March 2, 2016KR BlogBlogEnthusiamsReading

Clowns and War Stories (Part One)

In last week’s New York Times, Jason Zinoman wrote about sad and creepy clowns.* His central question: “How did red noses become such bad news?” Zinoman identifies the late ’80s and early ’90s as a transitional time for clowns, as Flunky the Clown, Krusty the Clown, and Homey D. Clown began appearing, respectively, on Late Night with David Letterman, The Simpsons, and In Living Color. Worse yet (for clowns and for coulrophobes), Stephen King’s It came to demonic life on the small screen. Even Jack Handey got in on the pileup—musing, on Saturday Night Live, about why, to him, clowns aren’t funny. “I think it goes back to the time I went to the circus and a clown killed my dad.”

My clown class read five short stories last week that featured jesters or clowns, and we used Zinoman’s essay as a point of entry. Zinoman acknowledges that dark clowns have been around “at least since Charles Dickens edited the memoirs of the English entertainer Joseph Grimaldi.” Our first story, Edgar Allan Poe’s “Hop-Frog,” was written a little over a decade after Dickens took on that job. I’ve enthused about “Hop-Frog” before on this blog, so I won’t recount the plot—but I will say that the jester Hop-Frog’s “capital diversion,” which ends with eight corpses swinging upon a chain in “a fetid, blackened, hideous, and indistinguishable mass,” is one of the great “last jests” in the history of last jests. It’s a trick the Seinfeld writers understood: leave on a high note. (Hop-Frog follows this directive by clambering “leisurely to the ceiling” and vanishing through a skylight.)

Leaving Poe’s unspecified kingdom behind, we traveled next to contemporary Peru. In Daniel Alarcón’s “City of Clowns,” we encountered Oscar Uribe, a reporter assigned to write a feature on street performers. Oscar’s father has recently died, and he tells us that, at first, the idea of writing the feature made him sad: “clowns with their absurd and artless smiles, their shabby, outlandish clothes.” But then something changes. He runs into clowns smoking cigarettes, clowns dodging water balloons, clowns peddling mints, clowns arguing in bars.

Once I started looking for them, I found them everywhere. They organized the city for me: buses, street corners, plazas. They suited my mood. Appropriating the absurd, embracing shame, they transformed it. Laugh at me. Humiliate me. And when you do, I’ve won. Lima was, in fact and in spirit, a city of clowns.

Eventually, Oscar adopts the clown’s motley and begins to tramp around Lima in oversized shoes. His trajectory is a fulfillment, in a way, of something he hears earlier: “It’s like this: you wake up one morning, and boom! you’re a clown.”

From Alarcón’s story, first drafted in September of 2002, we moved to a story set in September of 2001: Michael Downs’s “The Greatest Show.” Downs asks a question that my class found riveting: If the Twin Towers collapse in the morning, does the Big Top open its tent flaps in the evening? A clown in the story says maybe; Chico, the circus’s crew chief, says no. (“I don’t care about the clown,” Chico said. “Today’s too real, is all. Circus ain’t right.”) After more debate, an unnamed circus worker chimes in: “People suffer everywhere all the time. It’s all pain, right? How does a little clowning make anything worse?” The argument proves persuasive, and the performance that follows—complete with monkeys and elephants, clowns and acrobats—is one of the company’s best, “an assembly of wonder.”

In Anton Chekhov’s “Kashtanka,” the hero-dog’s life is an assembly of gloom. She’s beaten by her master, a carpenter; her master’s son, Fedyushka, plays awful tricks on her. (“The following trick was particularly agonizing: Fedyushka would tie a piece of meat to a thread and give it to Kashtanka, and then, when she had swallowed it he would, with a loud laugh, pull it back again from her stomach.”) Still, the carpenter’s world is Kashtanka’s home—and when she finds herself separated from her master, she misses the “glorious smell of glue, varnish, and shavings.” She’s taken in by a kindly new master who turns out to be a circus clown. After weeks of training, Kashtanka joins her new master’s act—only to find that her old master and son are part of the audience. Which master will she choose?

Well, you can guess. The new master’s eyes look at Kashtanka “gravely and kindly as ever, but his face, especially his mouth and teeth, [are] made grotesque by a broad immoveable grin.” The dog leaps into the gallery. Later, in the carpenter’s room, she remembers “the delicious dinners, the lessons, the circus, but all that seemed to her now like a long, tangled, oppressive dream.”

(If this summary of “Kashtanka” makes you wish you could watch a 1952 animated thirty-minute Russian-language adaptation of the story, you’re in luck.)

Kashtanka

Next time: A few thoughts on Michael Chabon’s “The God of Dark Laughter.”

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* “Consider the clown,” the essay begins. Have you ever Googled “David Foster Wallace” and “clown”? Doing so will lead you to Jenni B. Baker’s Erasing Infinite poetry project. From page 277 of Baker’s copy of Infinite Jest: “a / clown / has / many war stories.”