Friday, May 22, 2009

Books: Family circus.

The marketing boys and girls at Underground Press should just slap a big sticker on the cover of The Pilo Family Circus that reads: "Tomorrow's Hipster Classic, Today!" Seemingly designed for cult status, Will Elliott's debut novel comes with not only an about the author page, but an about the book page that informs you, among other things, that this was the sixth-novel length manuscript Elliott produced in what he considered his "four-year 'apprenticeship' period learning the craft." That the craft of novel writing can be learned in four short years must surely come as great consolation to the budding novelists among the Screamers and Screamettes. It also tells you that Elliott experimented with sleep deprivation as a method of inspiring him, though the influences of the anti-psychotic (Elliott's schizophrenic, don't you know) he was on should not be ignored. "Some of the novel reflects this 'fevered' state of mind," the reader is told.

Lest you think PFC is some scrawled outsider-art wackiness, the second paragraph of the about the book page tells you that the books won an impressive string of awards in the author's home country, Australia. I know the awards are impressive, because the book tells me so: "Though this list of rewards is remarkable, more remarkable is the breadth of the awards—from high literature to horror and back again." Say, now that you mention it, that is quite remarkable.

The intro is written by Katherine "still coasting on Geek Love" Dunn, who compares the Elloitt's writing to everybody: Chandler, Kafka, Swift, Homer, Orwell, King, and others. (Trying wrapping your brain around the kind of writing that would need to fall smack dab in the middle of that Venn diagram.) Another blurb adds Palahnuik and David Lynch to the mix.

Finally, the plot is about an underemployed Gen X-er who gets shanghaied into a circus of the damned that runs mainly on a heroin-like "wish dust" made of human souls.

A few of the chapters begin with epigrams boosted from Nick Cave tunes, natch.

The whole thing seems like some sort of McSweeney's troll: a smartass gag intended to spoof the image of the maladjusted angry young loner and his edgy cult hit.

But, in fact, The Pilo Family Circus is a real book – or, I guess, since even a satire of a book is a book, an earnest book – by the very real Will Elliott. Seemingly written, as promised, in a sleep deprived and heavily medicated daze, PFC is a phantasmagoric shambles: a pile of confused images, cribbed plot lines, broad slapstick, and juvenile allegories, the book's got a sort of headless rush that propels you along, but the lack of sustained value, either in the form of solid writing or original insight, means that the ride is ultimately a disappointment.

The novel opens with Jaime, a fairly generic "nice guy" type who works as the concierge at a gentlemen's club in Brisbane. The "club" seems mainly to be a cathouse for the well-heeled; but worry not, Jaime blithely avoids the issue of working for place that pedals femme flesh by simply ignoring it. We're to believe that he couldn't find any other job that allows him so much personal reading time while on the clock.

One night, on the way home from work, Jaime's car stalls and he find himself, somewhat inexplicably, caught up in the shenanigans of a trio of violent, mentally unstable, incredibly pain-resistant clowns. In the confusion of the scene, Jaime finds and pockets a small packet of some unknown powder.

The clowns discover that Jaime has their powder and they terrorize him and Steve, one of Jaime's chronically filthy and pointless roommates. Eventually Steve and Jaime are "recruited" to join the clown's circus: the titular Pilo Family Circus.

Of course, the circus is no ordinary traveling show. Run by a pair of demonic brothers, the circus exists on a small patch of nowhere, shifting from town to town in a restless search for new attendees. They need a constant steam of new audience members because the attractions at the circus are actually part of a soul harvesting op. Souls, in PFC, come out of people in small crystals. After the circus closes each night, an army of dwarf carnies sweeps the fairgrounds for soul crystals. This is then processed into dust, which is then cooked and consumed.

Jaime falls in with the clowns. He gets his face painted and is re-dubbed JJ by the clown's brutish paterfamilias, Gonko. In the world of PFC, getting clown make-up on your face is like drinking the stuff Dr. Jekyll was futzing around with in his lab. It unleashes shadow-side, empowering you to give free rein to you most selfish, violent, and base tendencies. The struggle between Jamie, who fights to maintain his identity, and the increasingly cruel JJ, who wants to be assimilated completely into circus life, is the first of two main struggles in the book.

The second struggle involves a carny revolt against the brothers who run the circus. Many of the carnies, mostly enslaved folks like Jaime, have been secretly forming an anti-Pilo underground, sabotaging the activities of the circus and attempting to undermine the control of the brothers. This circus civil war forms the second major thread of the book. True to form, Jaime and JJ find themselves on opposite sides of the conflict.

Of the two main threads, most of the book's pleasures are provided by the first. The book's opening chapters, in which the hapless Jaime confronts the seemingly bottomless weirdness of life at the psycho-circus, are its strongest. These chapters manage to capture that crucial sense of the uncanny and surreal that is a critical component of supernatural horror. Happily, even Elliott's authorial weaknesses serve him well in the beginning. Jaime's fairly vacuous characterization, for example, makes him a pretty decent avatar for the reader, who can experience the oddness of the circus without the distraction of seeing it "through" Jaime.

Unfortunately, what the first thread giveth, the second thread taketh away. To sell the midway insurgency bit, Elliott needs to flesh out the world of the carnival with enough detail to make the dissident performers motivations resonate. The reader needs to see what they are revolting against, and that requires the dynamics of the circus get laid bare. It's like those old funhouse dark rides; when you see the layout with the lights on, there isn't much to it. On occasion, Elliott's efforts to fill in the details of his world yield pleasing results. The thuggishly abusive Gonko, for example, reveals a paternalistic streak that gives his character a nice hint of dissonance. But far more often, characters that seemed mysterious turn out to simply be flat archetypes. The surreal culture and history of the hell-circus turn out to simply be nonsensical allusions or missteps (making the circus responsible for the Holocaust, for example).

All of this might be forgiven if the book was gonzo enough to roll over the rough patches on the power of its sheer insanity. But, for a book created in a haze of meds and psychological self-torture, Pilo is an oddly lifeless affair. The wish dust the circus is hooked on is a perfect symbol for this: It's a heroin analog right up until the moment when you'd shoot it, where the author decides that it should be drunk instead. Elliott's shy of the needle. Pilo swaps "going there" for pretensions to art, and is left poorer for the trade.

If you're looking for crazy clown action, I'd go downmarket and check out Bryan Smith's Freakshow. Though Smith's book lacks the relentlessly self-promoting fanfare that accompanies PFC, it is a mad, breathless dash through a similar premise. Freakshow relentlessly "goes there," goes out of its way to "go there," and when it gets there, it stays there. Though it suffers from many of the problems that plague PFC, it makes up for it in the ruthlessness of its commitment to entertain. That's worth more than a million "fevered" states of mind.


Donald Kendall (Moderator) said...

This was one of my store's bestselling Eerie-Coterie selections. I felt it was a decent book, but could have used a better publisher who could look out for author's like these and give them the credibility they deserve.

Donald Kendall (Moderator) said...

Thought you might like to know that this book is #12 in sales for my in-store promotion for the Eerie Coterie.