Eleanor Pepper (2017)

Louise Bourgeois: Arch of Hysteria (1993)

Magic Realism, Damnation Circus, and the Carnival of the Soul

Folklore means that the soul is sane, but that the universe is wild and full of marvels. Realism means that the world is dull and full of routine, but that the soul is sick and screaming. The problem of the fairy tale is—what will a healthy man do with a fantastic world? The problem of the modern novel is—what will a madman do with a dull world? In fairy tales the cosmos goes mad; but the hero does not go mad. In modern novels the hero is mad before the book begins, and suffers from the harsh steadiness and cruel sanity of the cosmos.
- G. K. Chesterton, Tremendous Trifles (1909)

Magic realism is oxymoronic - magic is a trick, an illusion, and to define it is to lose its property as "magic". "Damnation Circus" seems to have the characteristics of this genre, as both unspeakably impoverished in taste and as an account of the marvellous, but the parameters of the genre are wide and there is much debate as to what exactly “counts”.

Ostensibly, the effect of magic realism in Alice Tawhai’s "Damnation Circus" is to add depth and deepen its mystery and intrigue. Magic realism has been used by postcolonial writers to undermine imperialist power structures. We see something of that here, too. It sits in the space between Chesterton's folklore and realism. A travelling circus lends itself perfectly to this liminal space - inhabiting the fringes of town (and good taste), always moving, mysterious and unknown. There is also a sense of lurking danger and theatricality. Alice Tawhai gives us the realities of this space but also mystifies it under layers of glitter paint. What are the folklore elements of this piece, and where is the realism? And what are the effects of these techniques?

We are presented with three sisters with singsong, almost rhyming names: Chrissy, Missy, and Fliss. Missy and Fliss are never characterised enough to distinguish between them. They are the girls in “bright homemade dresses with the electric blue eye shadow”. They take after their mother, they can eat steam pudding and ice-cream for dessert, and in contrast to Chrissy’s heavy build, her “skinny sisters Missy and Fliss had rounded tits and cups full of cleavage”. Chrissy is set apart here like the eldest of the twelve dancing princesses, but in a fashion that is flips it on its head: instead of being the prettiest and most desirable daughter, she’s the ugliest, the fattest, the most chastened and denied. This sets her up as the protagonist but also is the reason for her struggles in her adolescence.

Chrissy’s lovers are also from a fairy-tale: they are perfect opposites. Her first lover, Tex, is “dark and handsome” and the sex “was straight from heaven with hot, melted sugar on top”. He is, however, emotionally unengaged. He is not supportive when she has a hemorrhoid operation. He forgets her birthday, even though “I’d be rapt if you got me something from the $2 shop,” or something equally trivial - a token that he remembers her. But not even that - he never mentions it. But Tex “made me feel beautiful. He made me feel as if my body was just right”. And to Chrissy, plagued with body issues and self-doubt, she is willing to oversee many of his flaws because this is the most important thing to her.

In contrast to Tex, Jimsie is a clown. The -ie at the end of his name is feminising, and he is described as small and romantic. But he is “kind and loving” and he seeks out her companionship. For her birthday he gives her “four pink powder puffs, a golden parasol, thirteen lavender roses in full bloom, one gram of cocaine and a diamond ring” - a list rather too excessive, for he fails to give her what she wants most of all - to be sexually desired. “You may not be beautiful on the outside,” he says. “I could have waited around for some beautiful chick with a gorgeous body”. The two lovers are like twins - the other possessing an essential component that the other lacks. Neither lover is able to give Chrissy everything she needs, so in both relationships she is dissatisfied. As things appear to come in threes and fives in this story (like other fairy tales) we see the spectre of the third lover, made from the bones of Tex and Jimsie, who will be like Goldilocks’ porridge - “just right”.

