Steven Millhauser’s novella “August Eschenburg” concerns itself with an inventor of performing automatons – a groundbreaking forefather in a field of entertainment that was in short time surpassed by animation and the movies. Historically, Eschenburg’s art form represents the road not taken by popular culture, but for Eschenburg himself, clockwork is the lens through which he sees the world, the only means of communication that can convey his secret heart. A life in which he ceases to build automatons is without meaning or passion. I find figures like this character fascinating, poignant, even haunting. What happens to a person who thinks in a dead language? What happens to an artist whose art form goes out of style?
In a way, my novel poses this same question about the American circus. Set in the 1960’s, when traveling shows of this kind had long since seen the heyday of its relevance, Goldenland Past Dark concerns itself with two characters for whom the big top is the essential forum for personal expression. The first, Dr. Show, is an impresario past his prime, driven on by ego and delusion even when it becomes clear that the public will never resuscitate the corpse of his career. The second, Webern Bell, is his protégé, a talented and damaged young man with a questionable grip on reality, who finds the emotional landscape of his life only navigable through the surreal clown acts that come to him in dreams. Both characters find peace only in the center ring, but tastes and trends leave them alone in its spotlight, performing for no one. The title of the novel comes from both men’s spiritual home, an abandoned amusement park called Goldenland that they visit one dark and lonely night – a place of faded laughter, long forgotten by most, created decades earlier by a famed toymaker named Kingsley Golden. Walking among its dilapidated rides is like entering the ruined civilization of another man’s mind.
As a fiction writer in the era of glimmering tablets and effortlessly streaming virtual immersion, I wonder if I too am the tyrannosaur offspring of an extinct world. I suppose only time will tell.
Chandler Klang Smith is a graduate of Bennington College and the Creative Writing MFA Program at Columbia University, where she received a Writing Fellowship. She lives in New York City. Goldenland Past Dark (ChiZine Publications, March 2013) is her first novel. Learn more about her at www.chandlerklangsmith.com, or find her on Goodreads at www.goodreads.com/Chandler_Klang_Smith.