Robert Jackson Bennett is a difficult writer to pin down. What exactly is it that he writes? Horror? Fantasy? Science Fiction? Well the answer seems to be all three and much more besides. In this era of clone fiction, where the safest option from a publishing perspective is to write something in an established and popular sub genre, zombie novels or gritty epic fantasy, say, and then just keep on writing the same thing, Bennett has chosen to walk a much riskier path. His first novel, the award winning Mr. Shivers was a fine piece of American Horror, wrapped up in a Southern Gothic meets Dark Fantasy package. Then for his second novel, The Philip. K. Dick nominated, The Company Man, he went off on a completely different track and wrote a Noir Sci-Fi meets Corporate Thriller. Now in The Troupe we have a kind of Historical Urban Fantasy, a character driven ensemble piece set in the vaudeville era, that is really rather brilliant.
The story of The Troupe focuses on the young George Carole and his desire to find the father he has never known, a man he believes to be the leader of an enigmatic troupe of travelling vaudevillians, The Silenus Troupe. The first section of the book is taken up with George's efforts to track and then join this mysterious band of entertainers. From the get-go Bennett does an excellent job of evoking a sense of mystery and magic around this group. As soon as I heard about them, I wanted to know more about them. Then when they appear in full and put on their first performance, I felt like he had in some ways crafted an exaggerated sense of what it might have been like to watch such bizarre acts in their day. At the same time proving once again, his gift for mining elements of American History and finding there a rich vein of dark fable.
The Silenus Troupe itself is peopled by a wonderful band of oddballs. Each of the characters, the creepy and sombre puppet master, Professor Kingsley Tyburn, the darkly alluring dancer, Collette de Verdicere; the vacant strong woman, Francis Beatty, and the beguilling Heironomo Silenus himself, are wonderfully vivid. Bennett's later revelations about how these performers accomplish their stage acts, are fantastically inventive, and often more than a little twisted. There is also another member of the troupe who remains mostly in the background during their performances, a mute fellow by the name of Stanley who communicates by writing on a chalk board. I loved Stanley. He is presented as a warm, compassionately grounded chap, who apparently has something of a soft spot for George. All of the characters have their stories, each is intriguing, and often ultimately quite sad.
As the main story progresses, it quickly grows in scope. In many ways this book surprised me. It is much more fantastical and 'big picture' than I was expecting. The secret behind the Silenus Troupe is not a little thing, and this book has a grand mythic theme worthy of any epic fantasy. George's desire to find the truth of his unknown father becomes a metaphor in a way for a much larger quest, and the stage magic of the vaudevillians a symbol for a dying era of enchantment in the world. But there is no shortage of magic in this story, and at times I wondered what weird and wonderful thing was going to happen next.
Thematically it explores the mystery of being, and the endless desire to know what lies beyond. In a way it both mourns the loss of belief in our world, and praises the virtue of finding magic in the ordinary. It is infused with melancholy, but not without its uplifting moments. With Mr. Shivers, Bennett earned himself a reputation as something of a horror writer, and the The Company Man also had its fair share of the dark. The same is true of The Troupe to an extent. There are definite moments of darkness here, but this is also very much a fantasy novel, albeit unlike any you are likely to have read recently.
I opened this review by stating how difficult Bennett's writing is to pin down, but there is some consistency of theme to his work, namely, American Myth. I find in his writing an amazing sensitivity to the icons of American History. In his novels so far he's already given us The Great Depression, The rise of American Corporate Power, and now the last of a very special type of American Showmanship. I'm an Americanophile at heart, I often don't love American Politics, but who can deny the romantic impact of so many aspects of the history of the United States over the last few centuries? Bennett seems especially attuned to these facets of the American Story.
Simply put, I loved The Troupe. Many of the characters made a real impression, and I admire the intent and scope behind Bennett's vision. I think Bennett is one of the most interesting young writers to emerge on to the SF scene in a while, and I'm not surprised that he has already picked up a number of awards. His writing is accessible and yet he's clearly following his own muse. He's not writing stuff that fits within any neat category, but he's also not writing stuff that tries to be deliberately obscure (a kind of category in itself). The Troupe is a great example of this, an ambitious piece of myth making that is thoroughly entertaining. In this tale of the dying days of magic, Bennett proves he has plenty of his own.show more