“When the Seals Would Clap No More” – Fiction by Tim Conley

circuscoloringbookStep right up and marvel at the preface to the world’s most profound coloring book in “When the Seals Would Clap No More,” Tim Conley‘s contribution to our Fall 2015 issue

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IF IT SEEMS UNUSUAL TO DISCOVER A PREFACE appended to an object that is all too often called a “colouring book,” perhaps prejudices have become unguardedly confused with expectations. There is sometimes urgency in the unexpected. Therefore be warned: despite its innocuous-seeming charms (that it only seems innocuous is one of its charms), Join the Circus! is no ordinary bound stack of paper to be idly defaced, and this preface is likely to disturb and distress those who underestimate what they have opened.

Join the Circus! is certainly a joy to behold – to behold, it must be stressed and not to lay wax upon willy-nilly. The narrative that the keen-eyed reader can puzzle together from the sequence of tableaux is simple, concise, sometimes slyly allusive, and genuinely moving. It needs no improvement. The intersecting circles of clowns and poodles on page 11 are utterly dynamic precisely because they are in black and white, because the artist who gave them exuberant life disdained the superfluous and focussed on the power of the line. Reddening these clowns’ noses will not make them more antic: such an assault would irretrievably lose all the picture’s mirth. The facial expression of the poodle in the right corner is nothing less than haunting, but the smallest smear of pink, say, would demolish that nuance. The whole essence of the clown’s nose, the poodle’s ineffable expression would be violated.

Exaggeration? No. No and again no. We must understand Join the Circus! rather than disfigure it. No one would countenance a gluing together of various pages of the Gnostic gospels or the Analects of Confucius, or fecklessly stand by as some cheerful maniac made paper dolls out of The Origin of Species or The Last Bandstand: An Unbiassed Argument Against the Use of the Conductor’s Baton. These claims need not even be made – the renown of such wonders defends them; and yet one must even today defend Join the Circus!

Why? Regard, for example, the illustration on page 7: the juggling bear on the unicycle. The temptation here might be to juxtapose merry brown for the animal’s fur with jaunty red for the fez, but to do so would be a mistake. Why? For one thing, there is the temerity of asserting the familiar: bears may frequently have brown coats, but there is no reason to suppose that this particular, splendid specimen (capable of juggling four balls while riding a unicycle, a feat which the reader is politely invited to match – without opposable thumbs) does not have a magenta coat. This is only one kind of error, however. The zany who, for the sake of unconventionality or as a wearisome “avant-garde” gesture, scoops up the forest green crayon to colour only the bear’s left side and polka-dots the right in orange, presumes both that the colour does not matter and that his or her “artistic licence” trumps all other possible contingencies and concerns. Imagine a surgeon who announced, hands still within the patient’s open cavity, “this organ would look much better over here.” Imagine the firefighter who aims the arcs of hosed water right over the blazing homestead, with the justification that to his eye it looks more pleasing than merely dousing the flames directly. Just imagine!

These rhetorical examples are to some extent misleading, however; for it is not a question of how to do something (what is the right colour for the bear’s delightful fez) but whether to do it at all, and the answer, as this preface aims to make abundantly clear, is no. Unless one has a comprehensive grasp of a work, it is not only impertinent but hazardous to meddle with it. Why is the aforementioned bear juggling four balls, and not three, or five? Why does one of the creases in its tutu seem out of place, as though pointing to some vanished vanishing point? What is the significance of the ringmaster’s moustache on page 4, or the significance of its apparent absence only five pages later (see the back left corner, where the ringmaster appears to be levitating)? Whose is that supernumerary shadow behind the bearded lady on page 2? The lion at the furthest left on page 10 seems to wink at the reader, but to what purpose? These questions and puzzles, of which there are many, should stay the hand that would thoughtlessly “fill in” what may only seem to be blanks.

One pales at the thought of the pornographic device used by stage illusionists, showing to the approving audience an untouched volume of these kinds of line drawings (though few match those of Join the Circus!) before waving a silly wand and revealing how the book has been thoroughly despoiled with thick, insipid colours. When we think of such acts we better respect the way our forebears dispatched those who practised such arts. If terrorists were to smirch the Colosseum in gaudy paint, there would be an outcry for hard and swift justice, and rightly so. The case here is even more grave, both because this book is so much more vulnerable than monuments that already have won international recognition and protection, and because, as has already been hinted, the depths of Join the Circus! have yet to be plumbed.

