Step Right Up fills some kind of niche: Somewhere there must be a slot left in the canon (perhaps just to the left of a collection of odes to goldfish) for an anthology of circus-related vignettes. Hell, we have nearly everything else! Publishing an anthology involves finding and elucidating common threads among disparate texts; here, apart from the circus theme, the unifying motif seems to be that we like to inflict our gaze on others if we can—view their weaknesses and aberrations—without being seen ourselves.
This tendency fuels the characters in this diverse collection, from Ray Bradbury’s boys taken from his classic Something Wicked This Way Comes and in Susan Dickinson’s younger self from “The Wages of Sin Is Death.” What disturbs about many pieces in this compilation is that this voyeuristic impulse is rarely scrutinized; rather, it’s celebrated as a seamy but worthwhile activity, as if we were to argue: “Hey, this may feel taboo, but those freaks are the outlanders—and we’re more Main Street for having seen and left them behind.”
Step Right Up offers exceptions, though. Interestingly—and no doubt deliberately—a piece written by a former carnival worker leads off the collection; thus the opening act in this show reveals the performers’ foreknowledge of all the interpretive tricks to which they are subjected in the subsequent stories. Tales like Edward Hoagland’s “Circus Music: For Clowns, Lions, and Solo Trapeze” demonstrate that the performers feel exactly the same way about the audience—or “lot lice,” as Hoagland calls them. The ordering gaze, as postmodern philosopher Michel Foucault outlines it, is turned back on us from the beginning.
The anthology’s editor asserts that freakishness is a comforting, unifying fact in our lives, and that as such, the circus is a reassuring place for us; the gaze is indeed mutual, but in a positive way. I’m not convinced. An acquaintance of mine wrote his dissertation about freak shows as a cultural phenomenon. By the end of the project, he could not bear to be in the sight of the so-called freaks themselves. When he attended carnivals and paid his 50 cents per viewing, it was clear his gaze—even an academic’s lazy eye—was being returned with extreme prejudice. He stumbled out of the tent with the sense of being judged, and found wanting. You might say the sideshow boils down to paying a huckster to guess your worth. And it can be a painful setting down, as my friend found.
There’s nothing else quite like Step Right Up. Despite the pretensions of cultural theorists regarding the carnivalesque and its importance for diversity, precious few of them actually bother to study real carnivals. Step Right Up, however, goes back to the source, and the book, in doing so, demands a different kind of reading. These stories of freak shows and circus tents highlight our own naked vulnerability—our own grotesque lack, our personal and social deformities—in bright, appealingly striped canvas.