Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti by Genevieve Valentine and The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Reviewed by Abigail Nussbaum
02 November 2011
There is a sense in which these books are the same. Both take place in and around circuses. Both circuses are driven by magic, which confers a certain timelessness, perhaps even immortality, on their performers. Both circuses play host to a competition of skill between two of their talents, a man and a woman, whose battle for superiority conceals a deep longing for one another. Both enchant a young man who eventually takes over the circus's running.
There is another sense in which these books are opposites. The Night Circus is a historical novel (albeit quite a broad one) and relies on our familiarity with, for example, the great cities of Europe where the circus performs. Mechanique's setting is an alternate (or perhaps future) world, described in deliberately vague terms. The Night Circus relies for its effect on the romantic associations of its circus setting, and reaches constantly for a sense of wonder. Mechanique gestures towards these reactions, then ruthlessly dismantles them. The Night Circus is sentimental. Mechanique is cynical.
The night circus is Le Cirque des Rêves, which appears without warning, is open only at night, and where the color scheme is purely monochromatic. It is the brain child of the impresario Chandresh Christophe Lefèvre, who in the late nineteenth century conceives a plan to create something "like no circus anyone has ever seen. Not a single large tent but a multitude of tents, each with a particular exhibition. No elephants or clowns. No, something more refined than that . . . this will be an utterly unique experience, a feast for the senses" (p. 60). What neither he nor his co-founders realize is that the circus is actually the venue for a battle between two magicians, Hector Bowen and Alexander H—, in which they can test the superiority of their respective approaches to magic by pitting their protégés, Hector's daughter Celia and Alexander's pupil Marco, against one another.
Naturally, Marco and Celia fall in love, and, just as naturally, their contest turns out to be a fight to the death, with the fate of the circus and all of its performers hanging in the balance. Morgenstern, however, is more interested in description than in plot. Large portions of The Night Circus are taken up with the Cirque des Rêves's various acts, and Morgenstern clearly delights in inventing ever more fantastical examples of these: Celia's performances as the circus's illusionist, the clock which greets visitors to the circus, whose shape and color change as it measures out the hours of the day and night, a tent where visitors can unstopper bottles whose scents carry them to different times and places, another where they can float among the clouds, a maze of mirrors, an ice garden. Nor do these feats of invention stop at the circus's boundaries—Morgenstern seems determined to craft the entire world of her novel as something magical, even when describing something as mundane as the fare at Chandresh's dinner parties.
the Midnight Dinners have an air of nocturnal mystery already, and Chandresh finds that providing no menu, no map of the culinary route, adds to the experience. Dish after dish is brought to the table, some easily identifiable as quail or rabbit or lamb, served on banana leaves or baked in apples or garnished with brandy-soaked cherries. Other courses are more enigmatic, concealed in sweet sauces or spiced soups; unidentifiable meats hidden in pastries and glazes. (p. 55)
Valentine takes the opposite approach. The Circus Tresaulti is, if anything, even more overtly magical than the Cirque des Rêves—its performers have been endowed by their ringmaster, a woman known only as Boss, with supernatural strength and longevity by the simple means of having been transformed into steampunk cyborgs, their bones replaced with copper pipes. But from its very first sentences—"The tent is draped with strings of bare bulbs, with bits of mirror tied here and there to make it sparkle. (It doesn't look shabby until you've already paid.)"—Mechanique stresses that as otherworldly as the circus may be, it is no match for the mundane reality outside it, which continually seeps in.
That reality is one of endless war. The cities the circus visits on its circuit are usually little more than refugee camps, and often reduced to cinders by the time it returns to them. The performers are former soldiers looking for a life without killing. The dancing girls "were soldiers or factory workers, they pack and unpack as much rig as the tumblers—but the audience demands dancing girls, so they make do." In The Night Circus, the circus is an escape from mundanity. In Mechanique, it is an escape from horror, a slim chance for survival in a bleak world. And to an enterprising government man, Boss's creations are not mere entertainment but prototypes for super-soldiers. His pursuit of the circus intensifies the dispute between the two acrobats, Stenos and Bird, partners, enemies, and not-quite lovers, both of whom are desperately vying for Boss's greatest creation, a pair of mechanical wings.
Of all the mechanical pieces in the Circus Tresaulti, Boss has taken these into her heart. Here there is no iron cage, no grinding supports. The ribs of these wings are made of bone. . . . Each feather is jigsawed and hammered and smoothed so thin that when it strikes another feather it rings out a clear note. She has constructed them so that, when the wind passes over them, it rings out a triumphant G major seventh. . . . Though they have knobs of gears that attach to the shoulders, though it takes hours to set the joints so the nerves and muscles can move them, everyone sees the wings are not really a machine. They are art; they are skill; they are proof that the world has not abandoned beauty.
