Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Morgenstern's 'Circus' mostly sweet dreams

Open the cover of Erin Morgenstern’s novel, The Night Circus. Turn the first pages and the black and white on the pages start to take shape:  From mere print springs black and white striped tents full of mesmerizing acts -- as if this were a pop-up book. Turn a few more. Like a flap book, the Le Cirque des Reves, the Circus of Dreams, will likely lure you in to seek its secrets.
The Cirque des Reves has many peculiar qualities. It is only open from dusk to dawn and locates according to an unknown schedule.  As unpredictable as a dream, the circus materializes seemingly out of nowhere and disappears the same way.
And like a dream it’s easy to get lost in.  A young visitor named Bailey does: “And every turn he took through the twisting striped pathways led to more tents, more signs, more mysteries. …. Everything was magical and it seemed to go on forever. None of the pathways ended, they curved onto others or circled back to the courtyard.”
Yet we discover the circus was created not just for visitors’ pleasure but as a venue for a mysterious challenge.  Two illusionists make a gentleman’s wager in which they pit their protégés against each other. Prospero proposes the challenge and binds his naturally and presumably genetically talented daughter, Celia, to the task.  Celia at age 5 is already adept at exploding a cup of tea and putting it back together again—tea and all.   As her father’s apprentice, she learns by doing, dragged from theater to theater, given private lessons in mending broken dolls, bird’s wings and finger wounds.  The man in the gray suit, aka Alexander, adopts an orphan, isolates and surrounds him with books as well as facilitates occasional visits to museums and libraries.  The youth, who names himself Marco, reads his way to illusion via mythologies, histories, novels. He masters ancient tomes and foreign languages, runes, spells and charms.
                 Orchestrated by theatrical producer Chandresh Chrisophe Lefevre and organized at an intimate Midnight Dinner, the circus is designed and overseen by a unique creative group that are (save for Alexander) unaware of the challenge. Each, like an ingredient in a charm potion, brings something rare to the mix. Mme Ana  (Tante) Padva, a retired Romanian prima ballerina and “a fiend for aesthetics” with an eye for fashion, brings her personal sense of style which is “slightly morbid, incredibly elegant.”  Ethan Barris, engineer and architect brings structure.  Sisters, Tara and Lainie Burgess, Janes of all trades –  i.e. dancers, actresses and  librarians are careful observers of nuance  and detail.  Mr. A. H-- , aka Alexander,  brings Marco to serve as Lefevre’s assistant and prime arranger as he competes clandestinely in the challenge.
               Lefevre knows what he doesn’t want . “No elephants or clowns. Something more refined than that. Nothing  Commonplace. This will be different. This will be an utterly unique experience, a feast for the senses. Theatrics sans theater, an immersive entertainment.”  Think Victorian counterpart to the contemporary and colorful Cirque to Soleil  -- mystique, elegance and exotic flair.
               Lefevre knows what he wants when he sees it: the extraordinary contortionist, Tsukiko, and the illusionist, Celia. Once Celia is hired, the pieces are in place.
The undefined challenge is something like a chess match played out in ever-expanding tents of the circus, whose linking pathways are appropriately checkered in black and white squares.  The color motif suggests shades of the night. The circus features some of the more usual things—aerialists and  acrobats (though these work with no nets) and halls of mirrors and tents with names like  Flights of Fancy, Ethereal Enigmas, Fearsome Beasts and Strange Creatures.
As Marco and Celia make their moves, they provide the extraordinary: A multi-colored magical bonfire, a carousel of ravens, gryphons, foxes and wyrens, an ice garden and cloud maze, a labyrinth a menagerie and a wishing tree, among others.   The competing creators balance desire and control often using elements of fire and ice, a combination the poet Robert Frost might admire -- until both desire and control begin to take their toll and the competitors learn the cost of illusion.  
               The bettors occasionally reappear.   Hector, like many a modern-day parent seems both to be always hovering, and never quite there for his daughter.  The man in the gray suit seems absent even when he’s present.  Add to the cast of characters, Isobel, the fortune teller, and a younger generation of performers, twins Poppet and Widget -- one who can read the future, the other can see the past. 
              The circus is so successful it has a chronicler, Herr Friedrick Thiessen, as well as a cult following, circus goers who call themselves Reveurs. They dress in shades of black, white and gray with sashes and scarves of red.  The cult spreads the show’s unpublished schedule through word of mouth and members follow the performances in a kind of Victorian version of Grateful Dead fans.  The most mesmerized of fans is Bailey, a young man torn between the dreams of his grandmother, Harvard, and his father, take over the family farm).
               First-time novelist Erin Morgenstern takes after several of her characters.  Part Tante Padva,   the costume designer, she dresses her characters beautifully.  Part Lefevre, event planner/ theatrical producer, she creates grand feasts and arenas for extravagant feats. Wonderful food smells waft through the book and magnificent meals are served.  She shows an attention to details worthy of the Burgess sisters and her structures hold up nicely as Ethan’s.  Like Thiessen, she chronicles. Like Isobel she divines. But the two characters she most resembles are the illusionists, Marco and Celia, who create magical dreamlike worlds for us to roam around in. More than just visual or sensory, her writing creates an almost physical presence in the reader’s imagination just as a dream may seem almost real upon waking; such is its magic.
The occasional use of the second person, which I have imitated here, has a slightly hypnotic effect, like that of an invisible barker at once coaxing and lulling, inviting the reader into the circus.
At book’s end other readers might feel, as I did, as if I had awoken from a dream that I wanted to hold onto for a little longer.   I had a day ahead of me, but I could remember just enough to keep bringing pieces of it back to me.
My recommendation? Put your black dress on. Or don a dark suit.  Toss a red scarf around your neck.  Open the book. Enter the circus.  Become a reveur.  

