Katherine Dunn's Geek Love is one of those rare books that truly disturbed me. Since I'm frequently looking for the next Good Horror novel, and since I know that Geek Love was one of those, seeing The Pilo Family Circus mentioned in the same breath as Geek Love was enough to convince me to read it. I'm pleased to say that I wasn't disappointed.
That's not to say that I wondered if I would be, starting out. It wasn't quite what I expected it to be -- where Geek Love was a twisted look at the nuclear family viewed against the backdrop of a freak show in the real world, The Pilo Family Circus was more rooted in the supernatural and populated with characters who were hard to like -- but once I convinced myself that this book wouldn't be another Geek Love, I found myself engaged and intrigued with the story.
In the book, Jamie is our main character, and he more or less gets kidnapped by clowns who are part of the eponymous circus. Brutality abounds in this world, not just once Jamie is kidnapped, but also in the events leading up to his kidnapping. The problem was that Jamie started out as a jerk, a man with a chip on his shoulder, looking for the worst in everything that happened around him. Sure, the events that led to his kidnapping were out of his control, but why waste the effort in caring about it when he wasn't much to care about to begin with? His roommate, Steve, who also gets sucked into the madness of the circus, was far more sympathetic if not completely likable, but once the story shifts to the circus itself, he becomes an afterthought to the events of the story.
The circus, though, is populated by a number of different characters, each of which are drawn distinctively. Most of them are psychotic, while some are traditional protagonists, but I have to give Elliott credit for making them each unique. Jamie's clown alter-ego, JJ, even becomes more than just a mirror image of Jamie, even if he did lack the depth that an antagonist normally has. In the end, the circus itself serves as the antagonist of the story, with the psychotic members of the circus merely being the tools through which the circus wreaks havoc.
The Pilo Family Circus reminded me a little of Peter Clines' 14, in that it's better to know as little about it as possible before starting the book, and in that as the story nears its conclusion, you will likely be unable to stop reading it. I'm amazed that a story that began with some pathetic characters turned out to be something exciting and enjoyable. I don't know if it's necessarily comparable with Geek Love (the story lacks the resonance and importance of its predecessor), but I do see why fans of one would enjoy the other. Given the brutal nature of the story, though, it's definitely not a book for everyone.