Mechanique advances desultorily along these two plotlines—Boss's kidnapping by the government man and Stenos and Bird's battle for the wings—on the way stopping repeatedly to move back and forth through time, laying out the history of the circus and its acts: the tumblers, who are each introduced with a tally of the people they killed before joining the circus; the aerialists, and especially their leader, the hard-hearted Elena, who has her own connections to Stenos, Bird, and the wings; Boss's lover Alec, for whom she created the wings and who was the circus's star attraction before he mysteriously fell to earth during a performance; and Little George, the barker from whose point of view much of the story is told, who despite living in the circus his whole life is blind to many of his secrets, and spends much of Mechanique waking up to them.
Valentine delivers this history in short, declarative chapters, each a few pages or even paragraphs long, switching frequently from past to present, from one character to another, from a naive perspective to a knowing one. Some chapters advance the plot, while others set the scene, describing the circus's acts, a particular character's history, a failed audition, or just a bit of minutiae such as the outfits that each of the performers wear, or the music that accompanies them. This device, the rapid shifting of perspectives, and between plot and worldbuilding, is familiar from short fiction (which Valentine has been producing quite prolifically for several years, including several stories set in the Tresaulti universe) but it outstays its welcome even in a novel as short as Mechanique. The constant shifts in perspective and tense have the effect of making the novel seem centerless. It seems to take forever to find its story, but even when it does that story—will the circus abandon Boss or rescue her, will Stenos or Bird win the wings—feels less weighty than the background details that continue, almost until the very end of the novel, to interrupt it—why did Alec fall? What does Elena want? What is the terrible cost of Boss's gift? Like The Night Circus, Mechanique is rooted more in its setting than its story—albeit a setting that is driven by character interaction and secrets than by outlandish invention.
In Morgenstern's hands, this approach is more successful, in part because The Night Circus is a less urgent, less complicated novel than Mechanique. It, too, proceeds in chapters that jump in time and space, but its narrative is comparatively linear, and unlike Mechanique with its competing and only tangentially connected character arcs, its plotlines—the various investigations of the circus's founders into its unique nature, or the infatuation of a boy called Bailey with the circus and a girl he meets there—all emerge from, and eventually coalesce into, Celia and Marco's competition-cum-love story. The relative lightness of The Night Circus's story allows its setting to shine, and it avoids the feeling of imbalance that afflicts Mechanique towards its end.
That same lightness, however, can also come to seem like weightlessness. Though constantly reaching for a sense of wonder, The Night Circus does little to elicit any other emotion. The conflicts between the characters, though rife with dramatic potential, fall flat. Hector and Alexander's rivalry, Marco's abandonment of his first lover Isobel, who joins the circus to spy on Celia, the very substance of what the contest between him and Celia is supposed to be about—all are so faintly sketched as to barely register. The characters in particular seem to exist solely to enable, or dramatically oppose, Marco and Celia's love story. Isobel, who might have been a tragic, interesting character, has so little personality that it is impossible to feel sorry for her even though Marco treats her shamefully. Hector Bowen, meanwhile, has more personality than anyone else in the novel, but he is a boogeyman, whose sole purpose is to act evilly as he shackles his daughter to a fight for her life, torments her during her childhood, and then tries to prevent her from being with the man she loves. Neither of them feel like human beings, and neither does anyone else in the novel. This includes Celia and Marco, who are little more than placeholders in a generic star-crossed lovers plot
Mechanique, in contrast, is full of high emotion and complex characters—Stenos and Bird's love-hate relationship, Little George's love for, and incomprehension of, Boss, the circus, and a young aerialist, Alec and Boss's doomed romance. A particular highlight is the character of Elena, a bitter shrew who, without ever losing an ounce of her cruelty, is slowly revealed to be an intelligent, observant person who may be the strongest, and perhaps wisest, character in the novel. Each of these characters has paid dearly for Boss's magic (as opposed to the effortlessness of magic in The Night Circus), as has Boss herself, but despite being immortal and super-powered they are still vulnerable to the world's cruelty. In The Night Circus, magic is a clean escape (and a remarkably easy one: when Bailey runs off to join the circus he burns his bridges at home but discovers that the circus has left without him; in the next chapter, he is taken up by a group of Cirque des Rêves fans who feed and house him and deliver him to the circus's next venue). In Mechanique, it can only hold the war outside the circus at bay, and that only imperfectly.
Like a lot about Mechanique, however, this message, and the character notes through which it is delivered, are overdone. Valentine hits the same notes again and again—Bird and Stenos's unspoken longing for one another and the way their competing desire for the wings curdles it, Little George's dislike of Elena—until they lose their meaning. Her style, the short chapters, often capped by a dramatic, ironically situated sentence ("He was magnificent. Until."; "I didn't believe anything else terrible could ever really happen to us after Alec died; you think strange things, sometimes."; "I sat up all the rest of that night, wide awake without knowing why.") also starts out effective, but becomes overwrought.
There is a sense in which Mechanique and The Night Circus work better as a paired reading than individually. One novel's flaws highlight the other's strengths, and vice versa. My inclination, however, is to prefer Mechanique. Though it often reads like a short story inflated to novel length, there is a greater complexity to it, and a greater ambition, that I can't help but appreciate and value over Morgenstern's more cohesive, but less affecting, work. The Night Circus reaches for wonder, and in this it succeeds. But Mechanique reaches for wonder and horror, and this, to my mind, is the worthier effort.