Clownland is not an easy novel to classify and I believe that is one of its strengths. It is a book of ideas but it is more than that. Part autobiographical journey to redemption, part journalism; wonderfully invoking and describing the places and people it encounters and a series of what I found to be fascinating interviews with so many different kinds of clown; not so much their process but more the philosophy behind their art. It would equally appeal to someone just wishing to have a good read as it would to an academic who wants to explore the notions and practices of the truly gifted performers who inhabit these pages.
If you want that rare thing a non-fiction novel of ideas that actually has a plot, and is completely readable whilst having a seriousness, depth and humour all its own then this is the book for you.
It is really quite a remarkable undertaking to draw together what could have been a disparate series of potentially disconnected interviews and yet find such an undeniable thread. I was surprised by how connected they felt and how the same themes of being present in the moment, of naivety, of exploring failure and the things that go wrong, sticking with the problem, and allowing others the pleasure of feeling superior, seemed to come up again and again; and as someone who works as a clown I felt truly educated and instructed by the thoughts and anecdotes of my colleagues and how these theories seemed to relate so effortlessly with Judith’s journey back from the brink of potentially giving up her own performing/clowning career, to the point of being reinspired, rejuvenated and creating marvellously her own new works.
But this is not just a book about unblocking creative pathways but with broader themes about dealing with grief, finding strength and a way forward in the confusing landscape of contemporary existence that I think anyone from any walk of life could find both entertainment and inspiration from within these pages.
The thing I admire about this book is Judith Lanigan’s relentless intelligence and openness towards the information she collates. I never felt that she entered into any of these conversations with an agenda or preconceived ideas that she would be more than valid in entertaining as her own performance and clowning background is extensive. She comes from the perspective of someone who knows nothing about clown, the same as many of her future readers, and I think this made the novel truly accessible to a wide audience.
One of the major themes of the book is just what in fact a clown is, and I think the only possible impediment to the success of this book is the general public’s incredibly narrow frame of reference when presented with the word clown. Whilst writing this review I happened to catch an episode of QI and the question came up ‘Who likes clowns?” and then Stephen Fry said that from statistical analysis “not children and not adults” he then went on to postulate that “only other clowns truly like clowns.” He did try to defend clowns by saying that he enjoyed some of their funny business with little cars but that only seemed to strengthen to my mind how narrow the general view of clown is.
Of course there are the great film and TV clowns like Chaplin, Keaton, Jerry Lewis, Norman Wisdom, Danny Kay, Jim Carrey. Australia’s Lano and Woodley, Los trios ringbarkus, Magda Szubanski and Cath and Kim. Who aren’t in the book but I’m sure would identify themselves as clowns but are probably just seen as film and TV stars. This book, however, exposes the wide range of clowns that are working and just what a clown can be.
I was struck by the energy and vibrancy of the stories and ideas. There is an anarchy and catharsis to so many of the acts she describes and people she interviews and she has fully captured that. There is almost a punk feel to the book. So many of whom I find the most inspiring artists are reaching for something ethereal, unquantifiable and yet she has some how documented intelligently the intangible. I really think that through some incredible magic trick Judith Lanigan has captured lightning in a bottle with this book. It takes a smart cookie to write a book like this and a writer of rare skill to take those ideas and compel our attention over nearly 300 pages. The book itself is a clown; a wonderful, amazing, beautiful clown and I love it.
For your chance to win a copy of Clownland, check out the ACAPTA Freebies page this August!
Clownland is available at bookshops like Readings, (Melbourne) Berkelouws, Better Read than dead (Sydney), Fullers, MONA (Hobart), and online bookshops.
Pat Bath is a writer, director, actor, clown and a founding member of The Dirty Brothers.
Judith Lanigan is a stunt hula hoopist and author; the daughter of a detective and a journalist. She is best known for her hula hoop variation of the ballet divertissement The Dying Swan and has an extensive background of touring with this to international Arts and Street Theatre festivals.