Review: Nights at the Circus

nights-at-the-circusNights at the Circus (1984) turned out to be a wondrously unexpected confection of high Gothic camp and sly cultural criticism.

I say unexpected; in actual fact I had no idea quite what to expect going into the book. Angela Carter is famous – in some cases notorious – for her bloody, dark Gothic fairy tale retellings, awash with trenchant second-wave feminism. Never having read any of her work (and having neglected to read the back of the book before I started it), I was expecting a collection of short stories; what I got was a novel.

Nights at the Circus, then, follows Fevvers, an aerialiste travelling Europe with a circus in 1899, the last months of the nineteenth century. She’s something of an international star, due to the pair of enormous technicolour wings she sports on her back. Are they real, or false? Is she fact or fiction? Jack Walser, an American journalist, tries to find out: first by interviewing her, and then by joining the circus and following her across Europe, even to the frozen wastes of Siberia.

Like all good Gothic novels, it’s a book engaged in pushing at the limitations of narrative, which is also where Carter’s feminism – or, rather, her radicalism – comes in.

A key part of this pushing, it seems to me, is the book’s treatment of time. It’s no accident that Nights at the Circus is set right on the boundary between one century and the next: a liminal space, a pause where the nineteenth century runs out of steam and the twentieth has yet to gear up; a place of potential, and thus of uncertainty.

In the first section of the novel, in which Walser interviews Fevvers and her ever-present companion Lizzie, and is treated to an extended recitation of her increasingly colourful and unlikely life story, he hears Big Ben strike midnight. And then again. And again. Walser is a rational being, and he cannot quite fit this into his head: is it a trick? A mistake? Is he hallucinating? The uncertainty this creates – and, deftly, Carter manages to maintain it as uncertainty, never quite making the women’s power over time explicit – reverberates through the book, setting up interference patterns with its ostensibly realist mode, leaving it constantly in an, as it were, startled destabilisation that never exactly topples into something surer.

Because, of course, Nights at the Circus is pastiching the classic Victorian novel, with its three-book structure, its dense run-on syntax, the cynical and would-be objective observer (Walser) with whom the story begins; which, again, makes it all the more effective when moments of hallucinatory magic realism creep in; as when, late in the novel, the train carrying the circus through Siberia crashes in the wilderness, and Fevvers looks on the carriage that once held the tigers:

[blockquote] …the tigers were all gone into the mirrors. How to describe it. The “wagon salon” lay on its side, ripped open like the wrappings of a Christmas toy by an impatient child, and, of those lovely creatures, not a trace of blood or sinew, nothing. Only pile upon pile of broken shards of mirror…On one broken fragment of mirror, a paw with the claws out; on another, a snarl. When I picked up a section of flank, the glass burned my fingers and I dropped it. [blockquote]

Is this metaphor or truth? Hallucination or magic? The text is never allowed to retain the objectivity of Victorian narrative, and never allowed to stabilise into anything else, either. The Victorian novel is, in fact, queered: to create that carnivalesque circus-space which, matter-of-factly, defies normativity of all kinds. There is space in the circus for strong and ambiguous female relationships like Lizzie and Fevvers’; for unambivalently queer relationships like that between the female tiger-tamer and Mignon, a girl picked up on the streets of St Petersburg with a history of abuse at the hands of men; for humankind’s close cousins, the chimpanzees, to come into their own as intelligent and independent beings. This space, of course, is space denied to these groups by the traditional Victorian narrative.

It is a glorious text; but I confess to being disappointed by its closing third, which sees the circus gradually scattered by the vastness of Siberia, Fevvers herself fading from brash and defiant technicolour to more muted shades of lostness. I think there is a reading here, perhaps, that sees the trappings of civilisation, and thus the very need for such queering, stripped away by the wilderness at Russia’s heart: Walser ends up among a shamanic tribe who have no sense of historic time (here again the theme of the tyranny of history), briefly made amnesiac from the crash, so that his links to white male civilisation are shorn away, and only that experience makes him worthy to be (inevitably but still disappointingly) paired off with Fevvers. And, in a side-plot, the Siberian wasteland becomes a site for queer revolution, as female prisoners in a nightmarish pantechnicon fall in love with their female guards and rise up against their tyrant jailer. The point being, I think, that the frozen wastes outside civilisation crumble old assumptions about civilisation away, generating a new, and most importantly stable, space for the dispossessed and the downtrodden that is not fetishised and contingent as the circus necessarily is.

