Was it a bear or a Russian or what?

Inspired by a recent review by Calmgrove, I dug around in the archives of one of my retired blogs to find what I wrote. Here’s my take, with only a couple of minor revisions.

The Circus of Dr. Lao, Charles G. Finney (1935), Viking Compass, 159 pp.

Happy as I am to hail from the same home town as Tony Randall, I warn you at all costs to avoid the film in which he plays Dr. Lao (the blogger behind the Great Science-Fiction and Fantasy website suggests that “if ever you are faced with possible exposure to the thing, run away screaming”).

I so loved this book that, while in college, I adapted it for the stage, and a good friend offered to direct. It ran for two performances. Six months later, I received a letter from a publisher who wanted to see my adaptation, with the possibility of publishing it. In the end, they decided that producing the play would be prohibitively expensive, so they weren’t interested. My first rejection letter.

Two things fascinate me about this novel. One is the odd character of Dr. Lao himself, switching between the worst parody of Chinese-influenced pidgin and perfect English throughout the book, sometimes within the same scene. He challenges everyone he meets to re-evaluate their assumptions about him and the world, and to distrust the evidence of their own senses.

The other thing is the subtle humor. The novel takes place in a small town in Arizona, near the Mexican border (Finney lived in Tucson after leaving the army, where he served in China). Cultures collide, as European meets Asian meets Latinx. For instance, two men who have just struck up an acquaintance enter a bar. One orders “two cervezas,” and the other says, “Naw, naw, I just want beer.” Oh, the layers under that last line!

In another scene, Mr. Etaoin, the newspaper editor (printers will get the joke) describes in great detail the life of a Duroc Jersey pig, from birth to slaughter, and ends with

Some months later I went into a restaurant and ordered pork chops. And the chops they served me–may I die this instant if I lie–were from that very pig of which I have been talking. And the moral of this story is that the whole, sole, one and only and entire purpose of that pig’s life, and the lives of its ancestors, and the lives of the things upon which pig and ancestors fed … the sole purpose of all that intermixed mass of threads and careers, I say–was to provide for me in that restaurant, at the moment I wanted them, a pair of savory pork chops.

Etaoin is talking to a caged sea-serpent in this scene, who has just described eating a few Polynesians. Their conversation reveals an egocentric view of one’s purpose in life, something of which we’re all, at times, guilty.

Appolonius of Tyana tells dismal fortunes, Medusa petrifies a cynical woman, a satyr nearly seduces a staid English teacher, some unidentifiable beings appear here and there, and the Grand Finale includes a scene of utter annihilation.

As Calmgrove points out, Finney created scenes of racism and bigotry, not to mention misogynistic objectification of women. The Great Depression, though in full-swing by the publication date, gets no attention at all.

The issue of what to make of books and authors whose sensibilities don’t match 21st century social justice ideals is one I’m not prepared to address in this post. For now I’ll just say that, however imperfect this fantasy is, it’s still a perceptive tale of human foibles and well worth reading.

About Lizzie Ross

in no particular order: author, teacher, cyclist, world traveler, single parent. oh, and i read. a lot.
This entry was posted in Fantasy, Favorite books. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Was it a bear or a Russian or what?

  1. Calmgrove says:

    Thanks so much for explaining the significance of Etaoin, I’d assumed it was an Irish name but Finney’s punning makes it so much more exquisite. Hard to know how to take the racist and misogynistic overtones here, though I wonder if Finney did so deliberately from a satiric point of view rather than personal belief (rather like Jonathan Swift’s tongue-in-cheek ‘A Modest Proposal’). In fact, one or two of the women, such as the schoolteacher, seem to have more sense and intelligence than the men.

    Anyway, thanks for posting this, and for the link—I’m tempted to look out the author’s other titles (though I’ve read that this is supposed to be his best work).

    Liked by 2 people

    • Lizzie Ross says:

      Finney’s other works will be difficult to find, especially since his great-grandfather (also Charles G Finney) was a prominent revivalist and author. A quick search of my Uni library brought up 2 books and the NYPL has at least one other. But whether these are actually worth traipsing about NYC to obtain remains to be seen. I’ll keep you posted.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Lizzie Ross says:

      And this from a lengthy review I just found: “The failure or denial of monolithic meaning, however, may indeed be the most important and radical point of the novel; the
      work both asserts and denies hermeneutical possibility by consciously blurring, and implicitly questioning, the boundary between fantasy and reality, by subverting realistic narrative techniques and readers’ expectations, and by exposing the artifice of fiction.”

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Pingback: Was it a bear or a Russian or what? — Lizzie Ross – Earth Balm Creative

  3. Well, I have no idea what you two are talking about as I have never read this. I’d just like to say I enjoyed your conversation, Lizzie and Chris, even though I feel like a kid looking through the window of a candy store watching everyone else buy delicious treats and my pockets are empty 🙂

    Book lovers talking…nice!

    Liked by 1 person

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