Finally, there are the five fantastic acts of the circus. As Angela Carter writes in The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, “to enter their circular arena was to step directly into the realm of the marvellous”. The acts begin with the Stoat Man, who sets his vicious stoats on the audience’s dogs. Chrissy’s father, the ringmaster; bites heads off canaries and makes them fly again in a triumph over life and death. Her mother “could swallow anything up her pussy: knives, lighters, keys”. A man lifts heavy weights with a steel hook attached to his cock piercing, and a woman dances on a mirror ball and swallows razor blades. Compare this to Angela Carter’s elaborate, lavish description of the Acrobats of Desire in The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman:
A clumsy spotlight focussed on their miniscule sawdust ring. The flute wailed a phrase. A faint tintinnabulation of their metallic shifts heralded their coming. They entered one by one. At first they formed a pyramid … then they reversed themselves … their figures flowed into one another so choreographically it was impossible to see how they extricated or complicated themselves … After that, limb by limb, they dismembered themselves. (p. 113)
Like the language in Angela Carter’s novel, Tawhai’s language situates the story in a fairy tale (albeit a sexually graphic one). Her language is dream-like, brutal and surreal. There is a sense of purgatory and imprisonment - “held in the dark under yellow and blue spotlights, with hot glitter floating through the air onto the sawdust in the ring”. And the marvellous account of her temporary house - “we had a pink house with a big bird of paradise bush at the front door. The throats of the flowers were bright orange and bluey purple, and it grew in all directions. You had to be careful when you squeezed past, because there was a prickle curved like a claw on top of each long, stiff leaf”. Tawhai’s bright, sometimes nauseating, psychedelic colours and impossible descriptions situate this house (and story) in another world. A place so saturated with narcotics, you have to suspect a mixture in Chrissy’s bloodstream when she observes her world.

This isn’t a retold fairy tale, rather, a story that incorporates and deconstructs fairytale typology. This is seen again in Tawhai’s short story "Evil Fairytales". It begins with the traditional “once upon a time”, but it clearly has a fixed time and place in contemporary New Zealand. The Rule of Three is used in this story, too. The story of three sisters, and her mother’s three commands to her daughter to “keep away from old men, never accept food from strangers and don’t let anyone you don’t know take your photo”, and Alice’s breaking of these respective commands. Then there are the three wishes of the magical king tuna that transforms into a man. Because magic realism is such a visual genre, it has had wide commercial success in recent years and so, ironically, may have exhausted its power of speaking for and to oppressed minorities.

The “realism” of the circus is that it is at the edge of civilization. Illegal things can happen here. Ostracism, drug addiction, and family violence are all at play in this story. Shed of its bright wrappings, it is a story of tensions in the family (regarding Chrissy’s weight issues) and a lack of personal autonomy which contributes to Chrissy’s self-consciousness and pursuit of beauty and validation. Chrissy’s mother is abusive - withholding food, and emotionally torturing her, “sneering” and calling her ugly. Her father ineffectively attempts to stand up for her, which only aggravates the mother to make a speech that dehumanises Chrissy, likening her to a donkey:
When I was fourteen, my mother suggested that I dye my hair silver and plait little diamonds in it. We could surgically implant a tail, she said, and spray my skin with some sparkly body glitter, and I could give the men in the audience donkey rides around the ring. “You have the right face for it,” she said. “You could wear a girdle so that your podgy tummy doesn’t flop downwards, and a silver bikini top so your tits don’t sag. We could charge extra. (p. 68)
Compare this to the character Albertina from Carter’s Infernal Desire Machines:
As I drew near, I saw it was a swan. It was a black swan. I cannot tell you how ugly it was; nor yet how marvellous it was. Its vapid eyes were set too close together … the swan flexed its neck like a snake about to strike, opened its beak and began to sing so I knew it was about to die and I knew, too, she was a swan and also a woman for there issued from her throat a thrilling, erotic contralto. (p. 23)
In the first extract, animal symbolism is used to annihilate Chrissy’s self-esteem. In the other, the swan’s ugliness is its mystery, the initial attraction in which the protagonist is enraptured. Carter’s shapeshifting Albertina is completely in control of her appearance and liberally follows her sexual desires, a perversion of the myth of Leda and the swan. Chrissy’s mother attempts to control her daughter’s sexual desires by destroying her sense of self-worth.

