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?