And yet: I missed the glorious and defiant Fevvers of the first half of the book; and I also feel uneasy about the superstitious portrayal of the Russian tribe that helps Walser to his epiphany. They exist without context in a novel in which everything else is complicated, and that feels like a lazy and an exploitative choice.

It’s not a perfect book, then; but the Gothic is not a genre of perfection; precisely the opposite, in fact. The Gothic creates gaps in our orders of signification; and here, fairly unusually, those gaps are serving a political purpose as well as a structural one. If Nights at the Circus isn’t perfect, it is at least fascinating and full of ambivalence, and my, will I be keeping an eye out for more of Carter’s work.

Afterlife: Things Forgotten

“That’s what ghosts are – they’re our own pasts haunting us, they’re our fears and our inadequacies.”


Another emotional episode from Afterlife, and although I think it’s one of the more powerful of the series, there’s not actually very much to say about it – it’s simple and potent.

Things Forgotten sees Alison alone. The ghost of her mother is gone, but so are all the other ghosts. When a teenage boy, Harry, calls on her for help, haunted by a horribly creepy child spirit with the face of a clown, she can see nothing and do nothing, and she’s horrified by the theatrics of Jennifer, another medium who Harry’s parents have called in to help. Eventually, it’s Robert and the rational wonders of Psychology that save the day, leaving Alison (and us) wondering whether there were ever any spirits at all. And if that’s true, where does that leave what Alison has been?

But, as always, the show is too clever to pin us down to one reading, and its ending casts doubt once again on the primacy of the rational. We can’t believe in Jennifer’s performance, over-the-top and over-assured (“you’re not one of us,” she spits angrily at Alison as she supports Robert’s scientific intervention. “Good,” Alison replies); but the ending of Things Forgotten leaves the rational interpretation feeling impoverished and inadequate. The answer lies somewhere in between: not as mystical and chaotic as Jennifer would have us believe, nor as mechanical and methodical as Robert thinks.

I remain impressed with the nuance of this show, its skilful treading of a line between scepticism and belief, its ability to remain between truths episode after episode. It’s still occasionally campy (although, it has to be said, much less so than in earlier episodes), and still occasionally troubling with its gender politics; but, my, has it got under my skin.


Now You See It: Ep 1

“Memory plays tricks. Memory is another word for story, and nothing is more unreliable.”

Ann-Marie MacDonald

Oooh. look, the BBC has a new magic show! Hurrah, right?

Unfortunately, it actually turns out to be something like You’ve Been Framed but with magic. So while it’s mildly interesting if you haven’t seen the clips before (which you might have, since they seem to have been garnered from sources many and various), mostly because of Mel Bake Off Giedroyc’s gently humorous narration, you’re not going to need to be glued to it every week. It’s just scheduling stuff, really. Disappointing; it’s been ages since I’ve seen any really good magic.

When’s Derren Brown coming back, again?

Doctor Who: The Talons of Weng-Chiang Pts 1 & 2

“Books were safer than people anyway.”

Neil Gaiman

#WhoOnHorror is back on this blog, mainly because ancient episodes of Doctor Who are very diverting to watch when you’re procrastinating. Because the Horror Channel only shows two episodes in one go, I’m only reviewing the first two parts of a six-parter, on the basis that I can’t remember where one part ends and the other begins.

So. Four and Leela, fresh from the exciting adventure of The Face of Evil, end up in Victorian London, intending to watch a magic show. (Doctor Who and MAGIC? Sold.) But something weird is going on. People are disappearing, there are strange noises beneath the theatre, and the writers are being just the tiniest bit racist. (All the baddies are Chinese. Is some imagination really that hard to come by?) Tom Baker appears to have become a ninja overnight, everyone is dressed as Sherlock Holmes, there’s an ROUS loose in the sewers, and I’m pretty sure the Doctor makes a Lord of the Rings reference at one point: “You can’t go walking round London in skins.” ANYONE?

Like I said, diverting. Especially when that pile of revision is calling.

Derren Brown: Infamous

“Courage isn’t a matter of not being frightened, you know. It’s being afraid and doing what you have to do anyway.”

