Circus tents appear overnight near the town of Abalone, Arizona. These are not ordinary canvas tents, they are black and smooth and egg-shaped. A parade makes its way down Abalone’s main street; there are only three wagons in the parade. Afterwards, people try to figure out what they saw in the parade — a golden donkey? a sphinx? a sea serpent? was that a green dog? and what was in the middle wagon, was that a man or a bear or a Russian?
This is the circus of Doctor Lao, a collection of wonders that will be viewed by the citizens of Abalone who may not always show a proper regard for the wonderful. That is one part of the story. On the other hand, the citizens themselves are also wonders, as are human beings generally, but some more so. Take Larry Tull:
A man of many artificial parts was Lawyer Frank Tull. His teeth had been fashioned for him and fitted to his jaws by a doctor of dental surgery. His eyes, weak and wretched, saw the world through bifocal lenses…He had a silver plate in his skull to guard a hole from which a brain tumor had been removed. One of his lrgs was made of metal and fiber…Around his belly was an apparatus that fitted mouth-like over his double hernia and prevented his guts from falling out. A suspensory kept his scrotum from dangling unduly. In his left arm a platinum wire took the place of the humerus…On one ear was strapped an arrangement designed to make ordinary sound more audible. In the shoe of his good foot an arch supporter kept that foot from splaying out. A wig covered the silver plate in his skull. His tonsils had been taken from him, and so had his appendix and his adenoids. Stones had been carved from his gall…He carried his head in a steel brace, for his neck was broken…One hundred years after he died they opened up his coffin. All they found were strings and wires.
Frank Tull, mixture of man and metal, now studies a chimera, mixture of bird, beast, and serpent. Which is more wonderful? Tull asks if the chimera will breed in captivity.
“Oh, certainly,” said the doctor.”They breed any time. This fellow here is always trying to get at the sphinx.”
“Well, that isn’t exactly what I mean, though of course, it’s interesting to know. I meant will they reproduce?”
“How can they, when they are all males?”
“What? Are there no female chimeras?”
“Not a single one, and very few males either, for that matter. You are looking at a rare animal, mister.”
“Well if there are no females, then where do they come from?”
“This one came from Asia Minor…”
One by one the citizens of Abalone view the beasts of legend. The hound of the hedges, whose blood is chlorophyll; his fur, grass; his teeth, thorns. An hermaphroditic sphinx. A roc’s egg. A beautiful mermaid. But some wonders disappoint: A werewolf transforms into a woman who upsets viewers by being old and ugly rather than young and beautiful. The miracle-worker Appolonius of Tyana tells fortunes but can only tell the truth. Mr. Etaoin, a proofreader, encounters the sea serpent. They talk about food. The serpent relates how he went ashore to shed his skin and then became hungry. He came across a town of mud shacks. The people run in fear:
I watched them and looked them over and picked out the one I wanted for a meal. I chose a little coffee-colored fat boy. Ah, I’ll wager his mother had fed him on duck eggs and roast bananas, he was so fat. Why, his belly rolled out so far he couldn’t see his own knees.
The little boy climbs a tree but the sea serpent can climb, too, and slowly eases up the tree trunk. He grabs the boy by a leg:
I swallowed him much as you would swallow an oyster and with every bit as much right, if you will pardon an ethical intrusion.
The boy’s father runs out and the sea serpent eats him, too, and “the first vahine I come acrost. But the little fat boy was the best.”
Now it is the proofreader’s turn to tell a story:
There was a pig. A Duroc Jersey pig. It scampered about in its sty, eating slop and entertaining no spiritual conflicts. Fat it grew and fatter. Then one day its master loaded it into a wagon, took it to the depot, put it on a freight train, and sent it to a packing company. There it was slain, gralloched, and quartered after the manner of slaughterhouses. Some months later I went into a restaurant and ordered pork chops. And the chops they served me — may I die this instant if I lie — were from that very pig of which I have been talking.
Having spoken of food, now the two speak of love:
The Snake: I still remember my first affair. It must have been eleven centuries ago. Ah, but she was lovely! Some twenty feet longer than I she must have been, for I was a yearling then; and her great fangs were like the blades of pickaxes…
She was cold and coy. She slithered up on top of the rocks and hissed at me. I slithered after her; my passion warmed her; my ardor allayed her coyness. Tell me, do men bite women on the neck when they woo them?
The Snake: So do we. I bit her in the neck, and she hooked onto my lower jaw, and I could feel her poison circulate into me. But it didn’t hurt me any; nor did mine hurt her. Then I dragged her off that rocky island, threw a loop or two about her, and so we wrestled in the bouncing, nervous waves…Tell me, do men tire of women after they have lain with them?
The Snake: So do we. I tired and left her and returned to the west… But tell me, after the period of surfeit wears off, do men again lust after women?
The Snake: So do we.
