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Dreaming in Black and White

by Carol Cooper

The Night Circus
by Erin Morgenstern
Doubleday, 2011, $26.95, 384 pages

Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus is the best first novel I've read since William Gibson's Neuromancer. And although it's a dark metaphysical fantasy set on the cusp of the 1900s, while Gibson's book was near-future science fiction that foretold the rise (and mixed results) of a commercialized Internet, they share an intensely evocative and visual style of writing that makes the imaginary worlds they create unforgettably vivid and provocative.

The Night Circus shares a Dickensian view of childhood and child labor with the Harry Potter franchise and the Battle School scenario of Orson Scott Card's brutally Darwinian Ender's Game. But where Morgenstern differs most from multi-volume series writers like Rowling and Card, is that she dares to compress a trilogy's worth of character development into a single well-crafted tome. Just when you think the hackneyed device of a gifted-but-starcrossed sorcerer's apprentice has been worked to death, a new writer appears who knows how to give it new life and meaning.

Morgenstern weaves together many different ideas to reinvent this well-worn trope, from post-Impressionist art theory to the fiction and poetry of the French Decadents. Here philosophy, romance, history and stage magic are juggled together into a surprisingly profound entertainment that satisfies a part of the human psyche that neither pure logic nor pure physical pleasure alone can touch. The Night Circus is not the only work of genre fiction to use a mysterious travelling circus as its central metaphor and staging ground -- as fans of Charles Finney's 1935 satire The Circus of Dr. Lao can attest. Moreover, the yearly high-concept tours which take the striped big-tops of Le Cirque Soleil around the world can't help but have been a subconscious influence. Nevertheless, Morgenstern's reinterpretation of such possible source material -- whether mundane or arcane -- produces unique results.

The two adult male protagonists that set this story in motion are solitary, virtually immortal beings, who've learned to metaphysically manipulate consensus reality to the point where all religion-based definitions of "good" and "evil" no longer apply. Because their abilities would be neither understood nor welcomed by society at large, they interact with ordinary human beings much as we might interact with trees, pets, or food animals. So they seemingly fall into the same existential trap Michael Moorcock explored in "An Alien Heat"; that if humans achieve both immortality and an effortless supply of natural resources, they will eventually exhaust all animal urges except a relentless need to alleviate boredom. In this case, Hector and Alexander (each masters of very different metaphysical styles), decide periodically to entertain themselves by training two protégés for a Battle Royale to prove which magical method is superior.

The contest begins with competing attractions within the confines of a magical circus constructed for the two combatants where they push the envelopes of art and science to fabricate interactive exhibits that not only probe the limits of molecular physics, but also the nature of love and the power of innocence. The diverse array of individual tents and the grounds they straddle are all striped or colored in oppositional black and white. This monochromatic rigor is underscored by the black wrought-iron fence which surrounds them. This elaborate arena soon becomes internationally known as The Circus of Dreams and opens to the public only at night.

A Smith-trained studio artist, Morgenstern constructs each sentence and chapter with the architectural instincts of a sculptor. Clues to the several mysteries which propel the action are folded like origami into unexpected twists and turns so that readers can follow her circular narrative as it loops and doubles back on itself like a minotaur's labyrinth. Each new character when introduced is marked by some colorful sign of their nature and purpose in the plot like the iconography which encodes a tarot deck.

In fact, color and the symbolic meanings of color: grey, silver, blue, black, white, gold and red, are strategically invoked throughout this novel. The author is literally painting with words, using allusive visual cues to trigger persuasive cascades of synesthesia, especially during scenes that revolve around signature circus illusions. There is no doubt that all the implied dangers and delights of Le Cirque des Reves are real to its creator, which is why she can make them equally tangible to her readers. Morgenstern admits to revising this book at least twice, but I would imagine she needed a third or fourth rewrite to think through the clockwork precision of every extraordinary machine and event described herein. Not only is The Night Circus simply fun to read more than once, it was obviously crafted to reward second and third readings with more information and emotional resonance each time around.

Published in: Pacific Rim Review of Books, April 18, 2012