The Circus Of Dr Lao (Charles G Finney)

circus-of-dr-laoThis is a truly extraordinary short novel. It packs into its 150 page length more commentary on human nature in both its sad and wonderful aspects than many authors would struggle to depict through vast volumes of work. I believe that in a just world this book would be considered among the paragons of American letters. Right up there with free-thinking luminaries like Mark Twain, who Finney indeed often calls to my mind while reading this.

It concerns the visit of Dr Lao’s circus to a small Midwestern town during the Depression. This is a very unconventional circus. It’s a collection of mythological creatures, but not everyone who sees them can agree about what they are. There’s really no plot at all, the book merely deals with the effects that Dr Lao’s circus has on the various people who see it. It’s a kind of fable, with a definite touch of surrealism to it. The whole story takes place in a day and, indeed, you should be able to read this book in a few hours. Because of its brevity and depth it is one you can and should keep returning to. There is a scene in which a lady has her fortune told. It’s so brilliant and brutal, with a jarring tone that unsettled me.

You’re given sound-bites of dialogue and gain some insight into characters, but they often don’t react as you’d expect. The people of Abalone have a ‘whatever’ kind of attitude to the arrival of Dr Lao’s fantastic circus of mythological beasts. And throughout the story I could see many parallels to our desensitized and blinkered 21st century culture. The illustrations are bizarre but it harmonizes with the plot. Connoisseurs of strangeness and good writing should definitely check out this work by an obscure author who was either genius or madman, but probably both – something like Ambrose Bierce on opium, perhaps.

Like the best works of Twain, every new reading brings something slightly new, and a different perspective. Finney’s style never fails to be engaging, and there are many scenes here that always have me laughing aloud. Some of the humour is cute, some clever, and some just makes you laugh because people can be pretty crappy. Plus Finney does a great job of showing exactly how and why this is. And you laugh because you know it’s true, as much as the hoity-toity like to pretend they can hide this part of their nature. I also found certain bits here to be wonderfully racey, especially for the 1930s. A lot of the characters are just there to be a part of Finney’s dart board, and even though he starts by being gentle toward them, they almost always end up falling short of his apparent expectation. This book is a piece of timeless literature; I hope that in 100 years people will still be singing its praises.

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