“You do strange things out in the world before you join the Circus,” reads an ironic yet telling line in Genevieve Valentine’s debut novel, Mechanique: A Tale Of The Circus Tresaulti. That line could just as easily apply to the author: In the few years prior to Mechanique, Valentine gained notice for a string of short stories that apply a subtle, intuitive deconstruction to the skeleton of science fiction and fantasy. She brings that same mutant grace to Mechanique—as well as an acrobatic fluidity and a tingle of vertigo that befits the high-wire subject matter.
Set in an indeterminate near-Earth that exists not so much in a post-apocalypse as in a frozen, perpetual mid-collapse, Mechanique traces the lives of the motley attractions of the traveling carnival Tresaulti. But the threads don’t stick to linear stitchery; using shifting points of view and a narrative that loops back on itself until a broader embroidery emerges, the story unfolds to reveal a world bombed into laissez-faire savagery. But Tresaulti and its enigmatic founder, the woman known only as Boss, scavenge anachronistic scraps of technology that operate more as magic—including performers who use brass bones and a dysfunctional, cult-like insularity that reflects and clashes with the world at large. Freelance “government men” and their roving bands of would-be authoritarians have struck up an ideological choreography with the circus’ own paradoxically libertine hierarchy—but as their orbits begin to decay in the face of a fresh eruption of war, gravity also claims one of Boss’ star aerialists, drawing taut a web of internecine rivalries, jealousies, and loves.
Valentine is clearly and lovingly working within a post-steampunk tableau, but rather than wallowing in the subgenre’s more whiz-bang tropes, she allows the instability in Tresaulti’s precarious infrastructure to break down delicately, even quietly. Chapters often take the shape of single-page, self-contained vignettes that resonate across the story’s space and time. The fugue-like framework doesn’t always fly; Valentine tends to get caught up in her own admittedly hypnotic cadence, and her attempts at visceral impact are occasionally dulled by poetic preciousness. But Mechanique’s wispiness congeals into something far more substantial just as tensions coalesce into an actual plot—and Valentine’s tantalizing prose and teeming imagery form a safety net in the spots where the book lapses into freefall.
Novels—especially speculative ones—that tap into the weirdness of circuses are certainly nothing new. But as a slice of sumptuous atmosphere, Mechanique evokes two of the best: Angela Carter’s Nights At The Circus and Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love, especially in the way all three use the Big Top as a backdrop for allegories of transfiguration and otherness. To Valentine’s credit as an aerialist of the literary sort, Mechanique is metamorphic but never grotesque, even as it sustains fabulist weightlessness between raw flesh, poignant insight, and glimmering fantasy.