Doctor Lao wanders in and out, sometimes speaking like a carnival barker, sometimes uttering poetry or long scientific discourses on his creatures, sometimes speaking in pidgin English, “No savvee…” Possibly he uses the language he expects his listener to understand. At one point he runs into Larry Kamper, an ex-soldier, just returned from a stint in Tientsin with the 15th Infantry Regiment. Doctor Lao speaks to him in Chinese and Larry, the beer-swilling, skirt-chasing dogface, replies:
…in the vowel-fluid music of High Mandarin. He sang the four-tone monosyllables as shrilly as did the doctor, and they talked as talk two strangers finding themselves in a foreign land with the bridge of a common language between them.
Perhaps this is the place to mention that Charles G, Finney, great-grandson of the famous American theologian of the same name, served with the 15th Infantry Regiment in Tientsin (now Tianjan) from 1927 – 1929. On returning to the States, he became an editor at the Tucson Arizona Daily Star. While in China, Finney picked up “a fund of esoteric inforantion” that he incorporated into his book:
Part of the story he dreamed, part of it he picked up from a Chinese magician, and the flash of inspiration that kindled the book came on a sightseeing tour. In the course of this trip they viewed the famous dragon screen ‘a huge wall-like affair made of colored tile with nine dragons worked into it, you round a little hill, and there the screen is: so marvelously beautiful it knocks you over. ‘ But the members of the party were not all knocked over; one of the ladies remarked, ‘Good Lord, ain’t these Chinese got the awfulest imaginations!’ At that instant The Circus of Dr. Lao was born. (from the forward to the first edition)
Finney wrote other books but none was as successful as this first novel, published in 1935.
Back to the story: after seeing all the wonderous creatures assembled by the doctor, the citizens crowd into the big tent to witness various acts and spectacles. Some they find boring but the grand finale cannot be dismissed. The scene is Woldercan, a place currently suffering from drought. The people call upon their god, Yottle, for succor. Doctor Lao:
Piety such as theirs exists no more. Such simple, trusting faith is lost to the world. …I want to recall to you that they sacrifice a virgin to their god. Piety. That was real piety. When you people here of Abalone pray to your god for a drought’s end, do you go to such extremes in your protestations of faith? Would you sacrifice Abalone’s fairest virgin? Ah, well…
So the Woldercanese gather beneath the huge idol they have built of their god, Yottle. Their priest tells them that they must placate Yottle. There are murmurs of discord and disbelief. A “passionate rush of words” answer them. “The words came from everywhere at once, as the hurricane comes…” This is the voice of Yottle. The Woldercanese prostrate themselves. The priest calls them to order. A beautiful young virgin is chosen to sacrifice but, as the priest lifts the sacred axe, a young man who loves the girl leaps forward from the crowd and tries to stop him. There is a struggle beneath the idol that suddenly tips forward and falls on the girl, the young man, and the priest, crushing all three. Manna falls from the heavens “and for their crops a thin wispy rain came weeping into the wind, drizzling and dripping.”
The tent opens up and the people of Abalone stumble out into the dust and the sunshine and go “homewards or wherever else they were going.” Thus ends the narrative.
But that is not the end of the book, for now we read the Catalogue, a series of lists with notes. There is a list of the male characters:
Doctor Lao: A Chinese.
Mr.Etaoin: A corrector of errors.
Appolonius of Tyana: A legend.
An Old-like Party in Golf Pants: A bore.
And so on. There are lists of female characters, children, animals, gods and goddesses. We learn what happens to some of the people after the show. We discover who it was that dug up Larry Tull a hundred years after his death and the identity of the werewolf woman and where Larry Kamper went next. There is a list of foodstuffs that includes: “Pork chops. Duck eggs. Little fat brown boy. Beer. Vahine. Bananas. Oysters. Brown boy’s old pappy. Slop.” just to mention the items in the quotes above. I don’t know why the list doesn’t include “Manna” but then the the Catalogue also has a list of “Questions and Contradictions and Obscurities”, such as “Inasmuch as legend tells us that chimeras were invariably females, how did it happen that Doctor Lao’s was a male?” And “Was it a bear or a Russian or what?” (Not to sound like the old party in golf pants, but I think it was a sasquatch. Or a yeti. Doctor Lao says that science is nothing but classification, so we are asking for a little science here.) The Catalogue is, as they say nowadays, Meta. And it delights me to discover that Meta existed in 1935, long before David Foster Wallace’s footnotes.
Delight is one of the book’s purposes. The publisher’s forward to the first edition:
The Circus of Dr. Lao is a strange book; no one will say what it means, or if it means anything at all; the author himself professes ignorance and washes his hands of the whole business. We publish the book because it made us laugh, and because a little hilarity is needed in the world.
“The world is my idea.” says Doctor Lao. “The world is my idea; as such I present it to you. I have my own set of weights and measures and my own table for computing values. You are privileged to have yours.” Yes, and we are privileged to have this wonderful book.
The Circus of Dr. Lao has gone through numerous editions since 1935 (one reviewer remarked that he had only ever seen the book in used-book stores and thought that perhaps that was the only place it had ever been found), many of these editions had small press runs and some are illustrated. The original edition was illustrated by Boris Artzybasheff and the current edition linked here reproduces his drawings.