The Circus of Dr. Lao

by Charles G. Finney

“The world is my idea,” he said. “The world is my idea; as such I present it to you.”

In a bizarre tale, a circus arrives in the small Arizona town of Abalone. Over the course of a single afternoon the townsfolk witness the arrival of the three wagon circus, the contents of which no one can agree upon, and they attend the show.

With the exception of the final act, the circus consists of a freak show whose every creature is real, despite no one believing they exist, and the various acts deconstruct man in multiple ways. For instance, two young men witness the miraculous transformation of a wolf to a woman, but they are disappointed because the woman is 300 years old and unattractive. It’s shallow, but it’s true, because you too will find yourself wanting her to be smoking hot when in their shoes. When a woman is given a dismal but 100% truthful account of her future by a fortune-teller, she ignores it completely and fabricates her own version of the prophecy. Which is, of course, exactly what we all do with pretty much everything we’re ever told.

Fantasy is presented as fact, with a detailed history given for most of the show’s attractions which often include the story of how each was captured. And this is where the true inventiveness really shines—philosophy. Not only do the tales of rounding up the attractions provide interesting commentary on modern man, but the townspeople’s reactions to the stories also provide humor and insight.

The Catalogue, an entire section at the end of the novel which makes up close to 15% of the book, provides further detail. Any who’ve read The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce will see similarities in the use of satire in this surprisingly large section, consisting of: The Male Characters; The Female Characters; The Child Characters;  The Animals; The Gods and Goddesses; The Cities; The Statuettes, Figurines, Icons, Artifacts, and Idols; The Questions and Contradictions and Obscurities; The Foodstuffs.


(Foodstuffs category) GEESE: They please something in man’s palate and therefore are permitted to live.
(Gods and Goddesses category): YOTTLE: An omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent lump of bronze.

None of the characters here give you much to attach yourself to, with the possible exception of the exasperated Dr. Lao; as a conglomeration of fables there’s really not much time for it. Social Justice Warriors will react to some of the racist language, but nothing feels mean-spirited (still, this wouldn’t fly if published today).

The book is undoubtedly strange, but it would be a mistake to categorize it anything other than wonderful. The novel pokes fun of people too insistent on known reality to fall victim to fakes and too stupid to realize nothing in front of them is fake. It’s a curious work, often quite funny, and it contains a great deal of whimsy and biting sarcasm.

“Enough people voting the same way you vote could change the face of the world. There is something terrible in that thought.”

4 stars

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