On Emily Mortgenstern’s The Night Circus, Paul Cunningham’s The House of the Tree of Sores, and Josh Malerman’s Bird Box
The first comparison that comes to mind to Emily Mortgenstern’s The Night Circus isn’t a favorable one. The only book in the past to be recommended to me as frequently (and fervently) as The Night Circus, after all, was Delia Owens’s Where the Crawdads Sing, which I finally caved and read and was disappointed by earlier this year. Which isn’t fair, exactly—I liked Mortgenstern’s debut, which is more than I can say for Owens’s. But the most serious shortcomings of The Night Circus are even more evident in Where the Crawdads Sing, and point to a quality of craft I’m finding increasingly necessary for my literary enjoyment. Because a good story, while nice enough on its own, does not make a good novel. As far as I’m concerned, it’s not even the main criterion. No: the thing I need, I think, is prose that demands to be read twice. This style can be simple (think Raymond Carver, Kelly Link, George Saunders) or complex (think Thomas Pynchon, Cormac McCarthy, Joy Williams); what is essential is that it occasionally (and not for lack of clarity) leaves me shaking my head. I want to be challenged; I want to be forced to question my most deeply-held beliefs. And The Night Circus, for all the things it does well, does not do this.
This being said, I fully understand the novel’s appeal. Like Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, it tracks two magicians—Celia Bowen and Marco Alisdair—over the course of several decades. We follow the history of the Night Circus—a fair that appears, as if by (gasp!) magic, in the middle of the night—from its conception to its threatened dissolution. We are treated to the same spectacles as its visitors, and we are presented these sights just as a visitor might be: from the seats, from beyond the pop-up barricade, with only the occasional glimpses into the circus’s interior. Any exploration of the magic that holds it all together is cursory, a prerequisite to both the spectacles and the central romance that Mortgenstern prefers to direct our attention toward. And for fans of this sort of fantasy, this is more than okay: this is perfect. Let the show (as Chandresh Lefevre, the founder of the Night Circus, might say) go on.
But Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell excels exactly where The Night Circus falls flattest. In the former, it’s the protagonists themselves who drive the plot. The magicians, once the closest of friends, each champion a different school of magic. And over the novel’s nearly 800 pages, we watch each man’s respective obsession destroy him. In The Night Circus, by contrast, it’s the protagonists’ tutors—for Celia, her father, Henry Bowen; for Marco, a man known only by his “grey suit”—that have chosen their fates. The moral integrity of the pair themselves is never in question: their love is pure, and therefore deserves to (and does) conquer all opposition.
Now, all this talk of moral ambiguity and antiheroic angst may seem beside the point. What does virtue (or the lack thereof), after all, have to do with an author’s style? But what I’ve found is that the complexity of a writer’s philosophy—the completeness with which they’ve considered and/or rejected the world—it’s this that determines their voice. Doubt, resignation, numbness, despair: these are points of view impossible to either fake or conceal. The Night Circus suffers, in other words, because its romance so completely succeeds. It is pleasant to imagine that love might exist without doubts, that it might defy all detractors without ever threatening itself. But this isn’t how love works. Love is difficult; love, more often than not, implodes. The fact that it sometimes doesn’t—that it survives the self-destructive natures of the lovers themselves—this is what makes a romance worthwhile. And this is what defines all good stories, I’ve found: the primary obstacle of the protagonist is themselves. To obtain their desires they must first and foremost overcome their own failings. All other challenges are secondary.
The other two texts I recently finished—Paul Cunningham’s House of the Tree of Sores and Josh Malerman’s Bird Box—sandwich The Night Circus within this spectrum. The first of these, a collection of prose poetry written by a Swedish-English translator and poet, builds for us a house of unbuilt IKEA furniture and sentences that should not exist. “Honest Abesman,” he writes, in one of the collection’s most furious poems, “Gatorade-emblazoned with adjustable arms protruding forward, forward, forward (THIRSTY) March, deposits (STILL THIRSTY) April, deposits (BLOODTHIRSTY) May, deposits these months deposit stuntman after stuntman (SOIL-RESISTANT PUBLICITY STUNTS) one after another.” In Cunningham’s poems, one finds only the presentation of the problem of living as a transplanted Swede in America, not the explanation. He is isolated, oppressed, and enraged at this state—and he refuses to explain the many, many reasons why. “Gentlemen,” he elsewhere writes, “start your sondmatar. Some assembly required. (Can be employed to further employ camera shake.) Noun, linking verb, predicate adjective. (Waterproof and fogproof.) Noun, verb. (Designed for photographers and graphic designers.) Noun, intransitive verb. Untranslatable verve.” He is obsessed with language, pinioned by the onus of interpretation. The text embodies this state. If we, the non-Swedish-speaking readers of the collection, fail to translate certain aspects of it, then so be it. The purpose of The House of the Tree of Sores is to remain opaque, and through this opacity cast Cunningham’s daily burden, if only briefly, onto us.
Josh Malerman’s Bird Box, meanwhile, was a good read. It took me a day-and-a-half to read. It was a good read, and it possesses lessons in pace and plot worth learning. It was a good read. This being said: it was my least favorite thing I read over these last two weeks, and by a wide margin. I will think of it only rarely after publishing this post. But I will think of its popularity—as well as that of The Night Circus, and the relative unpopularity of The House of the Tree of Sores—a lot.
Difficult: this is the sort of art I both seek out and seek to produce. But I am reminded (once more) that this difficulty comes at a cost.