Insofar as it marked the emergence of an innovative and exhilarating new voice in dark fantasy fiction – or in fiction, full stop – Mr. Shivers’ publication in early 2010 was a watershed moment of sorts. Indeed, the very next year it earned its originator the prestigious Shirley Jackson Award... not for Best Newcomer, or Best Debut, or some similarly subordinate category, but for Best Novel proper, and such was Mr. Shivers’ primal power that I dare say the eminent honour was well and truly warranted.
Of course, certain expectations come hand in hand with that sort of success. The Company Man, an effective and unsettling love letter to airships and acid noir – by way of steampunk, sci-fi and murder mystery – crushed these to pulp and a waste of paste. In a good way, I mean to say. Because instead of trotting out another borderline apocalyptic Southern horror show – instead, in other words, of contenting himself and his hard-won readership with more of the same – Robert Jackson Bennett changed the rules of the game, ably demonstrating that his talents were not to be constrained by either the requirements or the restrictions of any one genre amongst the many.
In The Troupe, Bennett’s third novel in as many years, the ambitious author is at it again. Riding the crest of a weird wave of speculative and indeed superlative circus stories – with The Night Circus, Cyber-Circus and Genevieve Valentine’s marvellous Mechanique bringing up the esteemed rear – The Troupe is a tall and ineffably tender tale about nothing less than “the warp and weft of the web” of the world.
It concerns an elusive company of vaudeville players with a mythical mission, ultimately as hellish as it is holy, and a newcomer in their midst: George by name, and George by nature, because next to the motley lot he falls in with, George seems intolerably ordinary. A teenage vaudeville virgin from a broken home, George has spent the past several months playing pitch-perfect piano for a pittance at Otterman’s, in the unlikely event that the mysterious Silenus Troupe he has become obsessed by break with tradition, and stop off at his tawdry theater a second time. If and when that happens, George hopes for an introduction, but in truth his dreams are of an invitation: to tour the world with them, and finally befriend his father... because he is none other than Heironomo Silenus’ son.
On the one hand, George is mindful of the fear that he may be setting himself up for an almighty disappointment, but on the other, he has precious little left to lose, and all of creation – I kid you not – to gain.
“He knew it was unwise to pin all his hopes on one man, yet this was almost exactly what he had done: he hoped that Silenus could take him away from these small country theaters, and school him in the finer arts of the stage; he hoped his father would green his newfound son with open arms, and rejoice in their meeting; and George’s last, most desperate hope was that Silenus would be such an astounding and wonderful man that finding him could somehow make up for the loss of George’s mother.”
Oh for a happy ending, as above!
But it is not to be. Not yet, if ever. Not least because Silenus is an exceptionally egotistical character: an enigmatic yet intensely unpleasant man hell-bent on his half-mad and wholly self-serving quest to rid the world of blackest darkness. The troupe George longs to join is not about art, as it happens, or even entertainment, and if it is artful, or in any way entertaining, then this is only to facilitate its singular purpose, which is to sing a song – the First Song, Silenus says – into the deafening silence of America’s forgotten corners, the better to protect the world from wolves. But these wolves are no ordinary creatures of the night; rather, they are wrought of the unstuff of the void. Silenus illuminates their nature thusly: “They are shadows. [...] True shadows. Not merely the absence of light, but of all things. Gaps in Creation itself, given minds and gnawing hunger, and how they hate the light.”
To begin with, George cannot bring himself to accept this astonishing explanation, and given everything he has been through just to stare crazy in the face, who could blame the boy? But after some interminable soul-searching our conflicted protagonist realises that he has felt the effects of these impossible creatures before, and in his travels with the titular troupe, he will again. And again and again, to the bitter end. You see, George has something the wolves want – something the wolves indeed need in order to eat all of existence, as they long to – for intertwined with his soul is a long-lost section of the song, and he must learn to sing it, or everything Silenus has done in the hundreds of years he lays claim to living, at the exclusion of all else, including his son, will have been for naught.
The Troupe may be Bennett’s most metaphysical novel to date, and in the end there is certainly more to it than metaphor and conjecture. Regrettably, at the outset, I fear it appears awfully normal. Normal to a fault, in fact... and not normal insofar as it lacks some strain of the fantastic – it certainly does not: the weird and the wonderful are here and in exemplary form, beginning with a bravura encounter in Parma, where George finally catches up with the troupe – but instead in the pedestrian sense. This, I think, is almost entirely due to George’s exasperating narration. Certainly the author must introduce this world of sacrosanct song and unspeakable silence to us somehow, and what better way than through an inductee such as he? But as a direct result of this George has no agency for altogether too long. He is, from the frustrating first, “an audience member in his own life.” He only ever sees what Bennett is as yet ready to reveal, whilst the reader – whether by accident or design – is sometimes hundreds of pages ahead of this slowly-unfolding affair.
The most damning instance of this disconnect is instigated early on, when George first sees the troupe perform in Parma. Their opening act stars Professor Kingsley Tyburn and his amazing puppets, who have no visible strings, and spend their allotted time in the spotlight lamenting the terrible confinement of their lives. The reader immediately understands that there is more to this performance than a man and his marionettes, but even after he and we have come to terms with the wolves and the song and so on, George gives it not a second thought. Later, backstage, George overhears the puppets making a very personal appeal to the professor, when there is obviously no need for Kingsley’s ventriloquist trickery; he doesn’t dwell on this either. Even when the inevitable occurs, when the puppets are seen to be undeniably alive – with dark designs on their master, no less – George cannot credit it.
This, though, marks a turning point of sorts for The Troupe. From here on out, with the wolves at the door, hungry for souls and more, the narrative and the characters finally take flight. The pace picks up from a beginner’s trot to a breathless gallop. Secrets are revealed; stories as old as time – and every bit as fine – are told; at last the song is sung.
And it is quite the ditty.
To date one of Bennett’s greatest strengths has been his exquisite depiction of the mythical, and there is room for that in the lattermost and utmost memorable moments of The Troupe. But before the myths are made, and unmade and remade: an overlong aside about a boy coming of age in a strange place at, alas, a rather uneven rate. What follows is an exhilarating story about family, and friendship... about love, legacy and inheritance. An odd, off-beat narrative that is down-to-earth and utterly unearthly all at once. The Troupe is easily Robert Jackson Bennett’s most intimate and accessible novel so far. It may not have the harrowing sense of determination that made Mr. Shivers such a marvel, nor the eerie imagination of The Company Man, but in spite of a rather pedantic protagonist and some other early errors, the second half of The Troupe truly soars... to such unfathomable heights – to take in such incredible sights – that I wouldn’t hesitate, in the end, to recommend the ride.
Niall Alexander reviews speculative fiction of all shapes and sizes and varieties for Tor.com, Strange Horizons, Starburst Magazine and The Science Fiction Foundation. In the interim you might find him blogging as The Speculative Scotsman, or else trying to figure out Twitter.