Doctor Who

Ooh, a rare treat tonight, Constant Reader. It’s the televised version of illusionist and mind-reader Derren Brown’s latest stage show, Infamous. It’s the usual mind-bending mix of extreme headology, apparent mediumship and impressive memorisation.

Actually, it’s a bit of a mish-mash, this one. There doesn’t appear to be any overriding theme, and I’m not entirely sure what the relevance of the title – Infamous – is supposed to be. The finale is rather disappointing compared to the triumphant tying-up of, e.g., Svengali or Enigma.

But the core is still here, and it’s Brown himself who carries the show, instead of his various tricks and illusions. His personality alone, his showmanship, his manner, his way of working his audience – dear God, he’s astonishing. He does a screamingly funny impression of a Leeds medium at one point; it’s brilliantly lifelike as well as deeply satirical.

This is going to be a short review, I see. It’s because I have no more words. I could watch Derren Brown all day. And marvel that such a person could actually exist.

Jonathan Creek: The Sinner and the Sandman

“The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.”

Albert Einstein

Jonathan Creek, master supernatural detective, is back! Hurrah, right?

No, actually. Not hurrah.

Because where The Letters of Septimus Noone was all kinds of awesome, The Sinner and the Sandman falls down flat. For a start, the mystery – how did a failed psychic predict the numbers of a big lottery win fifty years before it happened? – is not very mysterious at all; it seems to me that fifty years is a lot of lottery numbers, and simple probability tells us that the right set of numbers is going to come up some time. Any intelligent detective should be able to spot that easily.

Also, Jonathan would insist on wandering around doing Random Mysterious Soliloquizing – “Oh, it all makes sense now…yes…I just have to check one thing first” – without telling us what he is banging on about, which is bad enough when he’s in company, but when he does it to himself it’s just an extremely clunky way of ratcheting up the tension by treating the audience as if they are stupid. It’s also very annoying.

Add to that the fact that Jonathan and his wife have absolutely no chemistry, a supposedly intelligent man goes out into a dark stormy night to hunt down a mysterious creature with glowing eyes (Sherlock, anyone?) and the denouement is rushed and unsatisfying, and you find that The Sinner and the Sandman is a clunky, not-very-inspired disappointment from Jonathan Creek.

Maybe next week’s will be better.

Jonathan Creek: The Letters of Septimus Noone

“Yes, she was stupid, yes, she was mad, but she was mad for the right reasons and thank God for people like that sometimes.”

Jonathan Creek

It’s always nice to see Jonathan Creek again, isn’t it?

This week, the illusionist detective finds himself caught up in a real life locked-room mystery: the stabbing of an actress taking part in, get this, a theatrical production of a fictional locked-room mystery. He is helped (or, rather, hindered) by a wannabe forensic scientist who clearly fancies himself as a real-life Sherlock and…well, it’s all delightfully meta.

Which is just as well, really, since this is one of those “mysteries” whose answer you are rather helpfully given right at the beginning. The fun here, apparently, is in watching Creek and Wannabe Forensic Scientist trying to work the thing out, and, incidentally, solving another, more personal mystery from Mrs Creek’s past.

It was, certainly, a far better offering than the train-wreck that was The Clue of the Savant’s Thumb, the last Creek mystery we were treated to: an unambitious, gently humorous episode with some engaging side-characters (the make-up artist and Sharon the Insensitive Mother stood out particularly), a funny little parody of, well, Sherlock and Other Murder Mysteries (I particularly liked that the Let Me Tell You A Story bit happened on stage – it’s all a bit of a performance, isn’t it?) and, as a sort of bonus, a couple of musical numbers. Intelligent, a little bit creepy and quietly optimistic, plus Jonathan Creek. Excellent Saturday-night entertainment.

Top Ten Books I’d Want On A Desert Island

“The First looked like a woman who could stand upright under any doom.”

Stephen Donaldson

Because BBC iPlayer Download is not working properly. Nor, in fact, is the rest of the Internet (hence my frequent hiatuses recently).

