Sunday, August 22, 2004

THE CIRCUS IN WINTER by CATHY DAY - Day 1

"Circus proprietors are not born to sawdust and spangles."

I'm now two stories into Cathy Day's first short story collection, The Circus in Winter, and am pleased to find that I am not as jaded by my 36-year love affair with circus tales as I would have thought. From Something Wicked This Way Comes to Nights at the Circus to a hundred more, I've always loved circus fiction.

The collection begins with "Wallace Porter, or What It Means to See the Elephant," the tale of a future circus owner and his love for the doomed Irene. Irene married Porter to escape propriety, only to find herself smothered in it by a Porter energized to create propriety for her out of misguided love. She is also slowly dying from a tumor:

"Then one morning Porter woke up in a shaking bed. Irene lay on her back, panting, wet with sweat despite the chill that had crept in overnight. Her body was a curled fist, and her own fists were digging into her belly, her eyes shut tight."

I like this story because of its deceptively simple language that leads to a certain level of horror and disillusionment that's quietly powerful. It also made me think again of Silverberg's story in Flights (see below), in that both this story and Silverberg's are about a certain miscommunication in love and what that leads to. Both stories are character studies, in a sense, but in this particular case, Day is the better storyteller, in that her story unspools itself from the personality traits of the characters in a very natural way. I also got a much deeper sense of Irene's character than I did the sorceress in Silverberg's. In other words, there is a kind of dance going on in Day's story between Wallace's and Irene's expectations. Although Irene is weaker in a physical sense, she is in many ways stronger than Wallace mentally--has a stronger sense of self, and deeper control of herself. But the main point here, I think, is that in Silverberg's story the sorceress remains an object of love, unknowable, whereas in Day's story, Irene is all too knowable due to Day's narrative skill. Irene is an equal partner in the narrative, and this makes the story stronger than Silverberg's because the sorceress is not an equal partner in his story.

That Porter's ownership of the circus grows out of his realization of the way in which he has misinterpreted his wife's desires is a powerful narrative hook into the rest of the book--it hangs over the circus like an unspoken memorial to Irene and addds a sense of pathos to the second story.

The second story in Day's collection, "Jennie Dixianna," builds skillfully on the first, detailing acrobat Jennie's seduction of the lovelorn Porter, and includes a little twist, or sting in the tail/tale, that provides yet another hook into the next story, without in any way making it seem like a Twilight Zone story; all of the hooks I'm talking about are of the type that affix themselves under a particular character's skin.

Jennie has a wound with a physical manifestation:

"Jennie suffered a chronic rope burn on her wrist, a constant open sore that, when not in the ring, she hid with her long black gloves. Every one of her performances broke the wound open and left the rope stained red."

Which is why her relationship with Porter is unequal--she has the upper hand:

"She saw the pain in [his eyes], in his stoop, his gait. While others felt sympathy for him, Jennie felt only disdain. She wore her wound like a talisman bracelet, a secret treasure. Surely, Jennie thought, much could be gained from a man so weak of heart."

The way in which Jennie uses Porter, and yet Porter uses her as well, forms the heart of this tale. There are many wonderful descriptions in the story that serve to deepen the characterization, such as this description of Porter walking toward Jennie:

"In the distance, [Jennie] saw Porter trudging up the hill with Grace. He made slow, careful progress, like a man trying to cross a river of ice cracking with spiderwebs, like a man who wasn't sure if he wanted to get to the other side."

Other things I like about the story: Jennie is calculating, but also quite human, distant yet not distant, venal yet sympathetic. I like the way in which the stories, thus far, seem to be dovetailing into one another without anything seeming pat. I like, again, the seeming simplicity of the prose, which only serves in an odd way to accentuate the grotesqueries of the plots and characters. I think that a more florid style would have taken away from this element, turned a strength into something rather more indifferent.

Another thing I'm struck by is that the prose here has so much more in common with Mortal Love (Hand is precise, controlled, yet passionate, never florid--which may turn out to be a negative thing, but it's early days yet with that reading) than with the stories I've read thus far in Flights.

More tomorrow.

JeffV