Saturday, February 14, 2009

Not for the faint- hearted

On more than one occasion, we’ve talked on this blog about how powerful stories have the ability permeate our moods and thoughts. It’s for this reason many readers choose their books carefully, aware of how they react to certain themes, imagery and genres.

Is that a form of self censorship, or simply self preservation?

A combination of reading material this week has led to this question. The first is The Pilo Family Circus by Will Elliott, and the second, author Frank Moorhouse’s essay in this month’s Australian Literary Review (more on the latter in a moment).

It’s been a very long time since I picked up a horror novel, but I’ve been meaning to check out Elliott’s debut novel, The Pilo Family Circus, since it won the inaugural ABC Fiction Award back in 2006.

I’m glad I did, as it’s an original piece of fiction by a gifted storyteller, but there were certainly disturbing elements I probably could have lived without (but of course, without which the story would lose much of its impact and sense of menace and absurdity).

The Pilo Family Circus is a darkly humorous and unsettling horror tale about Jamie, an ordinary guy eking out a simple existence in inner-city Brisbane. But after an encounter with a pair of bizarre clowns (and I mean face paint-wearing, giant-panted clowns, not the other kind that often grace city streets after dark), Jamie is plunged into the horrific alternate reality that is the centuries-old Pilo Family Circus.

He’s forced into service as clown, and discovers that as soon as he dons the white greasepaint, a new character – JJ – emerges, who is weak, sadistic and conniving.

Elliott has said in interviews the book is not meant to be an allegory about the battle against the dark side of human nature. But it’s easy to understand how readers might glean that theme when Jamie at first willingly surrenders to the face paint to cope with his new nightmarish reality, before embarking on a battle for survival against the evil JJ.

Elliott takes to extreme the idea that the circus caters to every human weakness: sideshow alley taps into greed, the acrobats elicit vanity and envy, magicians prompt a craving for power, clowns live out the fantasy of mocking and usurping authority, and the freaks weaken the resolve to resist all of the above.

As Jamie discovers, the Pilo Family Circus is a borderline world between hell and earth from which humankind's greatest tragedies have been perpetrated. Unsuspecting humans are lured into the circus ground, where they are then fleeced of their most precious possession, their souls, and sent back into the world, oblivious of violent events many of them have been programmed to commit. When that’s not enough, performers themselves are sent “up” to incite the carnage.

Among the characters in the circus, none is more absurd than Goshy, a mentally disturbed and simpleton clown whose erratic behaviour is more frightening than the brutal menace of head clown Gonko. And despite the violence and grotesqueness of life and suffering in the circus, the most disturbing moment of the story involves Goshy and the love of his life, a potted fern.

While reading this scene – which, admittedly, was inevitable and certainly captures the escalating depravity and absurdity of Jamie’s environment – I couldn’t help but think of Frank Moorhouse’s essay.

As I was reading the book, I kept wondering about how I would describe it on this blog. I knew it wouldn’t be a story for a lot of people because of its darkness, violence and disturbing imagery - and yes, Bec of The Small Stuff, you were at the front of my mind :).

And yet, award-winning Australian author Moorhouse berates us for wanting to shy away from disturbing material, and is particularly disdainful of those who would attempt to warn audiences about stories that might shock them or make them feel uncomfortable.

Much of his criticism is aimed at television and film censors, but he also points the finger at anyone who uses phrases such as “not for the faint-hearted”.

He says: “There is nothing wrong with being horrified or sickened and nothing terribly bad happens to us when we are. I think it is more likely that something good will happen: we might be moved.”

Is he right? Do we create the world we want to live in by the stories we choose to inhabit – at the expense of seeing the world as it is?

For me, I like to think my choices are a balance between challenging and comforting stories. Because let’s face it: the world offers both experiences, often simultaneously.

What do you think?


Linda Jacobs said...

You pose an interesting question here. I certainly don't shy away from horror stories. Like you say, we are just sitting somewhere reading and it isn't happening to us. I'm more interested in being entertained by good writing.

What I do have a problem with is circus or clown stories. Those I always veer away from. I know it's wrong and I'm trying to overcome that prejudice. It took me forever to read Water for Elephants and only did so because my friend raved about it and lent me the book so I felt like I had to. And you know what? I loved it!

So, I might just look for this one!

Paula Weston said...

Hi Linda,
Thanks for the comment. I've read Water for Elephants and loved it too, and can I just say, The Pilo Family Circus is NOTHING like that. I seriously don't think it will help you like circuses any better... Unless, of course, you can look at all other circuses and think "well, they're not as bad as the Pilo circus"... Now that I think about it, the Pilo circus at least didn't have trained animals, which is one plus... just freaks and monsters. But if you do get around to reading it at some point, please let me know how you found it.

Bec said...

Hi Paula, yes, well definitely not for me - you got that right :). And if I had the time I'd love to put together a thoughtful and well-articulated response to the quote: “There is nothing wrong with being horrified or sickened and nothing terribly bad happens to us when we are. I think it is more likely that something good will happen: we might be moved.” Because that is an opinion that can only be valid for the person who expressed it. And being moved is only good if it spurs you to action, or makes you a better or more compassionate person. For myself, I find terribly bad things CAN happen when I am horrified or sickened by things. I can have nightmares for nights on end, I can have my days coloured by feelings of despair or depression...and yes I guess it means I have been moved, but unless I have actually been educated in something that was previously unknown to me and that was important to know....then what's the point? For example, since the Victorian Bushfires I have read the most heartbreaking, sickening and terrifying personal accounts of what happened. But this I did not shy away from. Because it moved me to action. I need to know. And I did, and am doing, what I can. So the feelings of horror and sadness are worth it. Although, I must admit, that a few days in I even had to restrict the amount of news and personal blogs I read, because when it all got too much I would feel almost paralysed by the enormity of the tragedy - that nothing I could do could help. So I think there must be a balance. Don't hide from the world by refusing to read or listen to anything remotely disturbing. But don't allow yourself to get caught up in the indulgent self-flagellation of disturbing stories just for the sake of it...

Sorry, like I said, if I had time I'd try and articulate this a bit better. But anyway, of course when it comes down to it - this is a personal theory that is applicable to me only. Only you know what is ok for you. So there you go - that was my own little self-indulgent rant - whew - aren't you glad you asked?!!!!!! :O