Prime Books, 2011
Genevieve Valentine’s new novel, Mechanique, is a wonder. A brutal, elegant, stylish, intelligent, disturbing wonder.
Mechanique is the story of a troupe of circus performers, harbouring a marvellous but disturbing secret, that travel through a ravaged, crumbling world, scratching a living by attracting curious spectators with acts such as ‘MECHANICAL MEN BEYOND IMAGINATION’, ‘FLYING GIRLS, LIGHTER than AIR’, and ‘MUSIC from the HUMAN ORCHESTRA’. But the cities outside which they camp are, more often than not, little better than heaps of rubble, and the inhabitants might just as easily drive the circus out than consent to enjoy the show. And yet, Circus Tresaulti endures. Led by the charismatic ‘Boss’, the performers are bound to her by both fear and loyalty; she is both the captor and the mother that holds their mismatched, tumultuous family together. But the consequences of Boss’s authority are more complex and dangerous than they anticipated. Even Little George, who has been with Circus Tresaulti since the age of five, is only just beginning to understand its inner workings…
Like her characters and their strange abilities, Valentine’s novel does not work in the way you expect. Mechanique’s narrative does not take you straightforwardly from beginning to end, but surprises you with devious twists and turns. The novel unfolds through an intricate chronology, flashbacks and present-tense sections interspersed with parentheses that give us snatches of omniscient authorial voice. These parentheses serve multiple uses, digging deep into character motivation, or giving us glimpses of future events, or revealing larger ‘truths’ that are out of reach of the characters themselves; they pepper the story with bittersweet, unsettling revelations. As well as this, we have chapters of the first-person narrative of Little George, and others that use a direct second-person address. The latter is a particularly striking technique, being so rare, and Valentine uses it extremely skilfully to draw the reader right into the tale.
It’s an ambitious project, though the book is not very long in relation to the usual fantasy tomes you see on bookshop shelves. But Valentine really pulls it off. Through the ducking and weaving of the plot, she unfolds her tale in a subtle and intelligent guise. Reading Mechanique is like unfurling a beautiful but brutal secret, as flashbacks and vignettes gradually open before you to reveal more and more about the characters, their motivations and backgrounds, their relationships, and the ruined world through which they move.
And boy, are Valentine’s characters wonderful. Ambiguous and complex, it is nigh impossible to second-guess them; they’d crunch the word ‘stereotype’ underfoot and grind it into the dust. Even the innocuous Little George turns out to have an uneasy role to play, and Valentine brings about his development in an admirably understated way; it’s all the more effective in its quiet unwinding. And particularly compelling, in my opinion, was the unpredictable and continually evolving relationship between Stenos and Bird. The first description of the acrobatic act they perform together is electrifying, and sets the tone for their interaction thereafter.
The magical element in Mechanique is also worth mentioning for its subtle potency. Valentine steers away from explaining the powers that Boss puts to use in her workshop, which would indeed detract from the fear and wonder that surrounds Boss throughout the book. The readers are left to fill in the gaps; a wise choice, it seems to me, and one in line with the novel’s overall style.
And speaking of the style… Valentine is an author who really knows how to coax language into doing her whims, for not only does this book possess a riveting and turbulent cast of characters, a darkly fascinating setting, and a satisfying plot, but it is also – and this is sadly not that usual – a brilliant piece of wordcraft. Valentine writes in a sparse, precise prose, which nevertheless brims with suggestion and vivid images. As my first experience of Valentine’s work was through reading her short stories, I am tempted to draw a connection here and say that Mechanique is a novel that reads with that same weight of signification as a short story. No idle words, the language taut as a tightrope.
My one tiny criticism would be that perhaps the enigmatic atmosphere might have been lifted a little more when it came to the world of Mechanique. I would have liked a bit more of a sense of place. But then, I partly suspect I was meant to feel like this, and that the vague sense of disorientation was Valentine’s intention all along. For like the circus, the reader is adrift in a fractured land where place and time are stretched and cracked. As Hamlet would say, ‘The Time is out of joint.’
Scratch that complaint then. Mechanique is a breathtaking book and y’all should all read it. NOW.
(If you can’t get hold of it right NOW, you might want to whet your appetites by reading Valentine’s two related short stories available on the web: ‘The Finest Spectacle Anywhere’ at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and ‘Study, for Solo Piano’ at Fantasy Magazine.)
Oh, and here’s a pretty circus ticket that Genevieve Valentine has kindly offered as a ‘souvenir’ on the Circus Tresaulti website…