The Pilo Family Circus, by Will Elliott

The dark side of the circus
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The Independent Culture

It's so wrong, but I like Dogtanian and the Muskahounds, Lilly Allen and black pudding. The wrong ingredients can sometimes make the right finished product; who would want to see the doggy version of Dumas? Or eat blood? And as for chav reggae... Similarly, I really shouldn't enjoy The Pilo Family Circus, a book that has a fundamental flaw in the narrative. However, I couldn't put Elliott's debut novel down. It's fantastic.

I intend to reveal little of the plot: it develops at such a pace that this space just isn't sufficient. All you need to know is that Jamie, a down-on-his-luck Generation X-er, who has no prospects, money or girlfriend, nearly hits a clown with his car in the middle of the night. Instead of reporting it to the police, Jamie allows the clown and his gang to start stalking him, ruining what little life Jamie has. Then the clowns tell Jamie to "Make us laugh, feller... We don't care how. We don't care who gets hurt or killed. Make with the chuckles, you pass." This is where I have a problem: it's never sufficiently explained why Jamie doesn't go straight to the police. However, he goes along with the sinister clowns, and concocts an audition stunt. He even goes on to do that awful horror-movie device of covering up when the police do get involved. It bothered me for quite some time: I found that "No one bends further than someone made of completely straight lines" was an inadequate explanation.

However, the book quickly became far too interesting for me to care. We soon move in to the world of the Pilo family circus, and it's very dark. The characters include all the usual suspects - clowns, of course, acrobats, magicians and fortune-tellers - but they've been given a coat of Stephen King paint. The magician does produce cute, floppy rabbits, but then he blows them up, yelling "OK, you fucks. You want ze bunny treek?" before coating the audience in gore. The violent acrobats are straight from Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club. The fortune-teller uses her power to inflict misery and suffering. And as for the Pilo brothers, owners of the circus: Kurt is a wolf-man whose favourite snack is kittens' teeth, and George is essentially Danny DeVito on crack.

The Pilo Family Circus is an entertaining mixture of Palahniuk and David Lynch: "'Acrobats,' Gonko whispered. 'I'll do the talking. And the stabbing. But if it's on, everyone in.'" Suspend your disbelief, if you can, ignore the old "ancient evil" chestnut (yes, it does come up), concentrate on the clowns, the comedy and the horror ("He plummeted to the concrete headfirst, with all the grace of a sack of dead kittens"), and you will enjoy this book. You won't be the only one, either: Elliott entered the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's 2006 fiction award with The PiloFamily Circus, and it beat 900 other entries to win. I have a feeling it will cause quite a stir here, too. Elliott has taken the familiarity of the circus and made it his own, with some truly weird and wonderful characters. Let's hope that this promising writer builds on the strengths of The Pilo Family Circus for his next offering. I, for one, can't wait.

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