Thursday, February 25, 2021

"The world is my idea; as such I present it to you." - Charles Finney's The Circus of Dr. Lao

To the left, we see the back cover of the 1964 Bantam edition of Charles G. Finney’s The Circus of Dr. Lao (1935), which I purchased for $1.50 at the Chicago Powell’s in, let’s say, 1993, and read immediately.  Messing around in the literature of the 1930s, I re-read it recently.  Fittingly, the book is something of a freak, its own creature, a hodgepodge fantasy in a lightly satirical mode.  Babbitt goes to the circus, but a circus full of mythological beasts.  Everything on the back cover is in the novel.  Strange things come to Abalone, Arizona, for just one day.  A couple dozen characters read an ad, watch a parade, and experience peculiar events.

What does this book sound like?  For a hundred page novel with dozens of characters and weird critters, it’s kind of leisurely.  This is how the circus magician resurrects a dead man, a laborer in overalls, a cowboy hat, and “old worn army shoes”:

The corpse looked as if it was sleeping in a very uncomfortable position.

Apollonius began to pray a low, thick prayer.  His eyeballs turned dead green; thin, hazy stuff floated out of his ears. He prayed and prayed and prayed.  To the subtle spirit of life he sent his terrible invocation.

Then all of a sudden, when everyone was most[!] expecting it, the dead man came to life, sat up, coughed, and rubbed his eyes.

“Where the devil am I?” he wanted to know.

“You’re at the circus,” said the doctor.

“Well, lemme outa here,” said the man.  “I got business to attend to.”

He got to his feet and started off with a slight limp.

Luther caught his arm as he made for the door.  “Listen, mister,” he asked, “was you really dead.”

“Deader than hell, brother,” said the man and hurried on out of the tent.  (39)

And that’s almost the last we see of him.  Finney was an Arizona newspaper editor, and if the characters are more or less types and caricatures, the vernacular touches, the talk, is from life.

It is curious to see the ideas of the times wander through the novel.  Miss Agnes Birdsong, high-school English teacher, has a memorable encounter with a satyr (“’I am a calm, intelligent girl, and I have not seen Pan on Main Street,’” 23); it is not even twenty years since Max Beerbohm mocked encounters with Pan on Main Street.  The climax of the novel is a spectacle with a cast of eleven thousand (“’Why, that’s a goddam lie!’ said Plumber Rogers. ‘There ain’t hardly that many people in Abalone,’” 6) depicting the sacrifice of a virgin to a pagan god.  It has some interesting resemblances to Francis Stevens’s The Citadel of Fear (1918) and D. H. Lawrence’s “The Woman Who Rode Away” (1925).  Perhaps it is a parody.

The novel as such ends on page 100 with the end of the spectacle and the collapse of the circus tent.  Then follows the most surprising thing in the novel, “The Catalogue,” nineteen pages of annotated lists.  Sometimes greatly annotated (from “The Male Characters”):

The Dead Man Apollonius Brought Back To Life: Arnold R. Todhunter.  A homesteader.  Later on, when a Tribune reporter interviewed him about the hours he spent in the arms of death, he testified that he was just on the point of being issued a harp and a gown when Apollonius reclaimed his clay.  He said Heaven reminded him more than anything else of an advertisement he had once read of Southern California.  (103)

Lists of animals, statues, and “The Foodstuffs.”  The next to last list is a series of plot holes and confusing points.

The Circus of Dr. Lao won the 1935 National Book Award for Most Dang Peculiar Book, a category they no longer award. It is a unique little monster.

There is no way Steven Millhauser does not know the novel.  Ray Bradbury loved it, but I have not read the obviously relevant Bradbury book.

Despite a reference to The Temptation of Saint Anthony on page 113 (“Chimera: Described by Rabelais, Flaubert, and Finney”) I think I will next poke at a couple more 1930s fantasies.

My title can be found on p. 94.


  1. There's now something of an American literary tradition of traveling circuses that bring their own reality with them, imposing it on complacent citizens. Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes is not quite the epistemological comedy Dr Lao seems to be, but allegorical things like Goldenland Past Dark and Geek Love and the hundreds of other "circus novels" I haven't read that Google mentioned just now might be in debt to your Mr Finney. Maybe. I should read this one, it sounds weird. I'm currently drafting a novel about small-town weirdness. Though Finney's circus sounds less like allegory than, I don't know, the Rabelais he points to.

    I am claiming the crown for most unfocused comment today. I blame the flu.

  2. We still like it when Pan comes to town and shakes things up. Overcomes our hangups.

    I think a large part of Finney's fun, much like Millhauser, is simply exploring his invention. There is likely some larger purpose or meaning, but the practice of the fiction is mostly just wandering around and marveling.

  3. You will love A School for Fools; it's full of lists.

  4. "Then I saw a little two-wheeled cart that stood on the edge of the grove, next to the haystack, and I said to myself. Now that's a cart; one can carry various things in it, for instance: earth, gravel, luggage, pencils from the Sacco and Vanzetti factory, wild honey, the fruit of mango trees, ice picks, ivory knickknacks, roof shingles, collected works, cages with rabbits, ballot boxes and mailboxes, feather beds and their opposites—cannonballs, stolen sinks, tables of ranks, and objects from the period of the Paris Commune."

  5. There we go.

    Someday, likely not soon, I would like to do some kind of post-WW II Russian literature project. Partly because I do not know much about it, and partly because I know, on the internet, so many people who do know it well.

  6. Oh, you tease! Now I'm going to be waiting like a dog promised a walk.

  7. Solzhenitsyn, Grossman, Shalamov, just thinking of some obvious people I've never read. Joseph Brodsky.

    But for this to happen for one thing the dang university library needs to let me in again.