Ian Mond Reviews The Escapement by Lavie Tidhar

The Escapement, Lavie Tidhar (Tachyon 978-1-61696-327-9, $16.95, 256pp, tp) September 2021.

It’s been a busy year for Lavie Tidhar. Due to the vagaries of publishing, made all the more uncertain by COVID, 2021 has seen Tidhar author two novels (The Escapement and The Hood), a collection (The Lunacy Commission), and short stories (including ‘‘Judge Dee and the Three Deaths of Count Werdenfels’’), and edit an anthology (The Best of World SF: Volume 1). This is in addition to his significant output last year, which, amongst other things, included the terrific By Force Alone and the graphic novel Adler. While keeping up with Tidhar can be a bit of a challenge, his eclectic tastes – which translate into a wide range of influences – and his refusal to be trapped into any one genre or mode of storytelling means his work is never stale or predictable. Take his new novel The Escape­ment. Not only is the book a surreal blend of Barnum and Bailey meets Stephen King’s Dark Tower and Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, it also draws on Greek mythology, takes its semiotic cues from John Clute’s seminal essay collection The Darkening Garden, and features numerous Easter eggs including guest appearances from Laurel and Hardy and John Wayne Gacy. The genius of Tidhar, which he has repeatedly demonstrated, is that he can turn these literary and pop culture references into a gripping, moving narrative unlike anything you’ve read before.

The Escapement tells the story of The Stranger (Tidhar’s ‘‘Man With No Name’’) and his hunt for the fabled Ur-shanabi, the Flower of Heartbeat, which ‘‘lies beyond the Mountains of Darkness.’’ The Stranger’s quest takes him to the Escapement, an uncanny, inconstant land where an endless war – a Titanomachy – is fought between the Colossi and the pupae umbrarum, and where across the Doinklands clowns, indig­enous to the region, are massacred and scalped by bounty hunters. Along the way, the Stranger faces off against a 20th-century serial killer terroris­ing a small town, a troupe of jumping, twirling aerialists looking to pull off an audacious train robbery, and the evil General Barnum, who has built a fortune on the backs of enslaved clowns mining ‘‘substance,’’ an intoxicating ‘‘pale sort of powder’’ that provides the user with a glimpse of that ‘‘other place.’’ It’s in that other place, a hospital room stark and white, where we find a father sitting beside his dying son, recalling the day they went to the circus and ‘‘walked hand in hand through the Midway, past candyfloss and popcorn stands and the flashing lights of carousels and hayrides [and] saw the clowns.’’

For a novel with such an absurdist conceit bursting with comedic potential, The Escape­ment is surprisingly grim. From the book’s opening page, where a father can no longer bear to watch over his dying child, to a scene a few pages later where the Stranger discovers the gruesome remains of mutilated clowns, Tidhar establishes a tone short on gags, pratfalls, and whimsy. That’s not to say the book is po-faced or deadly earnest; there’s a liveliness to the ec­centric, larger-than-life characters the Stranger encounters on his journey, whether it be the ruth­less but principled Temperanza or the arrogant, stubborn but vulnerable Kid. However, even the novel’s most ludicrous ideas and set-pieces are soaked in violence and darkness. I’m thinking here of John Wayne Gacy masquerading as a grotesque parody of a clown called Pogo, or a weapon of mass destruction shaped like a mechanical fish, or a host of Augustes, Hobos, Whitefaces, Pierrots, Bozos, and Dinks armed with baleros and poison cream custard pies, their only defence against the bounty hunters. Especially unsettling is what happens to those unfortunate few who survive an encounter with the Titanomachy:

Two were veterans, or perhaps simple vic­tims, of the war. One had half of a melted clock fused into his abdomen, a black minute hand protruding from his naked flesh like a cockroach’s antenna. The other had living bees trapped in a glass globe embedded in his thigh, and the bees beat angrily against the glass.

But it’s precisely this upending of expectations, the masterful use of tone, the sheer chutzpah of positioning clowns as a not entirely subtle ana­logue for the horrific treatment of First Nations people at the hands of colonialists, that makes Lavie Tidhar’s work so damn exciting. And in the case of The Escapement, what binds it all to­gether, what makes it more than just a very clever, literate novel, is that it’s also a quietly tragic and touching story about parental love, the inarticulate fear of losing a child, and the impossible lengths a father will go to save his son.

Ian Mond loves to talk about books. For eight years he co-hosted a book podcast, The Writer and the Critic, with Kirstyn McDermott. Recently he has revived his blog, The Hysterical Hamster, and is again posting mostly vulgar reviews on an eclectic range of literary and genre novels. You can also follow Ian on Twitter (@Mondyboy) or contact him at mondyboy74@gmail.com.

This review and more like it in the October 2021 issue of Locus.

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