Perhaps you have seen the 1963 movie The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao starring Tony Randall. Whatever the merits of that film may be, it is not a true adaptation of its source novel The Circus of Dr. Lao by Charles G. Finney. Finney's novel, first published in 1935, is a much wilder and more complex tale that raises questions about how we construct our reality. "The world," Dr. Lao explains at one point, "is my idea; as such I present it to you. I have my own set of weights and measures and my own table for computing values. You are privileged to have yours." This handsome reprint edition by the University of Nebraska Press includes an introduction by fantasy novelist John Marco and the original surreal/cartoony illustrations by Boris Artzybasheff.
The story seems simple enough. A rundown circus rolls into the little Arizona town of Abalone in the middle of the Great Depression. We learn that the circus has not arrived by rail nor by the main highway, the only two means of entering isolated Abalone. The circus proprietor, a wiry Chinaman named Dr. Lao (pronounced "low"), leads a parade down main street that raises further questions. Just what are these strange creatures in the various wagons? Why is that mule plated with gold; why does the driver of the one wagon have horns upon his head; and is that one creature a bear, or a Russian, or what?
Finally the circus tents are set up and open for business. The townsfolk arrive, expecting to find the usual sideshow attractions. Instead they are greeted with living, breathing mythological creatures and legendary characters, including a sphinx, a satyr, a unicorn, a medusa, and Apollonius of Tyana. Narrowminded, the residents of Abalone react with crass indifference or disbelief to the wonders on display. Poor Kate, the disbelieving wife of Luther, cannot believe that the medusa is real and, pushing her way past the rope barrier, faces the creature head on. She, of course, turns into what a local geologist later describes as "Carnelian chalcedony. Makes mighty fine building stone." Even the great finale of the show--featuring a real witches' sabbath and the destruction of an ancient civilization, both impossibly vast in scale--fails to move the crowd. When Apollonius, the circus's magician, confronts Satan Mekratig himself and banishes the demon from the scene, "the applause was sparse and unconvincing." And suddenly, "The ends of the tent fell outward and down, and the circus of Doctor Lao was over." As is the novel--almost.
This abrupt ending is followed by something called "The Catalogue (An explanation of the obvious which must be read to be appreciated.)" Here, Finney "explains" every person, place, or thing mentioned in the novel. Some of the explanations are straightforward. The local newspaper editor is "An able man. Should have been on a better paper, but his health kept him in Abalone." Others are for laughs: A stenographer is "A commercial college graduate of the ovarian type." Still others are deliberately evasive; Dr. Lao is simply described as "A Chinese." As we read descriptions of the animals, the cities, the deities, and the various "items" found in the novel, it becomes obvious that Finney is deconstructing his narrative before our eyes, taking it apart noun by noun until its artificiality is plain to all. In "The Questions and Contradictions and Obscurities" section, Finney even lists all the unanswered questions his narrative has raised.
While the novel is at one level a satire of small town America, it goes far beyond that. Science, religion, democracy, and civilized life in general are ridiculed and shown to be inadequate in the face of the beautiful, dangerous forces of the natural world. Just as the narrative itself is a flawed, artificial construct, so Finney argues that civilization and its institutions are artificial and flawed. And the civilized lives we lead are no better. As Apollonius tells a woman who comes to him to have her fortune told: "A living thing should either create or destroy according to his capacity and caprice, but you, you do neither. You only live on dreaming of the nice things you would like to have happen to you but which never happen.... I cannot see the purpose in such a life. I can see in it only vulgar, shocking waste."
By turns puzzling, hilarious, satiric, erotic, philosophical, and bizarre, The Circus of Dr. Lao has always been a cult classic in the fantasy field, but a classic that never attracted a large readership because of the demands it places on its readers and the elusive nature of its story. Finney began writing his novel while serving with the U.S. Army in China in 1929 and finished it in Arizona, where he settled down after returning home. He worked at a Tucson newspaper for some forty years, becoming that paper's financial editor, and died in 1984. Although he wrote several more novels, a collection of short stories, and a memoir of his army days, Finney is and always will be best remembered as the creator of Dr. Lao.
There are worse fates for a writer.
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