By Erin Morgenstern
ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS
‘The Night Circus’ is exactly the kind of book I would never pick up on my own. It positively bristles with red flags. The cover, all black, white, and red, is adorned with fruity Victorian imagery; the blurbs are literarily unpersuasive: “Nothing short of a wild ride – Elle”. The synopsis on the back is deeply alienating:
“The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves and it is only open at night.
But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway—a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them both, this is a game in which only one can be left standing. Amidst the high stakes, Celia and Marco soon tumble headfirst into love, setting off a domino effect of dangerous consequences, and leaving the lives of everyone from the performers to the patrons hanging in the balance.”
That sounds like a frankly terrible book. Le Cirque des Rêves? A dual between two young magicians, who will then “tumble headfirst into love”? The language is all so overwrought: “utterly unique”; “breathtaking amazements”; “fierce competition”; “mercurial instructors”; “only one can be left standing”; “dangerous consequences”; “lives…hanging in the balance”.
However, I was gifted ‘The Night Circus’ by someone I respect and love, which, as we all know, obligated me to read it under Book Law. They assured me it was a fun read; nevertheless, it’s been sitting on my shelf for years now. I have been avoiding reading it, sure that it contained nothing more than cliches strung together with breathless writing. But it was a tough week at work, and I needed something easy to read, so I finally grabbed it.
Here’s the thing: ‘The Night Circus’ is not a “good” book. It’s also, as promised, a really fun book to read, and I basically swallowed the whole thing in one sitting. While, yes, trading heavily in cliche, it still wasn’t quite what I expected. It had a little more pull, a little more substance than I thought it would, despite doing exactly what I thought it was going to do. It was both totally predictable and weirdly compelling.
I’ve been puzzling over that for a few days now, that tension between the predictably stupid romantic plot and the success of the book as an entertainment. And what I’ve decided is that a large part of what makes ‘The Night Circus’ work is Morgenstern’s restraint.
Now, you might think that ‘restrained’ is a weird word for me to use to describe a book about a nocturnal Circus of Dreams which houses a pair of dueling magicians, and you’d be right: on most levels, ‘The Night Circus’ entirely lacks restraint. It is, as expected, totally extra: too lavish, too ornate, too magical, too sincere. However, in one very specific and interesting way, ‘The Night Circus’ is very restrained: it is restrained in explanation.
What does that mean? Unlike other kinds of genre novels, sci-fi and fantasy books have a particular challenge: world-building. Because they are set in worlds that are meaningfully different from our own, they need to provide some guidance to their readers about how the realities of their books actually work. Usually, this information is woven into the story, and that’s part of what makes writing genre difficult: you need to orient your readers without dragging down the story.
If they err, most authors err on the side of explanation: better to be pedantic than to leave your readers confused. In most genre narratives, most questions get answered in the end. Morgenstern, however, does not over-explain. On the contrary, at the end of ‘The Night Circus’, the list of things you won’t understand will be dramatically longer than the list of things you do.
You will not know what the contest in which these two magicians are competing is about. You will be told it’s about competing views of the world: you won’t know what worldviews are or how they are proved. You won’t know how long it’s been going on. You won’t know how it started. You won’t know how many times it has been fought in the past.
You won’t know anything, really, about the two “mercurial mentors” who have decided to pit children against each other in a fight to the death: you won’t know who they are, where they come from, how many children they have killed in this way. You won’t know if they are the only magicians who fight children to the death, or whether it’s a common hobby among the magic class in this world. You won’t know if they feel bad, and you won’t find out what happens to them in the end.
Perhaps most importantly, you will not know what magic is, or how it is used. Now, of course, magic is basically un-explainable from any physical point of view, but most books of magic do a lot more world-building. You don’t learn anything about other magicians, how magic is used outside of duels, how it’s learned, how it’s practiced. Both our child magicians are trained, but all we are really told about that training is that spells are demanded of them and that they “read a lot”. You aren’t told how many kinds of magic there are, or how people come about acquiring the ability to do it (though you are told that some people have “natural ability”).
All this unresolved ambiguity is a bold choice on Morgenstern’s part. Not answering reasonable reader questions is risky, as likely to leave them pissed off as not. But, when it’s successful, it can give a work a feeling of focused integrity, as though the author has enough confidence to let the story stand as it is.
And ‘The Night Circus’ has that vibe of non-neediness, a quiet certainty that its story stands alone. It’s…pretty successful, I think. Yes, Morgenstern is a little too focused on the ambiance (and the costumes) at the expense of the story, but I suspect that more explanation would have hurt the book, not helped it. Partly, that is because I’m not sure she’s talented enough to discuss mechanics persuasively, but partly, the story genuinely benefits from the lack of precision. In a book that is meant to be sensual, which focuses on the experience of magic, too much logistics might have blunted the effect. Instead, what you get is a hazy, imprecise sense-novel about love and magic. It has no rigor, but it is vividly imagined. It is absorbing, which is good enough.