Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Fools and Circuses

I had a dream right before I woke up (and told it before breakfast) that a former college student we were very fond of, Jeremiah Budzik, and a friend from graduate school, Kiki Theodoropolis, were coming to our local campus to star in a production of Murder on the Orient Express. The interesting thing about the dream is that I'd aged these people, who we haven't seen in years (including making Jeremiah, who was at least 22 years old the last time I saw him, considerably taller). It occurred to me that my brain had played an April Fool's joke on myself. So immediately I climbed out of bed and went to the kids' rooms to tell them it had snowed and there was no school. This worked for the two seconds before I started grinning.

A good book for April Fool's Day is World War Z, by Max Brooks. It tells about the battle against the zombie threat (a virus, evidently, spread by bites) with (I've lifted this summary from Amazon): "a series of first-person accounts 'as told to the author' by various characters around the world. A Chinese doctor encounters one of the earliest zombie cases at a time when the Chinese government is ruthlessly suppressing any information about the outbreak that will soon spread across the globe. The tale then follows the outbreak via testimony of smugglers, intelligence officials, military personnel and many others who struggle to defeat the zombie menace. Despite its implausible premise and choppy delivery, the novel is surprisingly hard to put down. The subtle, and not so subtle, jabs at various contemporary politicians and policies are an added bonus."

And now for something completely different... I want to talk about two books with circuses in them, because one of them is due back at the library today. The first is Water for Elephants, a book I haven't actually read but have listened to several times as an audiobook. It's a wonderful story, and the passages told from the point of view of the old man make it possible to imagine what few people can manage to imagine: they make a young person feel what it is to be old. In addition, of course, the author manages to make an elephant a character in the story.

The book that is due today is Peter Hoeg's new novel The Quiet Girl (he's the guy who wrote Smilla's Sense of Snow). This is one of the oddest books I've read in a long time, and I'm not sure that I recommend it. It has some of the most wonderful, memorable passages I've ever read, though. I was completely captivated by observations like: "children woke up at six-thirty in the morning and shifted directly into fourth gear. Fourteen hours later they rushed straight into sleep at more than a hundred miles an hour without decelerating." I also like the following passage, which does more to explain AA to me than anything else ever has:

"To whom shall I pray?" he asked. "Who says there's someone out there? Who says the universe isn't just one big hurdy-gurdy?"
"Maybe it's not necessary to pray to anyone. The early desert mothers said that God is without form, color, or content. Perhaps prayer isn't a matter of praying to anyone. Perhaps it's an active way of giving up. Maybe that's precisely what you need: to give up, without going under."

The main character of The Quiet Girl is a clown who plays the violin in the Cirque de Soleil. His observations often center on music, like this one: "There are many people who believe they have bought a ticket to Gilbert and Sullivan in this life. And only when it's almost too late do they discover that existence is a piece of doomsday music by Schnittke instead." He also muses on the meaning of the circus itself: "The circus is a piece of the Middle Ages that has survived on the fringes of the modern world. Artists are outdated, like foxes that have adapted themselves to the city and garbage cans. But not simply as lonely wanderers, also as a brotherhood, a brotherhood of half-wild animals. Outside the system of grants and awards. Outside ARTE cultural subsidies. Outside Customs and Tax Administration control. With very few rules, one of which is: You always support one another in life's hide-and-seek with the public authorities."

One of the reasons this novel is so odd is that it tries to do so much, and I think that's why it's successful for me only in passages:

"Even with children one is often alone," she said. "Even in a family. Children change very quickly. There's no stability. One is constantly reminded that in a little while they will be gone. I've been away for a month this time. When I come home in three weeks, they will have changed; it will be as though I'm seeing them for the first time. As if they are strangers. In everyday life too. Perhaps it's true that love is eternal. But its appearance changes all the time."

On April Fool's day, let's be open to the truth in laughter. (But let's not pick it apart, like the book I saw on the comedy books table at Barnes and Noble this weekend, entitled Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy through Jokes.)


lemming said...

Last I heard, tadpole was working in England, but that was many aeons ago.

I first encountered An Equal Music as a truly brilliantly done book on tape. I've read it since, but it's just not teh same... I NEED that wonderful narration and the glorious music interspersed.

Jeanne said...

In fact, Jeremiah is the Director of Digital Marketing for Tri-Direct in Reading, UK. (From Reading, PA to Reading, UK.) There's a picture at http://www.tri-direct.co.uk/home.aspx

I'll look for the audiobook of An Equal Music. Someday I should talk about the difference between the audio and print experience!