Young George Carole is a very talented pianist who leaves his carnival when the Troupe led by the enigmatic Heironomous “Harry” Silenus is near. He hopes to join the fabled vaudeville Troupe since his grandmother has led him to believe Harry is his father, whom he never met. When George arrives at the Troupe, he manages to get a position in the traveling vaudevillian entertainers and signs on for more than he imagined.
Circuses, carnivals and traveling entertainers have been popular elements of fantastic fiction going back to Charles Finney’s Circus of Dr. Lao to Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. Placing Bennett’s The Troupe alongside those iconic novels of dark fantasy is an easy thing to do for many reasons. Bennett’s style is both subtle and powerful, he doesn’t often beat the reader over the head with blatant imagery or themes. Rather, the hints and pieces he offers the reader work so effectively to build a collaborative engagement of conversation between writer and reader that it proves all the more powerful. We know there’s a big curtain and behind that curtain, lots of pieces and players are moving around while the performers in front of the curtain waive their hands for the audience. In that respect, Silenus’s Troupe is just the front for much larger events and performances, as well as intimate movements and emotions.
The small things are important, too, Bennett’s The Troupe reminds us. Sure there may be an apocalyptic, near biblical conflict that serves as the engine, or rather, the sheet music of the events, but engine parts and players are what put these elements into motion. In the case of The Troupe, George Carole is of course this major part although to call him the driving character may not be completely accurate. Sure his initial query about his father brought him to Silenus’s Troupe, but once there, he’s more of a front-seat passenger than the actual driver. He’s a young man searching for his family – an orphan if you will – and for a sense of purpose in life. Initially, he’s headstrong and unwilling to hear that he’s young and perhaps not ready to take the stage in Silenus’s Troupe. After all, as George likes to inflate himself by saying, he could headline and make an appreciable sum for his performances. What truly makes George stand out to Harry is that George is the only audience member who has ever been able to remember the Troupe’s final act.
His father, Harry, comes across just as headstrong, but as the mentor who seemingly holds back necessary information from the young hero of the tale. Harry’s obsession – something he’s initially unwilling to share with anybody other than the silent Stanley – is what drives the story and the Troupe across the country in search of something supernatural and away from something equally supernatural, though much darker. There’s a great aura of confliction surround Harry, he’s got very honorable intentions and goals but he often comes across as a callous and harsh individual. I felt some resonance in the Harry/George relationship to the relationship portrayed in Gangs of New York between Daniel Day Lewis’s Bill the Butcher (who might make a terrific Harry if The Troupe ever made it to film) and Leonardo DiCaprio’s Amsterdam or even to Roland the Gunslinger and the boy Jake Chambers in King’s The Dark Tower, and there was something about Harry that reminded me of Jessie Custer, the title character from Garth Ennis & Steve Dillion’s landmark Preacher comic book series. Bennett’s deft depiction of Harry as a conflicted character is evident down to his speech pattern, Harry’s dialogue often includes allusions to wondrous things which are soon punctuated with a contrarian “fucking…this” or “that fucking bastard.” In short, Harry is a gem of a character
Filling out the remainder of Silenus’s Troupe are the aforementioned Stanley, the cellist who communicates by writing on his chalkboard; the puppeteer Kingsley and his life-like marionettes; Franny the strong-woman; and Collette the dark-skinned ‘Persian’ princess who dances for the crowds. “Dance” might suggest one thing, but Bennett leaves enough in the narrative open for interpretation for the reader to come to a fully formed image of things.
Throughout my experience with The Troupe I felt echoes or resonances with a lot of fiction I’ve read or watched over the years that rang very True. Not that Mr. Bennett was repeating the cadence as much as he was adding to the overall song. Some of these resonances include the aforementioned Ray Bradbury, as well as Stephen King (thematically The Dark Tower and specifically Low Men in Yellow Coats), Neil Gaiman, Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind, the television show Lost, among other elements. What Bennett cued into is the veneer that much more is going on behind the curtain than what the reader sees on the page or the audience sees on the stage – a grand chess match between powers people can’t comprehend, let alone even realize exist.
So the novel is divided into three sections, or acts. First we are introduced to George and the Troupe, Second we learn of the true nature of the Troupe and the Song, the final act is the fall out. It’s a classic structure for a reason – in a great writer’s hands, it works. So is the case with The Troupe.
The novel is set in a turn of the Century America when Vaudevillian troupes were popular, yet allusions to places that never were are suggested, revealing that that this world is truly more than it seems. Rather, there’s more behind the curtains the audience can’t see or is unable to comprehend. The mundane or real-world setting is also contrasted with the Fantastical Quest nature at the heart of the Troupe’s mission and Harry’s obsession. Bennett’s dichotomy of a path (Fantastical Quest) drawn in a setting (Early 20th Century) not typical of its type, work very well together as a powerful narrative.
The Troupe was my first Robert Jackson Bennett novel and it most certainly will not be my last. For 2012 releases, The Troupe is at the top of the list.
© 2012 Rob H. Bedford