There could no more appropriate word in the title than 'circus.' In this nearly forgotten novel we are given a parade of colorful (to say the least) characters, acts of wonder and horror, and ultimately enough confusion to be entertaining; even if we are left scratching our heads at the conclusion.
Quin is having a drink when he is approached by someone claiming to know the story of his parents lives. The plot is a straight forward 'fantasy/quest;' outside of this, very few things are clear.
Quin is, perhaps, not the novel's main character, but it is his shoes that the reader is placed. An odd accomplishment is that there are no secondary characters; some are integral to a higher degree than others, but all are imperative to the story. Through Quin's travels, we are introduced to a mystical clown with a nasal horseradish addition that helps him block out the world's stench; a possibly pederastic Noh actor/priest who feels he has been the Emperor of Japan for the past seven-hundred years; a whore who not only has slept with ten-thousand men before she was thirty, but also found the time to have her whole body tattooed, and Forrest Gump, who likes to inflict pain upon himself in an effort to block out past bad memories; these are the most tame of the large cast. The novel is told with the story within a story mechanic. We meet characters, learn of their life, make small connections (you may wanna take notes; seriously) and hope to retain what we are shown as to piece together one tangible story.
Whittemore was a writer who definitely believed in making his readers work; getting through this book with even minimal enjoyment--to say nothing of comprehension--will take active involvement on the reader's part. It's a not a bad thing by any stretch, but as many clues and pieces as we are given I was left feeling like it never amounted to a whole: until the end. I couldn't help but feel cheated; that things were intentionally difficult in hypocritical fashion as we are outright 'told' exactly what happened at the books end in a nice ten-page recapitulation of prior three-hundred pages. So why bother teasing out the mystery? Yeah, that made me angry…
The story didn't resonate as strongly with me as I felt it could have as none of the characters felt real. No one seemed grounded. It's not because they all have unbelievable lives, or that there is no one to sympathize with, rather I blame Quin. He is taking the reader on a journey to discover his lineage. What we know of him up to this point is nothing, therefore it is hard to make his past--which is what's uncovered in the story--have the impact it could've had as we are never given a starting point of reference.
Whittemore deemed himself too cool for punctuation. You won't find anything other than a period, a comma, and an occasional question mark. It's not as infuriating as Cormac McCarthy or ee cummings, but I don't find it stylistic or endearing. Added to which the author has a penchant for two-page paragraphs. All of which equals massive blocks of text with no punctuation and an occasional eye sore. It gets old very fast, but to his credit I never got confused as to who was speaking and the material is just as clear as if he were using standard punctuation.
It is a very complex narrative, made more difficult by the having to tease out the what-the-hell-is-going-on nature of the story within a story framework. It's not the intentional confusion some first time novelist cast in an effort that they think heightens suspense, rather there is just a whole lot going on. The wandering character digressions that always comprise of the past events make for an very disjunct narrative and hard to figure out current events. The reader tries to uncover the unifying thread for the host of characters and in doing so the plot, but until this happens we are left with substantial confusion, and yes--I'll say it--intrigue. Piecing the puzzle together is as highly infuriating as the character anecdotes are interesting; only I can't kick the feeling that I wasn't given all the pieces...
For me, there was an undeniable spark that ensured I wasn't putting this book down. The stories that comprise the narrative are highly entertaining on their own in addition to trying to work the pieces into a whole. The novel's presentation felt like a Guy Ritchie movie, only directed by someone who is all around better. Whittemore's not a substantial prose stylist nor a writer whose plot machinations are so intense as to have you turning pages at a record pace. I would liken the book to a circus (Surely you saw that coming, right?). It's bizarre; full of things you would never see in an ordinary day: actors that can't seemingly exist in the real word, and circumstances don't always make a great deal of sense, but nonetheless hold your interest until the show is over. This book will stay with you, and you'll be giving it great thought long after putting it down.
A phenomenal accomplishment that Whittemore achieves is to progresses the plot by way of character description. As I said before, you gotta think on your feet to get all of what he's offering. Pick a genre and Quin's Shanghai Circus will fit: mystery, suspense, espionage, fantasy, the catch all, 'literary fiction.' There are occasional moments of inspired prose, but this is not a book whose words you will fall in love with; it's about the characters and the way their lives interact. It's not for everyone. It's dark, appallingly graphic in places, and as far from an easy book to read on the beach as you can get, but as always with my longer, grumbling, rambling commentaries this is a book I thoroughly enjoyed, and one I plan to revisit. Whittemore eludes to the difference in perception of a circus with the passing of time; I'm gonna hold him to that whenever I get around to reading this one again.