Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti by Genevieve Valentine
Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti by Genevieve Valentine is a highly stylized, atmospheric work, one that maybe tries a little too hard at times but nevertheless managed to wrap me in its spell through it all.
The novel is set in a post-apocalyptic future where war is a near-constant and the cities the circus travels between are often more ruins or refugee camps than proper cities. There is no sense of civilization or cohesive government, though there are references throughout (and one concrete example) of “government men”— those willful enough to take control of a city, or a region, but only for a limited time, only in a limited geography. Then the next one comes along to succeed only until they fail.
Into this wrecked world of cruelty and children soldiers and starvation comes the Circus Tresaulti, a troupe of part-human, part-metal performers (though not all; some remain human, some have not “taken the bones”) whose mechanical workings were given them by the ringmaster, a formidable woman known only as “Boss.” Included in the troupe is Little George, a fully human barker, a young boy whose voice appropriately enough narrates much of the story. Amongst the performers are Elena, the bitterly cruel leader of the trapezists; Ayar the strongman, who “took the bones” and paid the price to save his love; the acrobatic Grimaldi Brothers, who are introduced one by one with the number of men they’ve killed; Bird and Stenos, the paired performers who fight over who gets to wear the beautiful wings Boss crafted years ago, and Alec, the original winged man whose fall occurs even before the events of the book but which haunts the rest of the book:
For them it is not “When Alec fell.”
For anyone who sees it, a moment like that is never in the past; it is always happening, just out of your sight. Behind Elena’s eyes and Little George’s eyes, Alec is always falling . . .
When the acrobats or the aerialists do any trick that frightens the audience into holding its breath, Alec is falling, and their ears fill with the sound of his feathers singing.
Over the course of the novel, via Little George’s narration, as well as a third and sometimes second person voice, we learn how the circus formed and a bit of its history: how Boss made her first mechanical, how Alec fell, how various members joined or auditioned and didn’t join the circus. We also move forward in time as well, as a government man decides Boss’s talent would be of use in creating super-soldiers that will help him maintain and expand his power and thus bring order and civilization back to a dying world. A nice touch is that although George has traveled for years with the circus, he only “wakes” to its reality partway through and so we learn as our narrator learns, sharing his confusion and wonder and frustration.
The story is non-linear, told in bits and snatches, the whole story only slowly revealed and even then rarely fully. It’s an oblique way of telling story, a mix of impressionism and expressionism the way it’s atmospheric and emotional, the way it coalesces into a larger picture via smaller swirling points of story. It’s highly stylized in both structure and language, and for the most part it all works. I’m not sure the second person voice meshes fully, making it feel perhaps a bit too much of a technique rather than an organic part of the tale. And the short chapters, shifting perspectives, aloof voice, and discursive structure tend to distance the characters a bit and also slow the story at the start (personally I didn’t mind that slow pace, but I can see some wondering “when the story will start”). And the swirling in and out and around sometimes means we find our way back to where we’ve been maybe one or two times too many — back, for instance, to Stenos’s and Bird’s conflict over the wings. Mechanique is a short book, under 300 pages, but I’m not sure it couldn’t have lost a few dozen pages or so to cut out a bit of the repetition.
When the atmosphere does eventually resolve into a more traditional (that term is relative here) plot — a rescue attempt of some performers held prisoner — the scene itself is in a visual spectacle in the imagination, but the urgency of it, the “reality” of it feels a bit untethered, a bit contrived. And it begs the question of how hasn’t this happened again and again and again.
My problems with the book, though, were minor in comparison to my enjoyment of it. I said at the start I fell under its spell and it really has that magical sense surrounding it. I’m a sucker for non-linear stories, stylized language, unanswered questions (and there are a lot in here), stories revealed in slants of light rather than granite chunks of exposition, of “and then and then and then.” I don’t mind when atmosphere is more important than plot and when characters flit just out of reach of understanding. Mechanique won’t be to everyone’s taste, but you’ll know within the first few pages whether it’s to yours. It’s definitely worth finding out.