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The Circus of Dr. Lao
Charles G. Finney
Bison Books, University of Nebraska Press, 167 pages

The Circus of Dr. Lao
Charles G. Finney
Charles G. Finney was born in 1905. His novels include The Circus of Dr. Lao (1935) and The Magician Out of Manchuria (1989). He died in 1984.

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A review by David Maddox

A mysterious circus rolls into town by means of neither roads nor train. Its advertisement promises sights and wonders as yet unseen by mortal man. Its owner is a chameleonic Asian man of uncertain age and origin. Though at first unimpressed with its run-down appearance (heck, it doesn't even have an elephant!), the mundane citizens of Abalone, Arizona are soon to learn that the circus contains a bizarre collection of myths, oddities, fables and lore that will challenge the very nature of their lives and beliefs.

Charles G. Finney's 1935 classic The Circus of Dr. Lao is a difficult book to describe. Although he wrote a handful of books in his career, this is the only one with lasting power. It was made into a film in 1964 (under the name The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao) in which Tony Randall played all the strange denizens of the circus. But while the film took a straightforward approach with the message of enjoying the miracles of life all around us, the book is much more obtuse.

Engaging and intriguing, it follows no regular conventions, has no chapter breaks, no central character and is really just a collection of events that happen throughout the circus in a semi-linear fashion. Even the book's introduction by John Marco (writer of the critically acclaimed Tyrants and Kings trilogy) states quite clearly:

"The Circus of Dr. Lao defies convenient explanation; it must be read to be understood, even though questions may linger. It puzzles and provokes."
The prose draws the reader into the fantastic circus emphasizing the strangeness with the original illustrations by Boris Artzybasheff. Finney vividly captures the time period of the 30s, bringing the rural, rustic Arizona town with its dusty streets to life, then injects the wonders of mythic creatures.

There is a very sensual and erotic undercurrent to the novel which was probably rather shocking at the time. However there is no real "climax" to any of the scenes, be it the Satyr's seduction of Miss Agnes Birdsong or African god Mumbo Jumbo and his Nordic "bride" at the peepshow. Finney was trying to use Dr. Lao to pique the townspeople's interests without giving them a pay-off, so they are left wanting more.

Dr. Lao himself changes between wise mentor, learned master and stereotypical "Chinaman." His adventures have spanned the globe yet he accepts the wonder of all he has seen, from the chimera to ancient magician Apollonius, as common place. Could he be the last remnant of the Age of Fable, overlooked when the Age of Reason wiped out such dreamers like Baron Munchausen and Gulliver?

Finney himself left the book as a pondering. In fact there are so many "Questions, Contradictions and Obscurities" that he actually lists them at the back of the book causing further speculation from the reader. He didn't want to confuse, but rather inspire readers to feel part of the surreal world the townspeople experienced.

The Circus of Dr. Lao is an attempt to expand the limits of people's imaginations. It's a thought-provoking read and, like Dr. Lao's circus, contains far more depth than its humble surface appears to offer.

Copyright © 2002 David Maddox

David Maddox
Science fiction enthusiast David Maddox has been many things, including Star Trek characters and the Riddler in a Batman stunt show. He holds a degree in Cinema from San Francisco State University, and has written several articles for various SF sites as well as the Star Wars Insider. He spends his time working on screenplays and stories as well as acting in any venue he can. Residing in Los Angeles, he continues to be part of this wacky business called show.

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