When I first read Mark Mayer’s Aerialists upon its release in 2019, it utterly dazzled me. Upon revisiting in 2021, it is yet to lose its glimmer.
Mayer’s collection of short stories explores the humorous, vibrant, gritty, most intimate moments of circus figures pulled off of their stage and placed into daily life. The range of his topics spans from a heartbreaking tale of the end of a show elephant to a thriller about a killer clown, from the rise and fall of young love to the strain of a more experienced couple mixed with the excitement of wildlife.
Through his carefully crafted dialogue, Mayer manages to capture the level of intimacy that viewing nonverbal cues and intonation can give a conversation through the page. His study of passions, emotions, and interpersonal relationships draw his characters close to the reader’s heart, and you feel the pain of an individual navigating their lives with a human collection of experiences and trauma that drive their decisions.
The book has nine short stories and is 287 pages long. Each story wraps you up and pulls you deep into it. The balance between consuming it as fast as possible and being able to sit with the beautiful worlds Mayer builds was a bit of a tightrope act in itself for me, pun intended. After each short story, I had to take time to just sit with the overwhelming emotions it left me with, despite them being just 15-30 pages a piece. Mayer’s ability to bury his reader in the world is so intense that I often felt the need to acclimate myself to reality after coming up for air. Many of his stories span years or lifetimes, and capture some of the greatest arcs of experience and growth. The range of emotion and reflection feel that of the end-of-life musings of a wise man, perhaps one of Mayer’s characters themselves, and not that of a debut author. However, the pacing and division of the short stories, once excited, make the world very easy to come in and out of as needed for anyone reading in multiple sittings.
I would be hard-pressed to pick a favorite, as each left me breathless in a new way. However, I could make a strong case for the final story, “The Ringmaster," as every individual story is given its moment to shine a final time. At the risk giving away too much, I will not go into much more detail, but it is the final jewel that ties all of the pieces of Aerialists together as the beautiful, sparkling masterpiece that it is.
My first instinct in this review is to give quotes of Mayer’s work, but he has more than just quotable lines. His prose that weaves throughout entire pieces is the beauty, and it is consistent and seamless. When going back through old text conversations to see what lines I sent friends, telling them “you simply MUST read this," I found pictures of entire pages that left my jaw on the floor. Mayer’s prose in itself is a character, and sets the stage for his surrounding story. His tone and descriptions change for each of his characters as well, from the dying, fading, vibrant colors of his northern lights of a long distance relationship, to the decay of the home, wife, and mind of the Soviet mathematician, to his descriptions of his greasy killer clown, dripping in the oil of the fast food that consumed him.
A few criticisms I have read from other readers of the book are that the characters are not closely tied enough to circus life, or that the stories are disjointed and abstract, lacking moral purpose. I understand how one could end up feeling such a way. I would encourage you to stick with it though and consider what is outside of the page. Few of the plots are sunshine and rainbows, or have glairing conclusions or purposes that pop off the page. Despite this, I would argue that the world needs more pieces such as Aerialists; pieces that explore simple existence. I feel that the need for an author to serve a reader a moral on a silver platter is a false belief that we have come to accept through the western canon of literature. I would like to ask those who believe such to consider how often they feel that overarching narrative of their own lives would offer such simple understanding that they desire? Instead, as humans, we learn with experience. Through trial and error, we navigate relationships in a balance between the best we know how, and in the personal interest of our heart. We can often feel fragmented, gritty, and lost. We pull ourselves out of these situations through introspection, learned experience, art, listening to others’ experiences, and reflection.
Through his worlds, Mayer captures all of this. His characters are drifters, searching for direction and meaning, often once great artists that have lost their purpose, or ones with dreams they are yet to achieve. They still, like us, show the truths and beauties of the world through their searching. With my whole heart, I would encourage a reader to sit and see what Mayer’s characters can show you along their journey, and the smaller truths of life they stumble upon that we often lose in a blinded pursuit of a higher purpose.
His stories are those that remind us that we live in a world where the most ordinary, unseen people are perhaps the most extraordinary. His characters remind his reader that every person has dreams, pains, and secrets worthy of their own story, and that each individual is far more than meets the eye. No human, no matter how lowly, is worthy of discartment from lack of potential or washed up past. Mayer reminds us that we all are aerialists, artists of our own lives that make the world the circus that it is.