“While we realize it’s not a crime to be creepy…”
I enjoyed a momentary snicker at that quote from a local newspaper a few weeks ago when it addressed our own local epidemic of painted jokers who were creeping in parks at midnight and scaring kids, prompting superfluous arrests and increased weapons sales. (Not that it takes much to do that around here.) But it also marked a moment of fiction-reality overlap that spun my own rational stability into a tailspin.
My sense of estrangement occurred just before the peak of public hysteria, when I pulled into the parking lot of my place of work at 7:30 am and nearly collided head-on with a swerving red car driven by a blue-wigged, red-suited individual. Naturally, I forgot the incident just seconds after they zoomed by, and went about my day, only recalling it hours later, just after the explosion of local and national headlines, arrests, and pepper spray kiosks, prompting me to wonder if I had really seen what thought I had seen, or if the day’s events had somehow transformed the memory in my mind.
It’s an odd feeling when you think you can’t trust your own memory.
As if to further intensify my own news cycle-inspired discomfitedness, at the same time, I was wrapping up my reading of Kirsty Logan’s Lambda Literary Award-winning, Kitschies-nominated, debut novel, The Gracekeepers, where my focus was increasingly drawn to a seemingly secondary facet of this rich and multi-faceted novel: the clowns.
Dough knew that clowns made perfect scapegoats, because what’s scarier than a clown? They stand for money and hunger, sex and rage, loss and loneliness, displacement and death. They stand for everything, and they stand for nothing. 
A glance at the cover and a few reviews will tell you that The Gracekeepers takes place on an island-peppered water world, where emerging mermaid physiologies, divergent superstitions, and wanton circus boats characterize the too-near-future rigid divide between the landed (the clams) and the land-nots (the damplings). As fantastic as it sounds, this is Logan’s depiction of our near future, and, on all counts, it’s a convincing and clever exercise in speculation, made even stronger by Logan’s elegant writing style and arresting narrative pontifications. (It is hard to believe this is a debut novel, and it’s no surprise it’s caught a couple of award nods.)
But you’re here for the clowns now, aren’t you? And the clowns aren’t really the peripheral characters they at first might seem. Named Cash, Dosh, and Dough, the clowns of The Gracekeepers– like so many literary fools before them– serve as the unofficial narrators of the story’s true POV: they are observant, critical, enlightened, mocking, and therefore dangerous, not only to their surrounding cast, but also to the fictions concocted around them. As the circus floats from port to port, each island culture receives them differently: sometimes with wariness, sometimes with military force. No society wants the clowns’ subversion, but the clowns know better– not only do the land folk secretly WANT subversion, they NEED subversion. Sometimes the clowns are pelted with rotten vegetables, sometimes they are arrested, but, often times, they are bedded by the locals (on the boat, of course). Always the clowns exaggerate the truth, in order to draw attention to it, in order to force the audience to see what it ignores: the stuff that’s too inconvenient to recognize for what it is.
The clowns, then, are peripheral, but also structural, serving as a focal point for the grander conflicts that permeate and transcend the world of The Gracekeepers, making the smaller plot points– the troubles and movements of the main characters– mere scaffolding for Logan’s broader aims (though interesting and perplexing on their own). It all fits within the themes of social discord, political alienation, and climate anxiety depicted in so many fictional drowned worlds. The proto-mermaids, so often blurbed about in reviews, are more Ballardian than Disney– the cause unexplained, the consequences unpleasant, but suggestive of a kind of adaptive turn in human evolution.
Both The Gracekeepers and every clown article I’ve read since then liken clown phenomena to a kind of social mirror, reflecting back on us an exaggerated version of the things we see without seeing: everyday injustice, normative oppression, the quotidian things that don’t add up if we’d bother to stop and think about it. But I prefer the conclusions of this poorly punctuated, but more precise line from one of the first of many clown-craze articles from The Guardian this month (an overreaching, paraphrased attribution to Charles Dickens, but I liked it anyway):
…what fascinates us is not the exaggerated painted face, or the dull face of the man underneath. It’s the tension between the two. The dissonance between what is and what appears to be. [sic- for whatever the hell is going on with them fragments]
It is exactly that dissonant sense of tension that Logan develops so well, which makes The Gracekeepers so compelling as it’s pulled throughout the entire narrative. The clowns serve to signal and reflect this tension, but they certainly aren’t the inspiration– they’re just doing their job. The real tension is in the push-pull dynamics that mark each character’s center of gravity: every relationship, employment contract, and trade agreement– even each character’s self-presentation to the world– is built upon this tension, serving to illustrate the overarching, unstable arrangement of disparity in this post-melt world. What you get– besides a compelling story about a lonely circus girl and her supposedly tame bear– is an undercurrent of violence that never comes up for air.
Highly, highly recommended.