  1. The Lord of the Rings – J.R.R. Tolkien. I know I put this on the top of EVERY LIST EVER, but, come on, it’s 1000+ pages long (I’m taking the one-volume version) and it’s such a big story. I’m assuming I’m going to be on this Desert Island for a while.
  2. Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens. For similar reasons: it’s long, it’s got a large cast of varied and awesome characters, and it’s really sweet and sentimental and lovely.
  3. The Waste Land – T.S. Eliot. You could read this three hundred times and still not get it. Reading it is like doing the crossword: an absorbing but ultimately pointless task that gives you hours of fun (or, alternatively, throwing things at innocent palm trees).
  4. House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski. See The Waste Land, above.
  5. Robot Dreams – Isaac Asimov. Twenty stories in one: an efficient and thought-provoking use of book space.
  6. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell. Again, it packs a huge amount of story into a comparatively small volume, plus it’s awesome.
  7. The Historian – Elizabeth Kostova. VAMPIRES and LIBRARIES and LOTS OF PAGES.
  8. Going Postal – Terry Pratchett. Well, I’ve got to have one Discworld novel, haven’t I? What else am I going to read when I’m depressed about not seeing any people ever again?
  9. The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant – Stephen Donaldson. Because Covenant is always in “a worse place and a blacker danger” (yes, there IS a Tolkien quote for every occasion) than anything you might face on a desert island. Possibly the answer to the question posed in #8, above.
  10. I’m going to be That Person and say Wilderness Survival for Dummies for my last space. Let’s be practical here. Books are of very little use if you’re not alive to read them.

(The theme for this list was suggested by The Broke and the Bookish’s meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Sherlock: The Empty Hearse

“I believe in Sherlock Holmes.”


Hurrah! Everyone’s favourite emotionally illiterate genius detective is back in London to uncover a potential terrorist attack involving the Fifth of November, an underground train and the Houses of Parliament.

Because we haven’t seen that plot anywhere before. Especially not in a dystopian film about a terrorist in a Guy Fawkes mask starring Hugo Weaving and Natalie Portman.

But there was so much to squee about in this episode, though, to be honest, the terrorism plot took second place to Character Development: to John’s anger at Sherlock and his relationship with Mary; to Sherlock’s awesome back-and-forths with Mycroft; to Molly Hooper; and, of course, to Anderson’s guilt and relentless conspiracy-theorising that curiously resembles the conspiracy-theorising of people on YouTube right now.

Oh, and did I mention Derren Brown?


Does it get any better?

Well, in fact, it does, because it turns out SHERLOCK LISTENS TO LES MISERABLES.

Now all we need is a contingent of hobbits.

The Empty Hearse wasn’t, admittedly, the best episode of Sherlock ever (The Great Game or possibly The Reichenbach Fall still hold the top spots): the whole thing was a little incohesive and Sherlock came across as a little preachy at some points. But it’s still one of the best pieces of television I’ve seen recently (I would say “this year” but since it’s only the 2nd January that’s not much of a compliment) and I did not want it to end. Ever. Mainly I just like that he’s back. Solving crimes, annoying people and generally being badass.

Excuse me, I’m off to laugh at all the YouTube conspiracy theorists who got  it wrong.

Derren Brown: The Great Art Robbery

“Oh! what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practice to deceive.”

Walter Scott

Oh yes.

He’s back.

And this time, the mind magician is stealing a £100,000 painting from under its owner’s very nose. Literally, in fact. With the help of four elderly people who have in all probability never done anything worse in their lives than “accidentally” go home with a pen from the stationery cupboard.

Brown claims he’s trying to change our perceptions of elderly people, but we all know this is a lie. Really he’s just doing what he always does, which is impress people, and perhaps freak them out just a tiny bit.

And this leads quite nicely into the Moral of the Story (otherwise known as Rule One), which is: Derren Brown lies. All the time. Are you telling me, really, that he couldn’t have informed the local police that, by the way, a film crew are going to be graffiti-ing this wall? Of course not. And are you telling me that any stunt designed by Derren Brown could possibly go wrong? Even if it is executed by upstanding, honest citizens? Of course not.

We know this. And yet we get fooled every time. Despite the fact, and this is the really good bit, that he told us exactly what he was going to do. There I was, thinking smugly, “I know Rule One! No-one can fool me! I know exactly what Derren Brown is doing!”, right up until the point when it inevitably turned out that I knew nothing. Because, in spite of all the warnings and hints, I, and probably much of the country, was looking in the wrong place. Again.

I’d like to finish with the observation that a man who says to an unsuspecting member of the public whose watch he has just nicked, “Sorry I took your time” is probably impossible to second-guess. Even if you bear in mind Rule One.