Charles G. Finney wrote The Circus of Dr. Lao after his travels to China during the 1920’s, when he served as part of a United States garrison stationed in Tientsin. Finney’s knowledge of Chinese mythology provides the backdrop for the more fantastic elements of the novel.
The Circus of Dr. Lao consists of three tiers of set pieces, or short scenes, that introduce and explore the circus and its attractions. Speculations on the nature of the circus prior to its arrival serve as the first tier of set pieces, during which most of the main characters, and many minor characters, are introduced. These characters busily enter and exit from scene to scene, their personalities defined exclusively by their reactions to the circus.
Most notable among these characters, none of whom dominates the book, is Dr. Lao, the proprietor, who guides his visitors through the exhibits while providing intricate and inventive commentary. Dr. Lao speaks in different dialects, mirroring and mocking his visitors’ expectations. Standing resolutely at the novel’s center, he expounds at length about his circus but rarely divulges information about himself. Thus, the center of the circus remains a mystery.
Other characters of note include Mr. Etaoin (whose first name is not given), the town newspaper’s proofreader; Miss Agnes Birdsong, a high school English teacher; Mr. Larry Kamper, a United States soldier recently returned from China;...
(The entire section is 540 words.)