Show Business: The Construction, Presentation, and Reception of Performances in Nights at the Circus and My Year of Meats

Both Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus and Ruth Ozeki’s My Year of Meats take the reader inside the process of creating a show and emphasize the constructed nature of the end result by showing it from a viewer’s perspective. Postmodern criticism, such as Roland Barthes’s “The Death of the Author,” has described writing a novel as a performance for an audience, focusing on the increasing importance of the reader as the recipient of the text (116). The shows in Nights at the Circus and My Year of Meats serve as a focused microcosm of both novels, allowing the authors to explore these themes. The shows indicate the importance of narrative to both authors: the way that each of the two shows construct and display a version of reality is mirrored in the way the main characters in the novel “tell” their own stories. Both authors are postmodern in that they are concerned with the constructedness of reality; Carter revels in it, whereas Ozeki advocates seeking an elusive, possibly illusory “objective” truth.

In Carter’s novel, the protagonist, Sophie Fevvers, is a member of a traveling circus. The journalist Jack Walser begins as a disinterested spectator planning to write a story on Fevvers, but he is drawn into the milieu of the circus and becomes an apprentice clown. In Ozeki’s novel, the protagonist Jane Takagi-Little works as the production assistant and later the director of My American Wife!, a television series profiling American women and their cooking that is designed to market American beef to Japanese housewives. The viewer in this case is Akiko Ueno, whose husband John, the Japanese liaison between the sponsor of the show and the producers, requires her to comment on each episode. Both shows change the lives of the viewers who become absorbed in them: Walser finds love with Fevvers, and Akiko finds independence from her abusive husband.

Carter and Ozeki are both aware of the role that sponsorship plays in determining the message of the shows in their novels; in an interview, Ozeki states, "The issue of commercial sponsorship [has] always been a concern of mine" (7). Both sponsors, the Colonel and BEEF-EX, as represented by John Ueno, are exaggeratedly stereotypical symbols of American capitalism. The Colonel and BEEF-EX have two goals for their shows, exporting American values and profit. The head of the circus, Colonel Kearney, wears “a pair of tightly tailored trousers striped in red and white and a blue waistcoast ornamented with stars” like a portly Uncle Sam, and his belt buckle features another symbol of America a large metal dollar sign (Carter 99). The Colonel manages to fly Old Glory rather than the Russian flag over his circus, exulting: “Old Glory across the tundra, crowned heads bow to the democratic extravaganza!” (Carter 102-103). Spreading Americanism is important to the Colonel’s grand vision for his circus; however, the motto of what he calls "the Ludic Game" is “A fool and his money is soon parted” (Carter 101). Even the Colonel’s loyalty to America stems from its profitability: he is “all for the stars and stripes,” rather than the flag of the South, because there is “no profit margin” in it (Carter 99). The Colonel makes the final decisions on the content of the circus acts, basing his decisions on input from his talking pig, Sybil.

Ozeki’s novel incorporates a different capitalist symbol, the faceless multinational corporation: the Beef Export and Trade Syndicate, or BEEF-EX, which promotes beef consumption, particularly in the underutilized Asian market. The corporation is personified in the novel by Joichi Ueno, a misogynistic Japanese man who admires the image of America created by Wal-Mart, old Western movies, and pornography. Jane Takagi-Little gives him the nickname "John Wayno" to unbalance him and keep him from disturbing the filming, but "John" embraces his new moniker. He identifies with the icon of Western masculinity and curtly commands his wife to stop calling him by his old name: "Joichi is not a modern name. From now on, call me 'John'" (Ozeki 21). She does, thinking of him as "John" in quotation marks until Chapter 5, when she becomes accustomed to his American cowboy image (Ozeki 94). BEEF-EX tries to assert complete creative control over the show. The Japanese producer of the show provides a “list of IMPORTANT THINGS for My American Wife!,” as defined by BEEF-EX (Ozeki 11-13). The “DESIRABLE THINGS” for the wife include a "Delicious meat recipe” and “Exciting hobbies,” whereas the “UNDESIRABLE THINGS” include “Physical Imperfections” and “Second class peoples” (Ozeki 12). The show sells meat and the image of America simultaneously; the American wife is “the Meat Made Manifest… Through her, Japanese housewives will feel the hearty sense of warmth, of comfort, of hearth and home the traditional family values symbolized by red meat in rural America” (Ozeki 8). Carter and Ozeki are both concerned with the sponsorship of the shows in their novels. The sponsors of each show intend to profit from the production of the show and to use it to export American values, which affects the performances in the circus and compromises the authenticity of the documentary.

