The circus exists in a foggy space between reality and fantasy. It’s a place I’ve visited in person, at the movies, or on television. My first memories of the circus include laughing with Bozo on my lunch hour from school or staring wide-eyed during a Ringling Brothers spectacle. Eventually, the luster of the performances faded. First, I found out the beloved Ringmaster Ned from Bozo’s Circus was much ruder in person than he presented himself on the show. Next, I began to understand that the Big Top isn’t the healthiest place for wild animals. My reaction to the circus shifted from amazement to repulsion. I looked away for a while, but the acts drew me back in. The freakishness subsided as the bravery unfolded in front of me: acrobats without nets, fluid contortionists, eerie magicians. They lived surrounded in an otherworldly atmosphere; an alternate but solid world which existed parallel to me. I imagined a layer deep in the heart of the circus, tunneling past the ‘chills and thrills,’ waiting to burrow and consume my consciousness if I stepped too close.
Michael Chin invites us into this world in Circus Folk. Even if you’ve read and enjoyed any of these short stories separately in other publications, I recommend reading them together in this collection. Chin created a compelling arc that takes us on Verne’s quest toward an understanding of reality. Or, maybe, he learns the futility of reality while he travels on his journey toward, and deep into the circus. Chin’s performers live and communicate with tiny, but strong, voices. Voices that never ask, “What is real?” Because it’s understood reality doesn’t matter.
In the first story, “Forever,” the dichotomy of Verne’s life cripples him. He’s a third-generation Chinese-American: “The first in his family not to know Mandarin. The one who was supposed to fulfill all the American dreams … Someone to be counted. Instead, Johnny Walker and orange chicken consumed his nights while he collected unemployment checks …” His family wants him to become their idea of a successful American, but now they only make fun of how he holds chopsticks.
Then he meets Penelope, the woman he will lose and follow anywhere. She’s also the woman who introduces him to the circus life that will consume him. His previously accepted rules of truth/lies, life/death, or real/unreal are useless now His touchstones of reality, the methods he’s needed to guide him are discarded. Names, backgrounds, even faces aren’t important. He enters a world where life doesn’t begin at birth, it begins when you enter the Big Top. New names and make-up aren’t used to hide the truth, they are now the truth. Chin asks whose reality is reflected in a name. Can a given name accurately describe who a person eventually becomes? This happens to Verne. His name, career, complete existence becomes The Ringmaster.
Chin creates a world filled with aliases, magic, and make-up, but it’s also a world where a person’s true nature is accepted and celebrated. There’s the contortionist who survives grief by assuming her dead sister’s name, Brenda: “Contortionism may have remained an idle interest were it not for the prospect of sisters disappearing together.” Finding a place to perform her act, part of which is folding herself into a tiny box, allows her to continue living despite her crippling grief. It’s also a world that accepts bearded ladies and reptile men because, “… if you don’t look the way people expect, they treat you differently.” No one is treated differently at the circus. They might give up shaving, or look different, or pick their own name, or feel more themselves in make-up, but they work, drink too much, grieve, and fall in love. They are allowed to be true to themselves. It’s a place that houses an untamed lion. A place that hires a trapeze artist who performs without a net. The circus gives them a place to live, because they aren’t allowed to exist truthfully anywhere else.
Chin completely shreds reality by challenging the belief in the separation of life and death. After Penelope dies, she appears to The Ringmaster (Verne) in his dreams. Chin doesn’t write these scenes in an expected unreal, eerie, or ghost-like manner. This is not a haunting. He describes a couple who make love, make promises, then disappoint each other. They meet in a white room. It’s the only place The Ringmaster is still known as Verne. He struggles with the reality of living his life, but at night he can visit Penelope. He wants something more physical: “The only time the white room felt real was when he was in it.” Their relationship exists, but it doesn’t at the same time.
The last story, “White Space,” is a masterpiece. It’s a complete story on its own, but at the same time Chin brings all the story lines in the collection together into a dreamy/hazy/solid conclusion. He describes Verne and Penelope’s journey as they work side by side/together and apart, as they build a future on the solid foundation of his past (grandmother’s desk). Then finally, (or hopefully), Verne discovers his reality:
“We made this together.” Verne rubbed his hand over the puzzle pieces. Perfectly smooth. Not even a puzzle anymore. Poster quality. More than that, though. Real.”
Verne begins to make choices with Penelope while he watches his past and The Ringmaster disappear:
“We’ll make a garden.”
“We’ll make love.”
“We’ll make a circus.”
She ran a hand over his face, soft and gentle like she loved him. “Never that.”
I’m not sure what Verne finally found, but Chin convinced me it was real.
Circus Folk, by Michael Chin. Phoenix, Arizona: Hoot n Waddle, November 2019. 215 pages. $16.00, paper.
Noreen Hernandez is a teacher’s aide and writer with deep life long ties to Chicago. She is a fairly recent graduate of Northeastern Illinois University English and Creative Writing Dept.