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Reading Patti Frazee’s Cirkus is like falling from the high wire knowing there is no net below. You know it’s going to be painful, there’s nothing you can do to stop it, and you just wish it was over already.
Frazee’s debut novel, Cirkus is a combination of Katherine Dunn’s 1983 novel Geek Love, NBC’s guilty-pleasure soap Passions, and the transgender breakthrough film Boys Don’t Cry. On their own, any of these are at the top of their class, but in combination they create a freakish world that could only be lived out in the sideshow of a traveling circus.
In the summer of 1900, the Borsefksy Brothers Circus is populated with recent emigrants from Bohemia, boasting the usual cast of characters — the Fat Woman, the Strong Man, the Dog Woman, the Human Torso, and so on. However, none of these characters are developed beyond their sideshow quality, so when Frazee refers to them solely by name, a lot of page flipping is required to match up their notable traits.
The most developed — and intriguing — characters are conjoined twins (but being 1900, still billed as Siamese twins) who are sold to the circus by a father disgusted by his own children and a dying mother too sick to stop him.
Ultimately these two, Atasha and Anna, are Frazee’s — and the book’s — salvation. Their adjustment and integration into circus life is the most compelling story arc, one that Frazee should have trusted to carry the novel. As Anna and Atasha fall in love with different men, their attempt to juggle their physical inseparability and their divergent hearts explores an interesting conundrum. Unless you’ve seen the musical Sideshow, in which case it may all seem a little familiar.
Unfortunately, the twins share the focus of the story with two other members of the circus. Mariana is an invisible-at-will Gypsy and wife of the alcoholic, philandering circus manager, while Shanghai the dwarf is suffering the loss of a woman, laboring under a curse from the gypsy and harboring a ”horrible secret.”
It’s not even possible to avoid including a spoiler here, since Frazee uses subtly equivalent to an elephant breaking loose from its handler and stampeding through a crowd of spectators on its way out of the big top.
Her attempt to create complex characters and plots is incredibly overdone. It’s not enough that conjoined twins fall for different people. It’s not enough that one of the men is married. It’s not enough that the other is a fire-throwing dwarf raised in a brothel, cursed by a Gypsy, and longing for a lost love. There has to be one more twist — the sleight of hand to reveal the secret. And being published by gay and lesbian stalwart Alyson, it’s only inevitable what that secret is going to be.
Sadly, when you’re two-thirds of the way through the novel and it’s clear how the gay theme is going to reveal itself in the novel, you hope for a trick. You want the magician to pull anything other than a rabbit from the hat. Until the last minute, you hope that this final twist is going to be something other than the expected.
Instead, you get The Crying Game.
After that, like the performer falling from the high wire, there’s nowhere to go but down.
The remainder of the book is spent trying to catch all of the balls that have been juggled for too long. Most of them are caught, but by then most of the circus marks have probably moved on to the next performer.