Quin’s Shanghai Circus, Edward Whittemore

Whittemore’s name kept popping up for me–Rick Kleffel’s mentioned him on one listserv, he was mentioned on Rondua, someone else sent me a note about him–so I went on a fact-finding mission, searching the Internet for information about this elusive author. There wasn’t much, but one of the hits was the first issue of a newsletter from the Council for Literature of the Fantastic in an article by Jeff VanderMeer on nine neglected works. This was part one of the article, with only five authors covered (Paul Auster, Angela Carter, Nick Cave, Steve Erickson, and Edward Whittemore). VanderMeer concentrates on Whittemore’s four-novel suite, “The Sinai Tapestry,” and only briefly mentions Quin’s Shanghai Circus, his first novel. It sounded like my type of thing, though, so I went on a used book search and had some luck, finding both Quin’s and two novels of the suite. Like normal, I start an author from his first work.

Wow. This is certainly a different kind of novel. It has an aura of its time (early 70s), but it is also unique enough to be timeless. To explain it basically, it is a novel of intertwining lives–Quin is a thirty-something American orphan who is approached in a bar by a very strange fellow who has a clue to his parents’ identities. This leads Quin to Japan, accompanied by Big Gobi, a large mentally challenged man who also has something to do with Quin’s parentage. They meet Father Lamereaux, and start following the thread of the story that incorporates a secret agent network that was responsible for saving untold lives in World War II by affecting Sino-Russo-Nippo relations. As the stories unfold, following one character after another, we are enmeshed in how their lives affected each other, sometimes with two or three degrees of separation. Lastly, there’s one character who’s not what he seems–in my faux writing terms, a third-person unreliable.

Fantastic literature? In both senses. I was amazed at the complexity of the “plot” (the story, because it is not linear, sometimes defies English 101 terms), and surprised by some of the elements, sometimes strange and grotesque. It’s not truly horrific, even though some parts verge on the Clive Barker scale. At one point, the novel recounts how the last performance of the titular circus occurs, in which the performers are detached one by one, and then the ravenous beasts are let loose to feed on the audience. My stomach churned several times during those pages, and I don’t think it was my stomach flu causing it to do so. One of the characters is a psychopath who is entirely too believable, making certain sections recall Thomas Harris more than C.S. Lewis. If “The Sinai Tapestry” suite is as good as this novel, Whittemore is definitely unjustly neglected, and should be reprinted.

[Finished 17 April 1997]

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