Both the circus and the television show are created versions of reality, even though My American Wife! purports to be a documentary. The circus condenses the whole world into a "sawdust ring," allowing its audience to experience the primal "essence of steppe and jungle" from the comfort of "red plush boxes trimmed with gilding" (Carter 107, 105). The circus creates the illusion of glamour and exoticism from mundane elements, “finished with a heavy, rather queasy luxury that always [seems] to have grime under its fingernails” (Carter 105). The characters in the Colonel's circus become larger-than-life through the creation and dissemination of a clever persona and back-story. For example, the "Princess of Abyssinia," outside of the ring, is neither a princess nor Abyssinian. Although she is the daughter of a musician and a tiger-tamer from the Americas, the Colonel spreads rumors that "she was herself a tigress' foster-child, abandoned in the jungle and suckled by wild bears" (Carter 149). As the head clown, Buffo the Great, declaims proudly, “...we possess one privilege, one rare privilege... We can invent our own faces! We make ourselves” (Carter 121). Without this manufactured exoticism, the stock acts in Colonel Kearney’s circus would be quite routine.

Nights at the Circus begins with the Great Aerialiste of the circus, Sophie Fevvers, who claims that her father was a swan and has a pair of wings on her back to prove it, performing a subtler act than her circus routine. She enchants a reporter named Jack Walser with the story of her life. In many ways, Fevvers embodies the spirit of the circus, giving off “the greasy, inescapable whiff of stage magic” (Carter 16). Her appeal rests in the mystery surrounding her wings. The Colonel recognizes this, spreading rumors that cast doubt on her authenticity: “‘Is she fiction or is she fact?’ His motto is: ‘The bigger the humbug, the better the public likes it’” (Carter 147). Fevvers is bereft without an audience- when the circus train explodes in the wastes of Siberia, Fevvers’s collaborator Lizzie says, “You’re fading away, as if it was only always nothing but the discipline of the audience that kept you in trim” (Carter 280). Becoming too focused on the way her viewers perceive her, Fevvers has an existential crisis when she feels “trapped forever in the reflection of Walser’s eyes,” and she asks herself the essential postmodern questions, “Am I fact? Or am I fiction? Am I what I know I am? Or am I what he thinks I am?” (Carter 290).

If Fevvers personifies the circus in Carter's novel, Walser is the perfect audience member. When he first watches her perform, he tries to "see all and believe nothing," but he is gradually drawn into her act (Carter 10). He is aware that everything he sees was carefully arranged for effect. At first, he makes detached mental notes on the spectacle: "I wonder why she doesn't tack a tail on the back of her cache-sexe; it would add verisimilitude and, perhaps, improve the performance" (Carter 17). When he hears "Only a bird in a gilded cage," he thinks, "How kitsch, how apt the melody; it pointed up the element of the meretricious in the spectacle," but as her performance continues, he starts to feel a "flutter of conviction" (Carter 14, 17). The quality that makes Walser a great observer, his initial skepticism, is a symptom of his hollow inner life. Brian Finney states that Walser as a skeptic is “flawed by his failure to admit into his life the world of fantasy, dreams, and invention at least until he meets Fevvers” (Finney). Inevitably, Walser cannot help but thrill to “the shop-soiled yet polyvalent romance of the image” of the circus (Carter 107). By engaging with the show, Walser falls in love with Fevvers, becomes a performer in the show, and begins the path to a more fulfilling inner life.

