A ramshackle circus troupe attempts to rescue its imprisoned ringleader in this political farce/allegory.
Horowitz’s prior fictional works have been collaborations, including the novel The New World (2015) with Chris Adrian and the ambitious book app The Silent History (2014) with Matthew Derby and Kevin Moffett. An extra set of hands might have improved this thin and only intermittently funny tale of wrongful arrest and totalitarian regimes. As the story opens in an imaginary country, circus leader Zloty Kornblatt has been arrested by a strike team and accused of illegal performances that stoked “mockery, destabilization, and anarchy.” While he stews in a “Confinement Needle” and awaits a kangaroo court’s verdict in a neighboring and more conservative province, circus member Flora helps plot a rescue, but her cohorts are unpromising saviors: husband-and-wife performers are at each other’s throats, and the strongman only wants to deliver imitation feats of strength according to “Continental mime theory.” The novel alternates between Flora’s voice—earnest, adventure-seeking—and that of a lackey for the regime holding Zloty—bureaucratic, propagandistic—which helps underscore Horowitz’s point about the virtues of independence, however scruffily acquired. But tonally, the novel never successfully settles into the satiric tone it aspires to, leaning heavily on quirky coinages (“smokepoot,” “tedfruit,” “Harmimal,” and the “Pickle Index” itself, a kind of collection of good-hearted folklore), while the plot turns as the circus infiltrates the needle are threadbare disguises, suddenly handy escape hatches, etc. It gives nothing away to say that the novel stands for the power of a small committed team to overwhelm the bad guys and challenge the way rebels are persecuted for public entertainment. But its plot and prose are too limp to sell the point. “Nonsense had gotten us this far,” Flora enthuses, as their plot comes together. But nonsense only goes so far.