The Circus of Dr. Lao

Wednesday, October 10th, 2007

I’d been meaning to read The Circus of Dr. Lao for a few years now, and with Halloween on the way, I decided to pull it off the shelf and to move it to the top of the reading stack. I must say that it’s quite an unusual book, one that seems well ahead of its time in any number of ways.

A few of the reviews on Amazon ably make the point, like this review from Steven R. Dandois, ostensibly of Zothique:

File under “Apocalyptica Sardonicus”
Reading the other reviews here reminds me of the old saw about the blind men and the elephant — how one (feeling its legs) describes it as resembling a tree; one (feeling its trunk) describes it as like a rope; et cetera. The simple fact is you can’t experience this particular elephant unless you read it for yourself. It is truly sui generis.

As for the negative comments that some have lobbed at this book, I can only laugh bitterly and loudly. For the whole concept of the book is about a small-minded town that’s exposed to an act of real and genunine magic — and how the town misses the point utterly. They’re limited by their blinders, and perceive only that which can be easily categorized within their existing worldviews. Draw what parallels you may….

Be warned that despite its labelmates in the Bison series, this “Circus” has as much in common with William S. Burroughs as Edgar Rice… and psychedelic/anarchist philosopher Robert Anton Wilson owes this slim tome a debt of gratitude. (His “catalog” of characters and ideas at the back of his “Illuminatus! Trilogy” is an obvious homage to the similar catalog appendixed here.)

The “Circus” is luminous and lyrical, shifting gears from rhapsodic flights of fantasy to bitter and insightful jibes at humanity’s foibles. And it’s probably my all-time favorite book, ever. It invites and withstands re-reading after re-reading.

This review by Mark Shanks also hits its mark:

Amazingly bitter, cynical, and sardonic — I loved it!
Finney writes as though he had been possessed by the spirit of Ambrose Bierce, and to me, that’s a good thing. More of a short story than a novel (I last read it in the space of a single afternoon), “The Circus” shines light in many directions and is best appreciated after more than a single reading. Frankly, I’m astonished that it got published in the first place, and even more surprised that it here receives what amounts to a “Criterion Collection” sort of treatment, including reproductions of the illustrations by Boris Artzybasheff from the first edition.

The citizens of Abalone (plus a few visitors) are scathingly protrayed in amazingly understated passages. Presented with actual unicorns, satyrs, sea serpents, mermaids, and other “fabulous” creatures and miracles, hardly any of the townspeople can muster more than a yawn and a shrug. The ultimate spectacle, the sacrifice of a virgin to the giant bronze god of the rotten-to-the-core city of Woldercan, is absolutely a gem.

The use of several racial epithets does nothing to reflect on Finney — it doesn’t take a super-astute reader to understand Finney is reflecting on his characters, yes, even in 1935.

As most reviewers have noted — this is not a children’s book. And while the Tony Randall film of 1960 has some of its own charm (thank you, Barbara Eden!!), it is a kiddy-fied, watered-down version of this story. It was probably Finney’s experience as a newspaperman that soured him on human nature — it must be an occpational hazard, since he shares that experience with the afore-mentioned Bierce as well as with another arch-cynic, Cyril Kornbluth of “Marching Morons” fame. The writing style varies (intentionally) from pulp to inspired to crisp and concise, sometimes all on a single page. Obviously not a book for everyone, but I find it refreshing, enlightening, and supremely entertaining.

The Tony Randall movie, Seven Faces of Dr. Lao, was, despite all the wonderful five-star reviews, almost unwatchable.

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