My Year of Meats begins with a scene of ironic, poignant artificiality. The camera crew of My American Wife! is shooting the romantic ending to an episode, in which Fred Flowers kisses his American wife, Suzie. When Jane calls out, "Action!," Suzie closes her eyes to avoid frozenly staring ahead, because the director says "It is creepy. It is not romantic at all;" like "a projectile released from a catapult, Fred Flowers’ head lurches forward for the kiss too fast and he bangs his teeth hard against his wife’s upper lip” (Ozeki 2). The Japanese crew shout incessant demands to Jane-We can’t go in any closer than this. Her face is all shiny and blotched... Ask her if she has any makeup she can use to cover up her unattractive skin- who softens them as she relays them in English to the awkward couple: “Uh... Mrs. Flowers? Mr. Oda is asking if you happen to have any foundation? We are having a bit of a technical problem with the camera” (Ozeki 2). The image of an entire room of people straining to simulate the emotion that we consider most unfeigned, love, is an appropriate beginning for a book about the creation of an artificial documentary. When the camera crew shoots the cooking scene, they film Suzie pouring Coca-Cola over her "Coca-Cola Roast" so many times that the meat turns gray and they have to buy more, but they are forced to buy Pepsi instead, funneling it into a Coke bottle. This minor falsity encapsulates the problem of the show for Jane: “I turned just as the large Coca-Cola bottle sucked the last of its contents upward, off the bubbling meat. ‘Mmm,’ said Kenji. ‘Great product shot.’ I shook my head. ‘It’s Pepsi, Kenji. Not the real thing at all…’ (Ozeki 30).

As a former documentarian, Jane Takagi-Little is troubled by the contradictions in her role from the start. Although she wants to help people communicate across cultural boundaries, she feels like a "a cultural pimp, selling off the vast illusion of America to a cramped population on that small string of Pacific islands” (Ozeki 9). Jane quickly decides that rather than creating a fantasy world of "American values," she will use My American Wife! to portray the true American experience: “I was determined to use this window into mainstream network television to educate. Perhaps it was naive, but I believed, honestly, that I could use wives to sell meat in the service of a Larger Truth” (Ozeki 27). Although John Ueno interferes with her choices, forcing her to film the all-American Becky Thayer instead of the African-American Helen Dawes, Jane tries to film American wives outside the narrow mandates of the BEEF-EX corporation, such as a Mexican immigrant family and a vegetarian lesbian couple.

Akiko Ueno is less overtly skeptical as a viewer than Walser, but equally astute. Her husband, John, forces her to watch his show and rate it on qualities like “General Interest, Educational Value, Authenticity, Wholesomeness” (Ozeki 21). Through Akiko’s eyes, we see the end result of the crew's efforts and the target audience’s reaction to the show. When Fred Flowers confesses his infidelity to his wife on the show, Akiko realizes the gravity of the situation, even though none of the producers of the show except Jane seem to do so, and kneads her shopping list between her fingers in agitation. Akiko gives the Thayer episode a low mark for Authenticity, even though she rates it highly in Wholesomeness and Deliciousness of Meat. John insists, "A two for Authenticity undermines a high mark for Wholesomeness. Why did you only give it a two? You must have had a reason" (Ozeki 128). Akiko replies, "Because... I didn't believe it," and John's answer neatly encapsulates the issue of My American Wife!: "'How could you not believe it?' he shouted. 'It's the truth. It's a documentary program, isn't it? What is there not to believe?'" (Ozeki 128). Although she initially thinks of watching My American Wife! as a duty her husband is imposing on her, Akiko becomes increasingly interested and personally invested in the show as Jane produces more authentic episodes. The show inspires her to leave her abusive husband and find a better life for her unborn daughter in America.

