(Please note: minor spoilers ahead)
Some weeks ago Robert Jackson Bennett sent me his latest book The Troupe for review. It took some time to get to it, and when I began reading, it was with the mixture of anticipation and trepidation I feel when reading a new author. I’d heard of his other two books (the Shirley Jackson Award-winning Mr. Shivers, and his well-received second novel The Company Man) and I was very curious to see what he could do on the printed page. I started out a bit disappointed, but what I discovered as I continued to read was a novel that was sometimes darkly funny, often serious, and entirely fixated on the idea that, from all the days until the last, all the world’s a stage; not only is nothing as it seems, but we humans like it that way. Or, more precisely, need it that way to function. This is how we make our way through life, by not looking behind the backdrop or the makeup and instead pushing the performances we create as genuine, natural life. It is that theme that saturates not just the plot and episodes of the novel, but the language of the book, its aesthetics and reflections.
Bennett’s plot is partly a bildungsroman, partly a quest story. George Carole is an unusually gifted young pianist, and he has taken to the vaudeville circuit to find the father he never knew. His path leads him to Heironomo Silenus, the leader of an unusual troupe of vaudevillians whom George immediately senses are much more than a group of players. Circumstances cause George to throw his lot in with them, and he struggles to get to know Silenus, who he believes is his father, and Colette, a dancer and acrobat who uses the person of a Persian Princess to navigate the thorny tangles of racism. George is forced to mature and make hard choices as the troupe pursues a mission to gather together The First Song, the source of creation, for reasons that at first seem obvious but that, like everything else in this novel, are revealed to be illusion and artifice. All that is “real” is the fact that delusion, charade, and prestidigitation keeps the world going.
The two classic story structures are merged into a multi-layered philosophical journey about existence and knowability. As the troupe pursues its mission, and everyone within the troupe seeks their own goals, the story shifts into something more complex and strange. It remains focused on one young man’s coming-of-age, but this is not some conventional process of development; in fact, our ideas of what is natural or normal are constantly being undermined, both in the social and material environments. Everyone and everything has a role to play, but the roles are parts we play and the effects are not passively “natural.” The world is made of contrivances and dilemmas and questions and no one really knows much about what’s going on, or what the right way is to improve it. But the First Song is both the source and the solution; the world itself has been performed into existence, and someday that performance will end. Bennett does a lovely job of exploring how his characters are affected by this and how they respond, in ways not just flawed but self-destructive.
This is the vitality of the novel: when the narrative moves between the comic, the grotesque, and the profound. The central metaphors of the novel — music, vaudeville, the quest — incorporate these modes into rich combinations. The best moments come when these elements are fused; a scene mid-book with a special “wolf” (the creatures that are pursuing the troupe) brought a smile to my face even as it provoked philosophical reflection and some revulsion. There are parts of the book that seem too mannered or tame, especially in the beginning, and while these sometimes provide respite for the reader they also sometimes serve as a too-obvious contrast for something fantastical that is about to happen.
Other moments that didn’t work were those where the narrator stepped out of the story and addressed the reader more directly, such as an instance where we are told what George’s mind is doing to deal with a horrible situation. Given Bennett’s capacity to write fluid and evocative description, this was jarring. The start of the novel was slow, perhaps partly as misdirection, or as a contrast to the magical heart of the story, but I felt my enthusiasm for reading starting to flag even when George observes the troupe’s performance for the first time. It was not until the cast was all on stage, so to speak, that the novel begins to sing.
But once that song begins, and the libretto unfolds before us, Bennett does a wonderful job of making the story come alive. The characters are fierce, odd, and contradictory, and in fact for a good part of the novel George is one of least compelling characters. When you think you have a character pegged, Bennett injects a surprise or complication that makes them both more human and a more accomplished player in the ongoing drama of life. Almost no one is what they seem, not even George, by the end. Bennett does not go for cheap thrills or horror-movie shocks; he builds tension and reversals adeptly and they flow well with the narrative. This is reflected in the way that magic works, which really isn’t a system at all. Magic is very magical, and while you can try to apply logic to it, what works better is knowing the source and affiliation of the magic. It also appears in Bennett’s use of folklore and mythology, in how the old stories adapt to the changing world. The working of the world does not make perfect sense, but it shouldn’t, and that is a very intentional undercurrent of the story.
History and human relationships matter most in this world. Bennett’s decision to set the story in a subdued Depression-era America might seem constraining, but the story is not just about the era. While he addresses issues such as racism, the milieu is more of a backdrop to the show, especially given the histories of most of the characters. History is layered, enigmatic, and can contain gifts or curses, but rarely insights. The absurdity of linear thinking, of assuming that the system of the world is somehow rational, and of relying on common knowledge are all revealed through the story. The importance of history is in what it has produced, not what lessons it has to teach us. Characters constantly refuse to learn from history, to the point that seems that such misreadings are the engine of the world. History, like everything else in life, is an incomplete, desire-riddled explanation for how the world came to be. To think that we know History, or even someone’s personal history, is hubris and creates dangerous assumptions.
And yet, we cannot escape history. Our misunderstandings and confabulations anchor us to it. Hope and despair emerge from it and bind us to it, drag us down with its weight. The smallest particle of either of these ideas can wreck us, and the lives of those around us. From this process, this feeling-around for certainty that we must inevitably conjure ourselves, we create portrayals of ourselves from history, see it imperfectly, and proceed on as if all were well. But beneath our guises our cravings and obsessions and needs are haphazardly revealed and concealed. History is all about bringing impure fragments together into performances that will convince us, and others, that we know what we’re doing, when really we are grasping at the misty edges of memory hoping to find something solid and reasonable within the miasma of the past.
The Troupe strips away all of the illusions and lays bare the foundations of its world. As the characters each face great changes and revelations, they realize that these challenges were always there and that they had been blinded (or blinded themselves) to them. What makes The Troupe so satisfying in the end is that despite how faltering and ignorant our pursuit of life may be, how much we delude ourselves about it, knowing The Truth will not somehow save us. What preserves us, what keeps us going forward through a life that we know is going to end, are precisely the things that are ineffable and impermanent. We don’t do our constant song-and-dance just to fool people, but to impel ourselves towards a life that we can grasp and feel the worth of through the performance of it. While there are moments that do not always cohere in The Troupe, they can be looked on fondly because they are as valuable and evocative of life as any hard fact or logical progression. They are truly the stuff of life, and when we understand that, when we can know them for what we are, we can get a deeper glimpse into the underlying beauty and terror of the world and see it more acutely, more emotionally, and perhaps more forgivingly.