“A Hearse of Another Color”: Monica Drake’s Clown Girl. Portland, OR: Hawthorne Books, 2007. $15.95. ISBN: 0-9766311-5-6.
Have you ever wondered what Balloon Tying for Christ is? Neither have I, but that doesn’t stop Monica Drake from opening her painfully comic novel with this catchy line, and thus setting the tone for this surprising, entertaining book. Clown Girl illuminates a familiar yet foreign world in which Drake evokes, via Nita’s conflict with art versus sustenance, a certain modernist angst. Nita is not to be mistaken with a Bozo or even The Simpsons’ Krusty the Clown; rather, Nita channels the profoundly emotional spaces of a Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton. Nita’s preoccupation with Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (“Kafka was the voice of my resistance, my own religion, my grand opus” ) infuses the narrative with pure modern irony. The easy metaphor of Clown Girl would appear to be the sad clown, but the far more complicated one relies upon Nita’s pièce de résistance of a mimed performance of Kafka’s famous story of the man-turned-insect: “You’ve watched me develop it - watched me practice the transformation into vermin on my back, seen me work out the surrealist confusion, the naturalist horror” (283). The symbolic value of The Metamorphosis here is that Gregor wakes, “eager to see how today’s illusion would gradually dissolve” (Kafka 7), and this is what Nita does each day; the narrative trick is that, like Gregor, she too is slowly transforming and the illusions that dissolve are not the expected ones. She wakes to discover that the nature of her clown art has not transformed her into an artist but rather into a ridiculously dressed caricature of her former self. She finds she is not a clown, but simply clownish.
For all of its seeming predictability of the sad clown whose every attempt at various types of success falls spectacularly to pieces, Clown Girl is refreshing and unpredictable in its depth. Drake’s characters are often frenetic, disorganized, and aimless. The story drags in a few places, but the resulting punch lines and pratfalls make me wonder if the dragging effect is also metaphoric. After all, if the text asks us to incorporate the likes of Kafka, then it is likely also requesting we consider these lulls in action as representative of Nita’s existence. The anticipated romantic plot comes to an expected fruition, but it is the trip from cover to cover that proves to be more than half the fun. Chapters with titles such as “Chance Pays the Karmic Bill; or, Give Chance Some Peace!”, “The Tidy Side of Hell; or, Tonics, Soporifics, and Palliatives,” and “Silence Isn’t the Only Thing That’s Golden,” can only be a rollicking good time.
Having lost her parents and recently a child via miscarriage, her particularly apt status as a clown results from her ultimate desire to be an artist. Her wry sense of humor is her weapon against the perpetual adversity of her life, and proves to be Nita’s only ally for much of this tale. She suffers from an unexplained condition which causes heart palpitations and fainting spells, and her clown status prevents her from being taken seriously in the hospital emergency room, the local free clinic, or by any person ostensibly in a position to help her. Nita’s boyfriend, Rex Galore, serves as the absent lover whose name suggests his lack of seriousness: “My Clown Prince. That strong giant, Rex, darling shaman and showman” (26). He is away, does not return phone calls, and is supposedly busy getting into clown college. Nita idealizes Rex and puts him on a pedestal from which he can only fall, and as readers we all see what she cannot: the unequal relationship that must end badly.
Nita resides in the home of an ex-boyfriend dope dealer whose new girlfriend Natalia/Nadia/Italia – her actual name is never clear, and this is funny but becomes tedious – continually threatens her (and her little dog, too) with physical violence and eviction. In the fainting spell which opens the story, she attracted the attention of a local police officer who is kind and caring, but creates only more chaos for her because the company she keeps in Baloneytown (“where baloney was all the steak anybody could afford” ) works hard to remain under the radar of the law (“House Rule Number One where I lived: Don’t talk to cops” ). To make matters worse, Nita’s two female clown acquaintances only want to pursue careers in clowning with fetishists and manage to rope Nita into it, with – naturally – immediate comical misunderstandings and serious outcomes. All of these factors, along with clever puns like her “hearse of another color,” set Nita up for a series of pratfalls that become increasingly more tragic and less funny as the story progresses. Finally, it appears that no one gets the joke, including Nita.
Ultimately what Monica Drake’s Clown Girl offers readers is a brilliant meta-narrative which can be enjoyed at varying degrees of engagement, if you can get so far as to read it. The slapstick, easy-pun humor both annoys and entertains the clever reader, but the larger concerns of the novel might be lost on the average person picking it up and wondering, “who is Chuck Palahniuk and why should I care what he thinks of this book?” In this regard it is both approachable and intimidating, and the novel’s only real shortcoming is perhaps its lack of appropriate audience appeal. If you like Palahniuk, the expectation is that Clown Girl is comparatively edgy and disturbing, in which case you may be disappointed; if you read the inside panels and expect an effortless romantic comedy, you may be left equally lukewarm by the end. However, if you can look beyond the possible marketing flaws, you may discover that the level at which Drake employs her biggest punch line is where her genius lies. Clown Girl is the story of a girl clown who is continually aware of her role as a performer of fictions – including her own – and yet her only relief from the chaos of her life is the recognition that she is the author. The prose is tight, the tragic-comic balance tense, and the witticisms smart. In the current fiction landscape, the writing of literature too often insists on genre convention or the inaccessible, obfuscated postmodern narrative, so much that we forget what makes a great story: heartbreaking humanity. Clown Girl captures this and leaves you wanting to take the ride all over again.
Drake, Monica. Clown Girl: A Novel. Portland, OR: Hawthorne Books & Literary Arts, 2006.
Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis and Other Stories. Trans. Donna Freed. NY: Barnes and Noble, 1996.
Christina Angel is a doctoral candidate at the University of Denver. She holds a B.A. from Metropolitan State College of Denver and an M.A. from the University of Colorado in Renaissance/Early Modern studies, with a minor in Film Studies. She has taught literature and writing courses at the MSCD and the University of Denver.