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Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Nights at the Circus (1984) by Angela Carter

Cover art for Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter
Book Review
Nights at the Circus (1984)
 by Angela Carter

   The Twin Peaks principle of popular entertainment might be that works that alienate a significant portion of the largest general audience ALSO create a higher level of audience appreciation among the remaining audience.  This heightened level of audience reaction among a smaller set of the largest general audience for a work of popular culture (a television show on a major network before the internet) is a key to maintaining a larger audience for a longer time period vs. works that appeal to a larger audience initially.  The Twin Peak principle is a specific example of the "cult" art work phenomenon, largely but not wholly confined to the 20th century, where a work fails to find an audience during it's initial release, and is only "discovered" years after the initial publication of the work.

   Nights at the Circus is an interesting literary example of this Twin Peaks principle, a work that is off-putting to large portions of the audience for literary fiction, but whose appeal to those who remain has formed the basis for an enduring audience. Largely written in a post-modern approximation of a Cockney patois from the early 20th century, Nights at the Circus is about a half-woman/half-swan and the American journalist who is trying to get the scoop, in the same way that Ulysses by James Joyce is about a guy walking around Dublin.

    Even if you are passably familiar with the Cockney dialect of the main character, Carter deploys many of the techniques of high post-modernism to obscure the development of the narrative, mis-identifying characters, relying on dialogue without any framing narration, skipping through time and space between chapters and generally omitting all of the signaling techniques that novelists typically use to guide audience expectations of what comes next.

  Which is not to say that Nights at the Circus doesn't have it's moments, when Sophie Fevvers- the swan woman, coherently recounts the circumstances of coming of age in a turn of the century whore house in London, or when the Circus is marooned in the Russian Tundra, the hostages of Russian peasant rebels who have decided that the help of Fevvers is crucially necessary to the pursuit of their cause.  It is clear that the number of works of "experimental" literature is declining as a percentage of the books included on the initial 1001 Books list.

  If you compare, let's say, the 1920's- with it's 67 titles within the 1001 Books list, there are very few books included that aren't experimental or cutting-edge in some significant way.   Authors with multiple titles in the 1920's portion of the list include arch modernists like Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf and Proust.  Many of the one time appearing French and German language authors from the 1920's are experimental or avant garde: Nadja by Andre Breton, Radiguet, Alfred Doblin, Chirico, Faulkner was writing in America in the 1920's. Even mainline non-experimental writers from the 1920's like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway continue to exercise a disproportionate influence on contemporary literature and criticism.

  Few of the titles from the 1920's are what you would call "block busters" or "hits," mostly because they hadn't really been identified back then, but there was a developed international market for fiction. In the 1980's, most of the books are commercial hits first, critic certified second.  Most of the titles from the 1980's are still in print, still being sold in book stores.

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