In the past few years, circuses have been taking up more and more of the national imagination, in every form from books (such as J. Dee Hill’s Freaks and Fire), to TV shows (HBO’s series Carnivale), to actual independent circuses (such as Circus Contraption out of Washington state, and The Bindlestiff Family Cirkus of New York City). There seems an almost predestined link between circuses and queerness, what with the history of bearded ladies and other gender-blending performances; the American dream of running away from a repressive Midwestern small town to a wild life with a traveling sideshow; and of course the fabulous, short and tight, sequined and glittered, feathered and fangled costumes. It seems surprising, then, that so few of the books set in the circus demimonde explore this link. The stage seems set (so to speak) for just such a novel, and Patti Frazee’s Cirkus is one of the first to appear. Unfortunately, for all of the early promise of the setting and the content, the novel itself is a mishmash of clichés and stock characters, with little in the way of exciting or inventive plot development.
The story follows a group of performers with an Eastern European circus that has recently immigrated to the United States, circa 1900. Mariana, the primary narrator, is a headstrong Gypsy fortune-teller and witch, who is married to the manager of the circus, Jakob. Shanghai, the other main character, is a fire-juggling dwarf who pines for his lost love Milada, a former trapeze artist who Mariana has made him forget. As the novel begins, the circus is joined by Anna and Atasha, beautiful and innocent conjoined twins whose family can no longer stand to live with them. Frazee seems to substitute these characters’ physical abnormalities for unique or interesting personalities, depending on their being strange to make them seem realistic, but this doesn’t work in a story set in a sideshow. A fire-juggling dwarf might be unique as the hero of a work of police drama, or romance, but in the circus, he’s just another cliché.
Furthermore, the motivations Frazee creates for her characters are rarely sensible. Shanghai is pining for his lost love, who he is only just beginning to remember... yet falls instantly in love with one of the conjoined twins. Mariana fears and hates all of sideshow performers, believing them cursed, and refuses to associate with them or perform her magic upon them... except, mysteriously, for Shanghai, with whom she is inexplicably in love. Many of the plot devices are similarly clumsy, stock plot pieces that feel stuck in by the author rather than rising organically from the characters and their situation. In essence, the novel lacks reality.
Perhaps worst of all, the writing of queerness in Cirkus feels extremely dated, expressing a sensibility that seems out of place in a recent novel, especially one by queer publishing house Alyson Books. The revelation of queerness towards the end of the novel is meant as a shock to the reader. Spoiler alert: haven’t we come far enough that transsexual and transgender characters can simply exist, without having to be the twist ending? While it makes sense for the revelation to be a surprise to characters within the novel, it feels like a cheap thrill to try and surprise the reader - one that has already been undermined by the novel having been published by Alyson, and not containing any other visible queer content.
All in all, Cirkus is disappointing and disjointed. There isn’t a single character both real enough and likable enough to hold on to. In the end, I would rather have spent my time re-reading Geek Love, by Katherine Dunn, an amazing novel from the early 1990’s that utilizes many of the same tropes as Cirkus, but in original and powerful ways.
by Patti Frazee
Published by Alyson Books, $24.95