October 22, 2009 § 1 Comment
Now reading: Nights at the Circus.
Now I am faced with a horribly difficult question, a question that has bothered me to distraction (no shortage of distractions on the good ol’ Web), a question I’m still not quite sure how I’m going to answer: just what do I think of these chimps and these clowns?
There are both, in spades, in the second section of this book, set in St. Petersburg. There are also a communicative pig, two tiger attacks, and a very strange finale that I’ll also have to discuss. But I keep coming back to the chimps and the clowns. What the hell’s going on here?
This section reminded me of a favorite book, in need of rereading: Stephen Dobyns’ The Wrestler’s Cruel Study, which should be a cult classic, though I’ve never met anyone else who’s heard of it, much less read it. (Maybe I just don’t get out enough.) That book also involves some intelligent primates, and has a similar kind of madcap energy and balance of philosophical heft and absurdist incident to Carter’s book, and especially this second section.
But about the monkeys. Chimps, actually, to be specific. They are Lamarck’s Educated Apes, twelve of them. When we meet them, they’re rehearsing their act, a classroom scene. But they seem to be actually learning, and discussing; and, we find out later in the chapter, they can, indeed, write (or at least their leader, the Professor, can). Lamarck is an abusive drunk; the chimps end up striking out on their own, after Colonel Kearney, the circus’s owner, cheats them.
And then there’s the clowns. And there are twelve of them, too, actually — or is it thirteen, with Judas-Walser? The comparison to the apostles is made explicit; Buffo the Great, the clown’s leader, as Christ. After some earlier fun with a travesty of the resurrection, they have a travesty of the Last Supper, which leads to a very drunk Buffo losing his mind, trying to kill Walser and getting committed.
They’re a gloomy lot, these clowns, given to philosophy and quotations from somewhat unlikely sources. King Lear, for instance. The “twin” musical clowns, Grik and Grok, engage Buffo in an exploration of uselessness and nothingness:
“…turned into more than the sum of our parts according to the dialectics of uselessness, which is: nothing plus nothing equals something, once—”
“—you know the nature of plus.”
….But Buffo wasn’t having any.
“Bollocks,” he said, heavily, belching. “Beg pardon, but balls, me old fruit. Nothing will come of nothing. That’s the glory of it.”
And the entire company repeated after him soft as dead leaves rustling: “That’s the glory of it! Nothing will come of nothing!”
So what are we to make of these two groups of twelve? The Professor and the chimps carry themselves with a dignity and sense of decorum all out of line with the behavior of the rest of the circus, and most especially with the obscene, scatological, debased clowns. I am not sure what the import of all of this is supposed to be, quite honestly. The messiness of humanity does seem to be part of “the glory of it,” in Carter’s eyes, and also part of the tragedy of it (see Mignon’s story, about as messy as it gets: the messiness of murder, and abuse, and abject poverty).
Colonel Kearney calls his circus “the Ludic Game,” and one wonders if that’s how Carter saw this book — or at least the Petersburg section of it: her mind at play, over matters serious and frivolous alike, amusing itself and hopefully others. The section ends with what sure seems to be a flight into surrealism or plain and simple magic, as Sophie escapes an evil Grand Duke’s clutches by dropping a toy train onto his gorgeous carpet; we then find ourselves suddenly on the real Trans-Siberian Express. It’s a disorienting section break, one I’m not exactly sure I’ve interpreted correctly, and one no author who wanted her readers to remain straight-faced would have undertaken. But it also seems to fit with a St. Petersburg episode so superabundant with ideas, stories, and language.