Reviewed by Noah Gup
The circus is a place of both wonder and terror; the audience is simultaneously amazed and frightened by the performances. We hold our breath while the trapeze artist flips through the air and gasp in amazement when the lion tamer sticks his head in his beast’s mouth. In the circus, humans can fly, and animals walk on their hind legs. The rules of reality are bent. Ana Maria Shua displays the innate surrealism of the circus in her newest collection Without a Net (Hanging Loose Press 2012, translated crisply by Steven J. Stewart). In her book, Shua addresses nearly every aspect of the circus, using it as both a metaphor and a springboard. Despite the varying content and sheer volume of her stories, Shua’s collection displays and expands upon the quirkiness of the circus, while ultimately transcending its subject matter to create a universally appealing book.
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of Shua’s book is its format. She writes self-described “microfiction,” or hyper-short stories no longer than half-a-page. Some display characteristics of science fiction, while others are historical tales of real-life circus performers. Yet the current that travels through all of Shua’s fiction is the magic realism of fellow South American authors. Like Marquez and Cortázar, her stories are dreamy and often surreal, bouncing from ancient Rome to far in the future. The shortness of her stories allow for Shua to deviate from the classic rules of fiction, crafting work that often resemble prose poetry.
Shua’s best stories are microcosms of our world distorted through a funhouse mirror, both tangible and giddily bizarre. In “Naumachias and Pantomimes,” Shua begins by describing the Roman practice of condemning criminals to death by reenacting fights, eventually connecting this show to the modern spectacle of war. “Flyers and Catchers,” a story of seven sentences, manages to be both personal and profound, where circus performers are only the jump off point. The two-part “Gautulians and Pachyderms,” while not directly referencing the circus, conveys the sadness of animals tortured into performing and the bond between animals and man. And “My Dream Circus” is breathtaking with its minimal romanticism and is a perfect example of this style:
There are no drunken clowns nor horseback riders, there’s no animal tamer nor submissive tiger, no gypsy making a bear dance ballet, no knife thrower or death-defying assistant, no acrobats, no trapeze artist, no candy venders, no jugglers, there are no dwarves, no big top, no banners no gentle elephants, no magician with lightning fingers. Just you and I are there. And they clap for us.
Within Shua’s condensed prose, there is no room for literary flourishes. However, there is elegant, unadorned beauty to this simplicity.
Removed from its unique style, Without a Net provides an interesting perspective into the history of the circus. The book is meticulously researched and full of true-to-life details. The lives of real performers, whose stories are strange enough to be fiction, add authenticity to Shua’s depiction. Even more, the author often blurs the line between reality and fiction, using historical performers but twisting their stories to unrealistic ends. This mirrors the fantastic world of the circus, where the impossible becomes real. However, it is occasionally frustrating to parse through what is factual and what is fictionalized.
With over one hundred stories in her book, Shua’s collection can be an exhausting read. Despite individually engaging stories, their brevity constantly forces the reader to shift focus, and I found myself wishing some stories could be expanded upon. Even more, not all stories can stand independent of the collection. One template that Shua utilizes in several stories is beginning with actual details from circus history but adding a strange, absurd twist at the end. This structure, instead of containing the thematic complexity of her finest work, resembles an awkward, wordy joke. While these eye-rollers could be a nod to the vaudeville days of circus performances, they pale in comparison to Shua’s more profound stories.
Despite the quality of individual stories, Shua manages to make a collection that is both cohesive holistically and immediately satisfying. Without a Net is Shua’s eighth collection of microfiction, and one can only hope the Argentinian author continues to write more of these beautiful, bizarre, little gems. Like the conjurors and clowns described in her collection, Shua entertains and tricks the reader with her twisting fiction. But after leaving the surreal funhouse of her writing, the details of her stories and their concentrated emotions are impossible to shake. Shua writes small, simple pieces that are as powerful as novels. That, in and of itself, is a kind of magic.