Monday, October 3, 2011

Untangling knotted plots in Nesbo's The Redbreast

             Reading Norwegian mystery writer Jo Nesbo’s The Redbreast is like opening a jewelry box, finding several knotted necklaces and spending hours untangling them: frustrating.
               I  begin easily shifting:
·        From a Norwegian toll barrier on  November 1, 1999, where a visiting US President and his entourage are about to pass through;
·        To an Oslo courtroom on October 5 where Sverre Olsen, a Neo Nazi is about to be sentenced;
·        To a street outside a doctor’s office (October  5) where an old man has just been told he will soon die;
·        To the Ministry of Foreign Affairs where Norwegian officials are planning surveillance (Oct. 5);
·        To the palace gardens where a Pakistani boy meets the old man and they exchange a meaningful conversation (also Oct. 5);
·        To police headquarters where detective Harry Hole and his partner discuss losing a court case to Crime Division  Bjarne Moller’s office (Oct. 9) where he assigns Harry  to security detail for the President’s visit;
·        and  then back again to the toll booth (Nov. 1);

I am okay with this – even though I will later wonder if all of this set up and prelude was necessary. (If I were in a kinder mood, I would see this beginning as structurally tidy front bookend for a similar scene at the end.)   This minor flashback in the prelude prepares me for part two which flips back to 1942 to a trench of Norwegian soldiers (Daniel Gudeson, Gudbrand  Johansen,  Sindre Faulke, Edvard Mosken and  Hallgrim Dale) who are fighting for the Germans against the Russians on the Eastern front in Leningrad, then back to Oslo 1999 where the surviving former soldiers are now in their 80s. The old man is plotting something very bad. He makes contact in a pizza shop with Olsen and arranges to buy a very high-powered unusual gun.  Olsen is only the go-between. Someone mysterious is the gun dealer.
Dominant plot lines begin to emerge. Hole assigned to Security, starts investigating unusual gun shell casings found at a practice spot. The ammunition is not for hunting game in Norway.  His former partner Ellen is assigned to work with Tom de Waller, a racist cop. Some of the old soldiers, who returned to Norway only to be treated as traitors, are murdered.  Hole starts investigating their lives. Switch back to 1942 where one of the old soldiers, (but which one?) meets the love of his life while convalescing in a Vienna hospital and plots to escape with her.  Hole also meets a woman who could become the love of his life – she’s so attractive he’s reduced to near speechlessness.    But there are a few more characters each with a story of his own: Even Juul, former Resistance member and current   historian  who  writes about such issues as “Conditions  for fascism  seen in the light of increasing unemployment in Western Europe,”  Andreas  Hochner, an arms dealer in South Africa, et. al.
You get the point. Too many intersecting characters. Too many tangled plot lines.
I feel confused, then lost.  I flip back and reread.  I sort, take notes, and list each name on my bookmark. I make up a way to pronounce each Norwegian name to ensure I do not read over it  --  practices I use when I read  foreign novels with many characters.  Nevertheless, the characters – particularly the soldiers ­­­­­-- keep morphing into each other in my mind (which is what is what happens in the novel, but I don’t know it.)
 I will not give up. I soldier on.
             Complexity becomes convolution. The repeating patterns I loved so much in Nemesis annoy me here. The old man’s identity and motives stay concealed through 400 of the 500 pages until finally, we get told the story all over again -- in a cohesive form, a diary that explains it all. Perhaps retelling is the only way to put the story back together again.
