and ritual logic.
It’s in this space that Marco and Celia negotiate and test the boundaries their controlling mentors have placed upon them, the binding magical contract the challenge represents (a contract they never signed or consented to). And it’s in this space that they find the freedom to bend the rules – to suspend them without escaping them fully. It probably isn’t a spoiler to say that The Night Circus is a deeply satisfying love story because of the way it dramatizes and follows through on how its circus functions.
Having said that – for a circus story, its revolutionary potential is limited by perhaps the very perfection of its circus. I’ve recently re-read Angela Carter’s terrific and challenging Nights at the Circus, in which the suspension of disbelief, the blurring of reality and illusion, is collapsed, and in doing so sort-of sparks a new and more anarchic age. The pent-up energies of the circus escape, in other words, and infect society with their vitality. The novel’s heroine is freed from her own enchanting persona and can become real, in all her complexity and humanity.
That doesn’t happen in The Night Circus. The rules of the challenge – only suspended, not fully lifted – mean Marco and Celia, and the anarchic energy they represent, must remain in the circus, safely, not affecting the structures of normality outside. We can see this conservatism reflected further in Morgenstern’s choice to make the night circus genteel: there are no peanut-munching crowds baying for blood here, just well-dressed patrons wandering, politely awestruck, into silken tents, or standing hushed in miraculously uncrowded courtyards. It is delightful. But it is not vital, not brimming with countercultural potential as Carter’s circus is.
Similarly, the novel’s minority representation is good for steampunk but bad for circus literature: there’s an LGBT Asian woman and one of the circus’ key organisers is Indian. But they’re (important) secondary characters, and the fact remains that the novel’s focus is on a largely uncomplicated het romance between two young, attractive white people. Compare, again, the LGBT subtext of Carter’s novel; its profusion of characters from disadvantaged backgrounds – those are the energies that threaten to overwhelm the societies the novel’s set in. As opposed to delicately woven set-piece enchantments.
So: The Night Circus is what it describes. A rarefied illusion; a glittering, dreamlike confection; an escape into a place more wondrous and magical than mundane reality. But it has no radical potential, no call to arms, no way to enact change. It is a world unto itself; a lovely work, but ultimately a minor one.