01 May 2009

The Pilo Family Circus by Will Elliott

I'm not going to post a picture of the cover of Underland Press's edition of Will Elliott's first novel, The Pilo Family Circus, because it disturbs Justine Larbalestier, and I like Justine and don't want to disturb her. (I actually haven't seen the cover in real life; I read the advance copy, which just has text on it.)

Maud Newton offers an efficient and accurate summary of the novel's beginning, and so I am going to steal it outright:
Jamie, a timid everyman with an arts degree who works as a concierge at a Brisbane gentleman’s club and has arranged his bedroom with an eye toward impressing a cocktail waitress he’s never had the nerve to ask out, nearly runs into a psychotic clown with his car after getting off a shift one night. Soon his apartment is trashed, his roommate Steve is vomiting blood, the clown and his buddies are constantly dropping in to make threats, and both Jamie and Steve are told they must pass an audition -- by making the clowns laugh -- within 48 hours, or die.
But that's just the beginning. The majority of the novel's story moves into a wonderfully unsettling circus-world whose relationship to our own world is not clear until the second half of the book, and it is in that first half, where so much is strange and nothing can be expected, that I found myself most engaged with Elliott's story.

At its best, Pilo Family Circus mixes dark humor and darker horror without diluting either -- a difficult balancing act for even the best writers. It is not, on the whole, a funny book, but the vision of the universe that it offers, despite the nastiness of certain events, is one that could be said to be comic at heart, because it pretty much lets humanity off the hook for most of the evil of the last millennium or two. It's a vaguely Old Testament allegory without any hint of original sin.

But all of that is in the second half of the book, which solves the mysteries and ties up the loose ends. To some extent, I wish I hadn't actually read past the first 150 pages or so. Mysteries are more menacing, more deeply affecting when their meanings are still open to different possibilities. I'm the sort of reader who tends to find solutions disappointing. Much of the second half of Pilo Family Circus is spent connecting dots and painting a rather bland eschatology, though there are a couple tremendously effective images and paragraphs among it all, but nothing to compare with the effect of the disturbances of reality and comfort throughout the first half.

Aside from one particularly annoying tick -- a tick that occurs almost entirely in the first half, and thus makes it even more annoying for First-Half-Loving me -- the writing throughout Pilo is sharp and straightforward; Elliott has, for the most part, a good sense for details that will evoke his scenes without slowing down their pacing. I often found myself reading just a few more pages than I had intended to, because I was caught up in the story, enjoying its unpredictable turns, its odd characters, and the malevolent current beneath the ever-stranger surface waters.

The tick I alluded to is one of point of view. Though for the most part we stay in one point of view throughout the novel, now and then it shifts briefly to another. The shifts didn't seem particularly necessary to me, and they diluted the story's intensity, but they aren't clumsy or overly annoying. The problem lies with the narrator's omniscience in, especially, the earlier pages -- an omniscience that reveals itself only at the ends of scenes and chapters, usually for just a sentence, for instance the end of the second chapter: "Unbeknown to him, these were the last eight hours of peace he would have for quite some time." Cue the orchestra: "BUM BUM BUMMMMMM!"

It's a cheap trick. It signals that the writer doesn't trust the narrative's inherent momentum. It's a lazy way to get people to turn the pages. I did turn the pages, but I would have without such limp ploys, because the narrative has plenty of inherent momentum. Such tactics are particularly annoying in interesting, relatively well-written novels such as Pilo Family Circus because they are so obviously unnecessary.

If I'm focusing so much on things I didn't like about Will Elliott's novel, it's entirely the result of disappointment -- this is often a damn good book, and what would be minor and perhaps even invisible flaws in lesser books are, in better books, nagging, obnoxious itches.

But they are itches, not cancers. This is simply the best malevolent clown novel I've read, and I have, yes, read a few, though I'm sure there are plenty I haven't encountered. (I thought Tim Curry was just about the only good thing in the film of It, or the book for that matter.) American clowns can be pretty scary, after all. I mentioned Pilo to a friend of mine who used to be a professional clown and studied at the Dell'Arte School, and he said he thought part of the fear comes from American clowns being so heavily covered in make-up and, more importantly, their mental/behavioral age being that of an 8- or 10-year-old, as opposed to the younger age of the classic European clowns.

I have no idea how much water or greasepaint such a theory holds, but I do know two things: There are plenty of Evil Clowns, and Will Elliott has done a fine job of adding to their numbers.

5 comments:

  1. and, more importantly, their mental/behavioral age being that of an 8- or 10-year-old, as opposed to the younger age of the classic European clowns.That's neat. I had never considered age as a relevant factor; I am not someone who finds clowns scary, so the whole thing was always a little inexplicable to me.

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  2. Hmmm, maybe I just need to get hold of the ARC? Your review makes me want to read it even more. It does sounds so very interesting.

    I'm just as scared of European clowns as I am of American and Australian. In fact, I've yet to see a clown from any culture who didn't scare the crap out of me.

    Justine L

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  3. I'm a bit put off by your claiming 'a cheap trick', which is in itself rather cheap. Nothing more commonplace nowadays than claiming that 'the writer doesn't trust the narrative's inherent momentum'. The first task of a critic is to decide why the writer chose a particular means. In a darkly comic novel about clowns, such so-called intrusions may serve very well indeed (if narrative momentum weren't held up as an inviolate yardstick) - though since I haven't read it, I can only suggest a second look. In any case, I will certainly be reading the novel, since your post has fascinated and piqued me.

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  4. "Cheap trick" is hardly a precise term, though it feels accurate to me for what I described here, which is an unnecessary technique that lessens the impact of the text, and appears repeatedly as part of a pattern with an obvious and specific purpose. A technique with a pattern and a purpose: thus, a trick. Annoying and unnecessary, thus cheap.

    I haven't seen many reviews chastising books for not trusting their inherent momentum, but I will defer to your expertise. I shall also defer to your expertise on the priorities of a critic's tasks, and suggest, humbly, that "decide why the writer chose a particular means" is exactly what I did: he chose it because he thought it would increase the suspense/momentum and make readers turn the pages. Granted, I am not telepathic, so I don't have access to the writer's brain, but I thought the evidence to be stronger for my hypothesis than for any other I could think of, and so I weighed the evidence and made a judgment.

    But then, I've actually read the book.

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  5. Yes, of course you've read the book and I haven't, so perhaps I really shouldn't be commenting at all, and for that I apologise if I've overstepped some unwritten blogging boundary. I don't mean to claim any expertise - I have very little, if any - but the particular 'cheap trick' you quote simply strikes me as out-and-out funny, a joke of sorts (I thought so because of the register of 'unbeknown to him'), a deliberate exaggeration like a clown's exaggerated expressions. But again, I'm probably talking through my hat. I often do.

    The words 'cheap trick' and 'lazy' seem awfully smug, but I gladly stand corrected. Going through a very long period of not knowing what's any good in my own writing, of trying hard to distinguish between the banal & cheap & flashy and what genuinely serves probably explains why I'm unwilling to make such calls, at least in those terms.

    I myself have been criticised for not trusting my narrative's momentum, often enough so that I assume it's something people have learned to look out for.

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