Both the Ludic Game and My American Wife! blur the distinctions between truth and artifice. What is true seems false in Nights at the Circus. Fevvers, a true winged woman, has to pretend to be a phony in the circus to achieve acceptance and become the subject rather than the object of the observer’s gaze. Walser recognizes this when he is still in doubt of her wings: “in order to earn a living, might not a genuine bird-woman in the implausible event that such a thing existed have to pretend she was an artificial one?” (Carter 17). Her Ludic trappings the dye on her wings and hair, her stage makeup, so thick that “you can see how beautiful she is from the back row of the gallery,” her nude stockinette fleshing with spangles, her feathered cape, and her origin story are at least as important to the creation of Fevvers the aerialiste as her prosaic brown wings (Carter 18). Her false feathers make her a woman rather than a freak, because through artifice she gains power over her own image: “if she were indeed a lusus naturae, a prodigy, then she was no longer a wonder. She would no longer be an extraordinary woman, no more the Greatest Aerialiste in the world but a freak… As a symbolic woman, she has a meaning, as an anomaly, none” (Carter 161). When the contention over her authenticity resolves, Fevvers loses her significance to herself and her audience.

What seems false turns out to be true in My Year of Meats. In the My American Wife! episode about Suzie Flowers, a cheesy sound effect ends up expressing the truth of Suzie’s emotions at the time and allowing her to heal from the experience. During the filming of the Sociological Survey for the episode, Fred Flowers reveals in front of their friends and neighbors and the Japanese viewing public that he had an affair with a cocktail waitress: “The participants held up their Survey cards, and the camera zoomed in on Fred’s big YES. The sound-effect track swelled with canned laughter, and Suzie’s face collapsed into its expression of horror, punctuated with a resounding boinnggg!” (Ozeki 29). Jane is disgusted with the editing on the tape, which places the romantic kiss scene that they filmed first at the end of the episode, with a crude heart graphic emanating from the Flowers's converging mouths. It makes it appear that Suzie and Fred reconciled after his revelation, when in fact he left her. Jane shrinks from sending Suzie the finished episode, even though Suzie agitates for a copy. When she finally sees the tape months later, Suzie surprises Jane by saying that the tape was "so... I don't know... so authentic, you know?... Especially that part after the Survey, where you guys put in that boinnggg! I mean, that's exactly what it felt like to me at the time" (Ozeki 359). She goes on to say that when she showed the tape to her estranged husband, "he asked me for a second chance, and it was just like the show, the way you guys ended it, with a big kiss and everything!" (Ozeki 359). Life has imitated art, cheap animated graphics and all, and as Jane muses, "the facts have turned right around and aligned themselves with our fiction" (Ozeki 360).

The circus and My American Wife! each represent a concentrated version of the themes in the novels; indeed, in an interview, Carter stated, “A circus is always a microcosm” (qtd. in Finney). Both novels are themselves primarily created by the central character for the reader, as the shows are created for their audience. The first third of Carter’s novel consists of Fevvers narrating a life story that is never verified. In Carter’s words, “That’s just what she says, a story that’s being constructed. That’s just the story of her life” (Carter and Katsavos). Walser, the audience, is aware that he is watching a performance that was created for him, like the circus itself. Most of Ozeki’s novel consists of Jane’s reflections on her life story, like an autobiography. Both novels feature a narrator who tells her own story in the first- person, but both novels also include third-person omniscient narrative, as if the anonymous narrator were the audience of the “show” unfolding in both novels. The viewer of the show in turn becomes the creator of the narrative. In relation to the "juxtaposition of first-person and third-person narrative voices," Ozeki states: "As a former documentary filmmaker, this question of voice and point of view is interesting on several levels, not the least of which is the effect of extreme subjectivity on notions of absolute or objective truth" (9).

