I have to admit my surprise that Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus has made it to the top of so many bestseller and “best of” lists within the first two months of its release. In many ways, it’s got just what we’re looking for. Imagination? Absolutely. Gorgeous settings and haunting imagery? Full to bursting, yes. Ultimately, though, I think it is for these reasons, rather than any outstanding narrative prowess, that Morgenstern’s quasi-fantastical novel has made it to the tip of all our tongues. If any of those avid book-clubbers out there were anything like me, they read on simply because they, too, wanted to be part of this amazing circus, this literal and metaphorical loss of space-time, this black-and-white behemoth undertaking that not one performer or audience member will ever, in over 120 years, fully comprehend. But maybe in the absence of memorably strong language or character development, that’s enough, really: the 400-page world we’ve been given is the gift itself, and no more.
In this regard, Doubleday has played its hand perfectly, a masterpiece of marketing that makes the product’s aura as mysterious as its contents. A website called failbettergames.com has even engineered a sort of online RPG-esque adventure to complement the reader’s Night Circus experience, and all promotional materials for the book’s release kept true to Morgenstern’s narrative stipulations, using only the colors black, white, and red. All told, the circus is as ambitious an undertaking for the characters of the novel as it was for Morgenstern to craft. On more than one occasion, the seams of that ambition are visible to us; our first-time author strains sometimes to balance all the elements of a magic she herself has fashioned for the purposes of this novel alone – a struggle that, again, is uncanny to the one facing both Celia Bowen and Marco Alisdair, our two young protag-illusion-ists, faced with the task of holding the cacophonous circus together with all the magical prowess they can muster.
That on its own would have been an interesting challenge to see played out. But, being a trade hardcover release, we couldn’t let it wiggle out of providing us with a love story, too. Marco and Celia’s courtship might have been more compelling (they’re magicians, for God’s sake!) if they were written as less wooden figures, ones whose emotions we could actually care about in the midst of their much flashier talents for transfiguration and levitation. A paragraph like this is some example of why it’s hard to care:
Celia wishes she could freeze time as she listens to the steady beat of Marco’s heart against the ticking of the clock. To stay forever within this moment, curled in his arms, his hands softly stroking her back. To not have to leave.
Passages like this always drip with consciousness, like Morgenstern’s reading over our shoulder saying, “Because, did you see what I meant there? It’s a double-meaning! The ticking of the clock is like the circus running out of time! And the freezing of time actually is one of the feats that magicians can perform in this book! And Celia does have to leave, but instead it’s like leaving forever, because they’re locked in a battle royale with one another, a magical fight to the death! See?”
Another aspect of the book that I found needling was its wildly excessive ornamentation. The story is divided into sections, each with an introductory series of epigraphs (which feature an odd mixture of quotes from famous Shakespearean works and the writings of characters from The Night Circus itself); each section of the book is named for a particular magical realm (Incendiary, Divination), within which are chapters entitled with more specific magical elements (Cartomancy, Inception, Illumination) and which take place in a given city, month, and year (which jumps backward or forward with each new chapter, or remains the same several chapters in a row, or sometimes just the city has changed, or sometimes the city is the same but told from a different character’s POV), and sometimes the character POV switches mid-chapter (as indicated by mid-page asterisks), and sometimes new sections of the book break away from the third-person-omniscient narration into an odd sort of second-person narration that starts out like so (in an obvious effort to further immerse us into the circus atmosphere):
The sign says Hall of Mirrors, but when you enter you find it is more than a simple hall. You are met not with floor-length unadorned planes of mirrored glass, as you half expected, but hundreds of mirrors of varying sizes and shapes, each in a different frame…
Sheesh, Morgenstern, you’ve got your audience immersed already! Enough with all the gimmicky approaches to telling what is, inarguably, a colorful and engaging story as it is! And it only gets worse when, again, the author seems well aware of how loopy the ever-shifting timeframe might be, and tries to mend it with stilted character dialogue, such as when Poppet the kitten-tamer speaks with Massachusetts farm-boy Bailey:
“Remember the night we were in the Labyrinth? When we got stuck in the birdcage room?…You’re the one who finally found the key, remember?” Poppet says.
This is awkward, because the Labyrinth night in question occurred several chapters and timeframes ago for the reader, but for Bailey was only two days ago. If he doesn’t remember, he’s got bigger problems, amirite?
The Night Circus just needed, at times, to trust itself more, be more secure in the fact that the story is enjoyable and memorable and timeless, and need not have been presented to us with the oft-irritating bells and whistles that weighed it down. In spite of all that, it’s easy to see that Morgenstern’s novel is just a great Christmas gift that came in unappealing wrapping paper, too many bows, and too much Scotch tape. Once you excitedly tear it all off to get right down to the delightful core, you’ll forget all about the inconveniences of what momentarily kept that core from you. And you’ll know your own delight by the way you pine for that tangible circus, the way your mind races to the closest open forest clearing near you, and how quickly a forest of black and white and flame could materialize there.