A brief introduction such as this can only trace where these depths begin to descend. Close examination of the hair of the female trapezist on page 3 reveals a pattern of parallel waves that very closely resemble the song patterns of humpback whales. (This has been confirmed by witnesses.) The cetological connection points to two other unexpected links: first, the absence of any aquatic life (including performing seals!) in Join the Circus!; and second, the name of Giacomo Spermaceti, author of the aforementioned volume The Last Bandstand: An Unbiassed Argument Against the Use of the Conductor’s Baton. Spermaceti drowned, quite possibly a suicide, in a public aquarium, only a few months after the completion of his seminal book, but it may be conceivable that the unknown artist behind Join the Circus! has absorbed some of the unreleased energies of the man who once wrote that “the only destiny worth recognizing can be heard in the applause of an audience that is not there” and in these pages channels them. Pause to consider what happens if that hair streaking out behind her were suddenly yellowed, browned, or blued: what vital networks of illumination are suddenly dashed away. How fragile a thing is wonder.

As fragile as life itself, one might answer with Spermaceti’s sad life, or what we know of it, in mind. His parents arrived in Montreal with the young boy, probably aged two, and a single suitcase, surprised to find that it was not an American city. This troubled sense of geography seems to have been passed on to their son, whose unpublished journal makes references to India as the Middle East, Cuba as a South American island, and Moscow as a city in Iceland. Even his masterpiece (and only published work), The Last Bandstand: An Unbiassed Argument Against the Use of the Conductor’s Baton, refers to Italy as “easily the largest country in Western Europe” and to Madagascar as “the sumptuous capital of Morocco.” It is worth remembering that circuses as a rule do not have a fixed address, a point which only adds to the fascinating connections between the book you now hold in your hands and the neglected author who was probably the first to note that batons are inhuman supplements for the human finger.

According to the creditors who knew him best, Spermaceti had his first genuine experience of music when he was about four years old, at a park bandstand: a Sousa march. It made him dizzy and unable to move, and that began his extensive medical history with specialists trying to figure out what had happened to him. His mother was not assured when his hearing was found to be normal and his reactions to recordings of Sousa (and of several other kinds of music) impassive and unremarkable. She depleted the family savings taking the boy from expert to expert, from clinic to clinic, until the unorthodox psychologist Karmosin Skottkärra from Stockholm expressed interest in the case. Skottkärra cannily suggested that the trigger for the boy’s catatonia was not auditory but visual: the answer lay in something he saw in the performance. A new series of tests, isolating different musical instruments in order to eliminate them, seemed to lead nowhere until – but here we come to familiar history: the obsessive years of study, the neglect of the manuscript, that terrible sunny afternoon at the aquarium, the posthumous publication and dissemination, all known. This is how a terrible but imminent purpose overtakes one, even at a tender age, even manifested in what might seem an utterly trivial phenomenon, and becomes a driving force ultimately for the benefit of others, and of posterity, too.

What hue best captures this life of despair and uncertainty? How can a small box representing such a narrow spectrum encompass what it means to be thus possessed, thrust into the world with pain and the knowledge that one must not only identify this pain precisely, but to share and spread as widely as possible one’s researches, for this pain cannot be unique and the world will be better for knowing the source of this obscure but haunting pain, that everyone might join together to make it stop?

Spouses and friends may not understand Join the Circus! – or, indeed, the zealous commitment that it requires. Children may and likely shall wail no matter how patiently it is explained to them that the human cannonball (the climactic page 14) is flying through the air towards something greater than they can understand, and their proposed imposition of rainbows will only yank him crashing down to the ground. Employers, publishers, and members of the judiciary may frown. Open your eyes and see: see how that lion winks at you –at you– and know that this is a call for reading between the lines rather than, as some lunatic has coined the phrase, staying within them. Look and look again, and applaud the wonders of this extraordinary, untouchable circus.

This book is yours now, to cherish and to protect.

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TIM CONLEY‘s most recent book is Dance Moves of the Near Future (New Star Books, 2015).


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