Chrissy feels isolated from her peers, “other girls our age were hanging out … we had no time for that … I grew up watching reruns of Charlie’s Angels upside down,” she says. Perhaps much of her childhood was like that - upside down, unsettled. There’s no genius loci - the family drift from place to place, American immigrants, seeming to inhabit a zoetrope of violence (sexual violence included), crime, and poverty. Chrissy would never thrive in this environment.

“Magical realism has become associated with fictions that tell the tales of those on the margins of political power and influential society. This has meant that much magical realism has originated in many of the postcolonial countries that are battling against the influence of their previous colonial powers, and consider themselves to be at the margins of imperial power,” summarises Mary Ann Bowers (p. 17). "Damnation Circus" does not explicitly deal with postcolonial issues, but it tells the story of marginalised people and being it is authored by a Māori woman.

“It’s a dreamfire world, mad and bitter/and splendid. Curdles your tongue and plucks out/your eyes, then tramps on your head–croons/in puzzled surprise over your brokenness on/its palm until you drift in puzzled mists away,” writes Keri Hulme in her poem, "Silence … moons & self" (pp. 18-19). This could be Chrissy - “I don’t know myself, except as this fat high-/boned, fiercely flushed face … duelling with me in my mirror,” Hulme’s poem continues. Again, this is a young woman searching for belonging in other people’s eyes, an insecurity of identity. Not only does Chrissy struggle with inclusion, but inclusion by standards of white, Western beauty that may not be her own. Chrissy’s body is ideal to the Bikie men. Her own body is a battleground for white and nonwhite ideals, while simultaneously commodified for its sex appeal and performance.

Infernal Desire Machines broaches this topic, as well. It begins in an unnamed South American City, by a protagonist “of Indian extraction”. He says “the Portuguese did us the honour of discovering us towards the middle of the sixteenth century but they had left it a little late in the day, for they were already past their imperialist prime and so our nation began as an afterthought, or a footnote to another, more magnificent conquests”. Instead of at a personal level like "Damnation Circus", Carter’s city embodies this sense of inner upheaval.

Chrissy feels intense adolescent longing - to be loved for who she is - and extraordinary sexual yearning. She is a girl of appetite, of hunger, for the food and love she desired and was denied in childhood and the sexual appetite she experiences as an adult. Magical realism dovetails perfectly with these already excessive, painful desires.

Like Angela Carter and Keri Hulme, Alice Tawhai uses fairytale and realism tropes to weave a tale of the extraordinary. The mother’s little evils are only too mundane, and the kaleidoscopic visions of the circus are produced almost as a side effect to the mother-daughter conflict. The title "Damnation Circus" implies that the circus is both migratory and static - stuck in petty hates and seedy, gaudy tastelessness. Chrissy, however, has broken out of that environment and is looking for someone who will love her for who she is. Although there is cynicism in her last words, “happy birthday to me,” she has every hope of fulfilling her desires and freeing herself from her cyclical, familial hell.


Bowers, Maggie Ann. (2004). Magic(al) realism. London: Routledge.

Carter, Angela. (1994). The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman. 1972. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Chesterton, Gilbert Keith. (2014). "Chapter XVI." Tremendous Trifles. 1909. Available from: Accessed 10/05/17.

Hulme, Keri. (1982). The Silences Between (Moeraki Conversations). Auckland: Auckland University Press.

Tawhai, Alice. (2017). "Damnation Circus". Luminous. Wellington: Huia, 2007. Available from: Advanced Fiction Writing Course Readings. pp. 66-70.

Tawhai, Alice. (2013). 'Evil Fairy Tales.' Goethe Institut. Available from: Accessed 10/05/17.

© Eleanor Pepper (2017)

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