Friday, May 27, 2011

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, 2006

The concession stand in the center of the tent had been flattened, and in its place was a roiling mass of spots and stripes--of haunches, heels, tails and claws, all of it roaring, screeching, bellowing, or whinnying. A polar bear towered above it all, slashing blindly with skillet-sized paws. It made contact with a llama and knocked it flat--BOOM. The llama hit the ground, its neck and legs splayed like the five points of a star. Chimps screamed and chattered, swinging on ropes to stay above the cats. A wildeyed zebra zigzagged too close to a crouching lion, who swiped, missed, and darted away, his belly close to the ground.

My eyes swept the tent, desperate to find Marlena. Instead I saw a cat slide through the connection to the big top--it was a panther, and as its lithe black body disappeared into the canvas tunnel I braced myself. If the rubes didn't know, they were about to find out. It took several seconds to come, but come it did--one prolonged shriek followed by another, and then another, and then the whole place exploded with the thunderous sound of bodies trying to shove past other bodies and off the stands. The band screeched to a halt for a second time, and this time stayed silent. I shut my eyes:
Please God let them leave by the back end. Please God don't let them try to come through here.

I opened my eyes again and scanned the menagerie, frantic to find her. How hard can it be to find a girl and an elephant, for Christ's sake?
---(page 4)

It's highly appropriate that Water for Elephants takes place in a circus since it itself is a sort of freak show, with many disparate elements working together in a frantic attempt to entertain. It's a period drama with inside information on the workings of Depression-era circuses, as well as a swoon-y Harlequin romance with a thriller-like plot, all framed by the present-day reminiscences of the main character. It's colorful, jumbled and messy, sporadically fun, but marred by severe writing errors.

As a young man, Jacob Jankowski runs away from veterinary school after the death of his parents and joins up with the Benzini Brothers circus, a rather grim outfit peopled by the usual oddballs--dwarfs, fat ladies, prostitutes, even a quirky elephant. Quickly put in charge of the animals, Jacob stumbles into trouble when he falls in love with Marlena, wife of the borderline-psychopathic animal trainer. In the present, a greatly aged Jacob looks back over his life and struggles to maintain his sanity.

It's clear from a brief plot summary that there's a lot going on here. Sara Gruen seems to be throwing in all of the devices, characters and plot ideas that she can come up with. Some work, but so many don't, and Gruen's prose is far too generic to support the chaotic story.

Admittedly, she's quite good at describing life in an old-time circus and she's unearthed lots of fascinating historical tidbits that would liven up a book with a better plot and more interesting characters. Unfortunately, cool information about trains, circus hierarchy and Prohibition can't make up for the book's other faults.

For starters, the book's structure makes no sense to me. The "frame story" of ninety-year-old Jacob thinking about his past is bizarrely disconnected from the main plot and contributes absolutely nothing to the novel, which is not really about aging or the gaining of maturity. The two versions of the character are so different that they don't even seem to be the same person. All old Jacob does is whine about his circumstances and helplessness. The whole frame story is just a very odd interlude that never matches up (thematically or tonally) with the main narrative.

The main narrative is at least more engaging, but not much more sophisticated. The romance between Jacob and Marlena is not interesting because both characters are paper-thin and one-dimensional, particularly Marlena, who is literally given no real personality traits. Jacob is a by-the-numbers Hero type who never really compels. August, Marlena's schizophrenic husband, is the only character that's truly interesting or layered, and even he has only two sides: nasty and charming.

In general, Gruen's world is a very simplistic one. People are pretty much exactly what they appear to be: fuzzy animals are sweet and gentle, villains are vile and boundlessly cruel, heroes are brave and noble. Gruen attempts to distract readers from the novel's incredibly simple story and characterization with an interesting setting and a weird structure, a strategy that just ends up further complicating the book's problems.

Even with all of that, I had a good time. Water for Elephants is definitely an agreeable novel, even when it's clumsy or cliched. It's unsophisticated entertainment, fun at times (you have to love people running around on the top of a moving train) and infuriating at others (the old-Jacob chapters). No one is going to nominate this one for a Pulitzer or put it on their top ten list, but it's worth a read, if only for the scenery.

NEXT UP: The exact opposite of Water for Elephants: Dennis Lehane's Mystic River.

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