For Carter, the world can be manipulated through the act of creating one’s own narrative; this is reflected throughout the entire novel, which celebrates its own fictionality (Finney). For example, in narrating, Fevvers divides her life into chapters for Walser, making it clear that her narrative is not the unmediated truth: “And so the first chapter of my life went up in flames, sir” (Carter 50). Carter's characters begin to compose new lives for themselves at the end of the novel. Fevvers takes Walser as her amanuensis, who will help her reconstruct herself and her fellow women: “‘Think of him, not as a lover, but as a scribe, as an amanuensis... Think of him as the amanuensis of all those whose tales we’ve yet to tell him, the histories of those woman who would otherwise go down nameless and forgotten, [to] help to give the world a little turn into the new era” (Carter 285). Carter describes the world as a confidence game; as a fakir asks Walser, “ not this whole world an illusion? And yet it fools everybody” (16). The world in Carter’s novel is a completely convincing illusion. In the final line of the book, Carter seems to share Fevvers’ exultation: “'To think I really fooled you!’ she marvelled. ‘It just goes to show there’s nothing like confidence’” (295). Carter identified this line as "a statement about the nature of fiction, about the nature of her narrative," which invites the reader to "take one further step into the fictionality of the narrative, instead of coming out of it and looking at it as though it were an artefact" (qtd. in Finney).

Ozeki seems to believe that there are levels of truth and you should seek the highest truth you can. Whereas Carter’s novel stresses its fictional qualities, Ozeki’s novel reads like an autobiography or a documentary on American beef, and the structure enhances this illusory “truthful” quality. For example, although the novel begins with the typical disclaimer that it is a work of fiction, it includes a bibliography, with an author’s note from “J. T.-L.,” the fictional protagonist (Ozeki 163). Ozeki agrees with Carter that fiction can serve a valuable purpose in effecting change: “In the Year of Meats, truth wasn’t stranger than fiction; it was fiction… Maybe sometimes you have to make things up, to tell truths that alter outcomes” (360). Her show does cause change in Akiko’s life and the lives of the women she profiles. However, Jane does not believe, as Carter's characters seem to, that she can change her own future "simply by writing a happy ending" (Ozeki 361). She states that the truth is what she is ultimately going to pursue: “Truth lies in layers, each of them thin and barely opaque, like skin, resisting the tug to be told. As a documentarian, I think about this a lot… There is a time to peel back” (Ozeki 175). Ozeki is a documentarian like her character, so it makes sense to assume that she also shares this attitude towards the truth. Whereas Carter presents the construction of narrative as a powerful process, capable of overcoming what we perceive to be truth and reality, Ozeki believes the powers of creating one’s own story are more circumscribed, bounded by the truth of the world we live in.

Both Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus and Ruth Ozeki’s My Year of Meats are concerned with the production and evaluation of performances, seen literally in the shows that the characters in the novels participate in, and figuratively in the novels as a whole. Barthes has stated, “a text is made up of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into multiple relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader... a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination” (118). As the viewers Walser and Akiko evaluate and engage personally with the shows, Carter and Ozeki invite the reader to evaluate and engage with their novels.


Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Image, Music, and Text. Trans. and Ed. S. Heath, 142-148. Rpt. in Modern Literary Theory: A Reader. Ed. Phillip Rice and Patricia Waugh. London; New York, NY: Edward Arnold, 1989. 114-118.

Carter, Angela. Nights at the Circus. 1984. New York: Penguin Books, 1993.

Carter, Angela, and Anna Katsavos. "An Interview with Angela Carter." Review of Contemporary Fiction 14.3 (1994): 11-17. Literature Resource Center. Gale Group. B. Davis Schwartz Memorial Lib., Brookville, NY. 28 April 2006 <>.

Finney, Brian H. "Tall Tales and Brief Lives: Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus." Journal of Narrative Technique 28.2 (1998): 161-85. Literature Resource Center. Gale Group. B. Davis Schwartz Memorial Lib., Brookville, NY. 28 April 2006 <>.

Ozeki, Ruth. "A Conversation with Ruth Ozeki." My Year of Meats New York: Penguin Books, 1998. 1-16.

Ozeki, Ruth. My Year of Meats. New York: Penguin Books, 1998.