Among the Wonderful
Steerforth Press, 2011
In the 16th century the phenomenon known as the Wunderkammer—“wonder cabinet,” or Cabinet of Curiosities—underwent a shift that reflected the changes occurring in much of the Western world, rippling outward from the adoption of the printing press and schisms within the church. These collections of natural specimens and oddities, originally the purview of religious institutions, were adopted and enlarged first by the ruling class, then the academicians and scientists, and finally, in that late democratic era of the hustler, by showmen. Phineas T. Barnum opened his American Museum in lower Manhattan in 1841, and it is here Stacy Carlson sets her novel Among the Wonderful—a story that, like its subject, contains multitudes and makes the heart leap.
The sheer number of ideas in play here is something of an acrobatic act: Carlson touches on the era’s changing concept of research and scholarship, New York City’s expansion, the beginnings of social conscience, xenophobia, hucksterism, the intersection of science and popular culture, loneliness, objectification, faith. And, yes, love—at the center of this tale of marvels beat two very human hearts.
Taxidermist Emile Guillaudeu is a mild, passive fellow, recently cuckolded and widowed in one swoop. Barnum has inherited him and his collection of slightly tatty specimens along with the building, and quickly sets to work replacing the elderly stuffed animals with exotic live ones. This does not make Guillaudeu happy; he is a man who values order and dislikes change, danger, and mess:
[He] had been following the debates between field naturalists and sedentary scholars of nature. The field naturalists embodied, in his opinion, a sort of base recklessness in their travels, haphazardly bringing home natural objects from all over the globe without knowing anything about them or taking the time to place them in a proper taxonomic context. The sedentary naturalists like Cuvier, though less traveled than the field-goers, were repositories of knowledge, and applied that knowledge to each specimen in the solitude of their offices…. Knowing that an important man of natural philosophy agreed with Guillaudeu’s own ideas strengthened his resolve.
Instead of his beloved creatures which only require close examination and the proper tools to build them—“from the tiny silver brain spoon to rib clamps the size and shape of a wolf trap”—Guillaudeu finds himself in charge of a living menagerie. His charges include not only strange birds, a failing sloth, and an orangutan who won’t eat, but people whom Barnum has picked up from various ports of places: warring Native American tribes, who set up camp on either side of an empty hall, and a kidnapped Austrialian Aboriginal tribesman whose interior narrative punctuates the story now and again. The natural sciences are still in their infancy in 1841, even in the teeming metropolis of New York, and the quiet, classification-loving taxidermist is very much on his own.
Ana Swift, on the other hand, has been on her own all her life. Born in a tiny Nova Scotia fishing village, she rocketed to her full height of nearly eight feet after a painful spell in adolescence, emerging from her bed as the world’s only professional giantess. Agreeing, initially, to her father’s idea to put her on display “one day a week for a couple of years, until we could pay off the boat,” any parity on her part is canceled by her father’s shame and her mother’s complicity:
As if a line halfway to our neighbor’s house did not form every Saturday at our farm, as if she did not walk the length of that line selling muffins and homemade peanut brittle to the strangers as they waited for their chance to see me in a homemade booth in back of our barn, out of sight of the road…. [H]e couldn’t bear to see it with his own eyes, he always went fishing on Saturdays.
One day a week becomes two, then three, and eventually Ana leaves for the States to take charge of her own career. But by the time she reaches the Museum, a lifetime spent on display has taken its psychic toll, and her overextended body, in constant pain, exerts a physical one. Ana is tired, disenchanted, and distrustful. Yet she has consented to join Barnum’s “Representatives of the Wonderful,” a strange consortium of human oddities, like herself, who have learned to live under the constant gaze of others and have made peace with it to some extent or another: Maud Kraike the bearded lady, piano prodigy Thomas Willoughby, and the wonderfully erudite Chinese giant, Tai Shan, among many. They are indeed wonderful, and Ana finds herself counted among them—even at times an observer, rather than the always-observed. On watching a young theater usher secretly practicing gestures of hospitality before the crowd arrives,
[H]ere was this flushed performer with an embarrassing eagerness; he emanated a weird hope that even I, to whom hope was usually an uneasy abstraction, could actually feel. I wanted to look away from him, but I was entranced. Here was an optimist. They should put him in a cage.
Emile Guillaudeu and Ana Swift each hit their notes of epiphany over the course of the novel, although not in expected ways. The taxidermist, angry and frustrated, bolts from the familiar cityscape of downtown for a somewhat aimless, yet dreamily fantastic, hike north through the wilds of a young Manhattan Island. I habitually cross the island by subway in an hour, finding the trip to be mostly an annoyance, so it’s a marvelous thing to be reminded that at one time a journey from south to north could take a day or two. Carlson’s description of the gradual transformation, as Guillaudeu walks, from a city of townhouses to countryside—and the reminder that the neighborhood known as Murray Hill was once an actual hill, with orchards—did this New Yorker’s heart good. He returns to Barnum’s Museum with the newly-minted soul of an explorer, and proceeds to do his best as caretaker of his strange charges. “You know,” he tells the uncomprehending Aboriginal tribesman, “I’m a bit of a traveler myself. I know, it may be difficult to imagine, but it’s true. I walked almost the entire length of New York Island.”
And while Ana doesn’t find the romantic love that a thoroughly won-over reader might wish for her, she does encounter unexpected affection of all kinds, and even wisely turns down a marriage proposal. More importantly, she discovers her usefulness, both within the small society of Barnum’s Wonderful and beyond. Although she’s painfully aware of the fact that her life is necessarily a short one—giants don’t live long—she finds that it need not be so circumscribed. Ana becomes the champion of stolen “idiot” orphans and census-taker of Barnum’s Grand Ethnological Congress of Nations, and she saves a whale’s life; she’s a giantess in any number of ways.
Following these two on their journeys is a joy, but there’s no escaping the fact that the trip is a meandering one. Among the Wonderful is very much a Cabinet of Curiosities itself, full of blind corners, dead ends, astonishing surprises, and winding hallways peppered with galleries. This is not a tightly plotted novel, and the action unwinds at its own inscrutable pace. And still, though I usually crave plot and propulsion and a narrative whose parts fit like a Swiss watch, I loved this book. If the storyline echoes its theme, the novel as a whole lives up to its title and never loses its sense of wonder. Carlson marvels at her characters in exactly the way Barnum asks of the public—she even marvels at the man himself, or at least makes us want to believe his schtick. To spend time with Emile and Ana, with the Sioux woman called They Are Afraid of Her or the microcephalic Aztec Children or the poor, doomed conjoined twins or the most charming little beluga whale in the history of literature, is to gaze on them with awe and affection. Perhaps a book like this needs to wander, if only to encompass all the wonders within. As Guillaudeu puts it:
I am convinced that everyone spins a web of their own design inside their own head. Everyone creates some personal taxonomy with its own meandering logic, some small prism of ideas and passion, no matter how delicate or unusual or unspoken. No one can implant such a thing in another. It springs from one’s own vision.
Every one of these characters has burrowed their way into my own sense of wonder, and they’ll stay with me a long time. I very much look forward to whatever Stacy Carlson comes up with next.