           One suspenseful technique— missed or cut off telephone calls in which the caller fails to name names  -- didn’t seem to be crafted parallelism, but only an overused  and easy gimmick.  When I get to the suggestion of multiple personalities as a possible explanation, I feel tricked. While layered plotting in “Nemesis” appeared brilliant to me, The Redbreast’s seems contrived.
            I am not completely alone. When I started being irritated, I scanned reviews to see if others concurred.  I fall into a small minority. The Redbreast is loved by many who rate it on websites.  Moreover it won the Glass Key Award for the Best Nordic Crime Novel, a prestigious award in Northern Europe, and Norwegian readers voted it the best crime novel of all time.  (I wonder if Norwegian readers would have an easier time given familiarity with place, character names and culture).
From the reviews I discovered that factual errors having to do with the death penalty in South Africa and the mechanics of guns used and Secret Service procedures detract from the novel’s authenticity.
          What I did like: I find Nesbo to be a good writer. He goes for the big, important themes and underscores them with motifs. He introduces The Redbreast, the robin, of the title in an opening quotation from a legend about a compassionate bird removing a thorn from the Christ on the cross.  In the first chapter Hole and Ellen see a redbreast and discuss its dilemma: migrating south or taking a risk and sticking around. If it’s a mild winter, the bird gets the best nesting places. If it’s harsh, it may die.   Then Nesbo  allows birds and the theme to flit throughout the book.
           He uses a lot of parallel structures resulting in deeply layered stories, my kind of books.  Several characters, like the Redbreast bird, face pivotal dilemmas, life-changing decisions and have to live with the consequences. Men make decisions about whom to fight, which side to take and how and when to return. Women make decisions about whom to submit to and whom to protect.  Tough decisions in times when manipulation and betrayal is rife and others dictate what’s fair in love and war.
            I loved the way Nesbo captured love.  What’s a good war story without a convalescing soldier falling for his nurse? What’s a good mystery without the hero falling for a beautiful woman? Magnetic attraction reduces Hole to adolescent awkwardness.
            Finally, I liked what I learned about Norway’s role in World War II and repercussion today.  It gave me a context for last summer’s camp massacre.  I am reminded how little I understand about the rest of the world.  Though I lived abroad for a year during formative years, I’ve only travelled as a tourist since. Much of my adult life has been sheltered in homogeneous Maine, the second whitest state (with 95.2 % behind Vermont at 95.3) in the nation according to the 2010 census.  Fascism and immigration have been minor issues for me.  So I am grateful for what I learn from my armchair travels.
There are times in history when people make choices, though all options seem bad. Repercussions can extend through generations.   Often those times coincide with economic challenges, waves of unemployment, immigration and political polarization, conditions that face both Europe and the United States.
 Enthusiastic after discovering “Nemesis,” I followed up “The Redbreast,” its antecedent. I am glad I read the books out of order because I might have quit.  Instead, I’m still drawn to the series as there’s still a crime to be solved:  a murder of one very close to Harry Hole. Next up for crime stories: Devil’s Star.