Quin’s Shanghai Circus by Edward Whittemore

Read  January 2018
Recommended for fans of Vonnegut

#7 in my Clean Out the Kindle Project.

Naw, I’m just kidding. I can’t count be bothered to count. I got a new kindle and the only thing going on it at the moment are things I intend to read. Seriously. For real. Oh, and my favorites, in case I’m really hard up for good material. As well as a short story collection or two, because they work well for waiting rooms and lunches. But that’s it. I mean it.

So, there is little doubt that I picked this up for its wonderfully specific title, which had the lure of ‘circus.’ The only way it could have been more irresistible is to call it ‘Quin’s Shanghai Bookstore’ (or ‘Library.’) Just try and tell me you wouldn’t have picked it up.

“And so they embraced and wept and prepared to part. As drunk, as Geraty murmured, as two butterflies circling a candle. For they were exiles far from home and war was coming.”

At any rate, don’t pick this up, unless you are in the mood for Vonnegut in Japan. There isn’t really a plot to speak of, so once I settled down and stopped looking for the connections and sequela, it went better. I think, eventually, perhaps, Whittemore might have put it all together in some fantastic abracadabra with a magician’s flourish, but I lost momentum. It’s not bad, by any means; there’s some glorious turns of phrase and glorious description, all wrapped up in an affected and vaguely sarcastic commentary. It doesn’t help, of course, that characters are introduced, discarded, moved around, alluded to, foreshadowed to be killed off, and then brought up again.

She held him and watched his spirit go, one tiny sacrifice to an era where Nanking was but the first act of the far grander circus that was to follow.

It’s just… too non-linear, with not enough humor or likeable characters, and a bit too much sexism. Granted, time period and all that. There’s a brilliant review of this in a positive light by zxvasdf here, but most of the things he points out, while theoretically fun, failed to gel for me, much like Lis Carey’s equally thoughtful but opposing review.

A particularly convoluted example of the writing style (and note, a single sentence):

“He was thinking of Geraty then, wondering as always how much of the giant’s tale he could believe, not realizing that at that very moment he was returning from the site of the famous picnic on the beach south of Tokyo where Maeve Quin had long ago laid out a blanket for three men in gas masks, her husband and Father Lamereaux and the elderly Adzhar, the wandering Russian linguist whose cross Big Gobi now wore, thereby setting in motion an espionage game that was to last eight years, culminating in Big Gobi’s conception in a warehouse on the outskirts of Shanghai on the eve of a doomed circus performance.

I might had done better with this had it been written with more of an eye to plotting. As it is, it reminds me very much of the type of (forgive me) pretentious literary fiction that takes character profiles, puts them on steroids to make the traits more obvious, and then surrounds it with elaborate imagery with complicated and formal phrasing to make meaning completely obtuse. Value is added here by the setting, perhaps giving the outsider insight into a period in Japan, but the situations are so implausible as to make the reader unsure of true context. The Secret History of Moscow and Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out both do a much better job of providing cultural insight within the structure of character profiles.

Though I reached 60% or so, I eventually tired of it. As it’s not a book that lends itself to understanding by long, forgetful pauses between, I think I’ll wipe it from the kindle.

About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
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