Big-top bogey men
Will Elliott's horror story The Pilo Family Circus does nothing to help the image of clowns, says Elena Seymenliyska
Saturday January 13, 2007
Pilo Family Circusby Will Elliott 314pp, Quercus, £10.99
Jamie is a modern everyman, an Australian twentysomething arts graduate killing time in a McJob and living in a tip of a houseshare in Brisbane. Late one night, driving home from work, he is forced to a sudden stop. A man is standing in the middle of the road, as though hatched out of a giant egg. Dressed in a flowery shirt, striped pants and oversized red shoes, his eyes bulge out of a white-painted face. He opens and shuts his mouth but no sound comes out. Then he simply walks off into the night.
As the silent-film star Lon Chaney is supposed to have said, there's nothing funny about a clown in the moonlight. The next day it happens again, but this time there are three of them: one on the roof of a house, one on the ground and one who's just a mean old bastard, despite the cute kittens printed on his shirt. The day after that, they wreak havoc in Jamie's house. Amid the wreckage, Jamie finds a card addressed "For a Special Guy", and inside it the message: "You have two days to pass your audition. You better pass it, feller. You're joining the circus. Ain't that the best news you ever got?" It's signed Gonko, Doopy and Goshy, on behalf of the Pilo Family Circus.
Will Elliott's first novel taps into an established tradition born out of coulrophobia, or fear of clowns. From the murderous jester of commedia dell' arte to the sadistic Pennywise in Stephen King's It, the masked man with the false grin is both a reliable bogey man and a subversive social critic. Elliott's clowns are as unnerving as they come, but their weirdness is more than just an act: this particular circus has pitched its tent in the underworld. Reached via a Portaloo portal, it floats in a dark cellar of the universe, right next door to hell. From there, it lures unsuspecting "tricks" - "regular types who eat pies, watch football and breed" - before milking them of their souls.
In charge of this operation is Kurt Pilo, a seven-foot giant with talons who likes to snack on teeth as if they were popcorn. (It was Mr Pilo who helped a certain failed Austrian painter make his name in political history.) Once Jamie is dragged into this underworld, he is shown what he would have become in real life: an alcoholic in a dead-end government job, with a disabled son whose mother is squeezing him for child support. Only wearing the white facepaint will save him from this living death. But as soon as the facepaint goes on, Jamie becomes JJ, a sadistic psychopath. Can Jamie manage to kill off JJ without destroying himself?
Elliott is stronger on the carnivalesque imagery than he is on the cod-philosophy. Like Chuck Palahniuk in Fight Club, his gripe seems to be with "ordinary" life, as lived by regular pie-munching breeders, but his critique gets lost in complex confabulations of alternate universes, mind-altering substances and shape-shifting characters. While The Pilo Family Circus won a first novel award in its native Australia, it might have made a better horror movie or violent computer game.