A gray Metropolis – Robert Jackson Bennett’s Company Men

Robert Jackson Bennett‘s The Company Men plunges the reader into the rapidly thickening world of Evesden, an American city dominated by the McNaughton factory. It follows Mr Shivers, Bennett’s debut novel which is set in the 1930s Dust Bowl, in that it describes the world in the throws of change. He leads the reader into a thickened world and into recognition of its fallibility on personal and story levels. Those characters who fail to see this or who want to impose themselves, fail to change or move on.

Where Mr Shivers had a robustness to it in its writing and recollection of the duende in the search of the eponymous character, The Company Men is a grayer affair. It feels flatter but that comes from the use of the crime genre rather than a style reminiscent of either Lorca or Hemingway. He quietly mixes genres and styles, interrogating them to mix the strands of the fantastic together.

Set at the end of 1919, in the aftermath of the First World War, the McNaughton company has been going from strength to strength on the back of a mysterious technology. The metropolis like Evesden is the envy of the world, yet something is deeply wrong in it. Union men keep turning up dead and the company is being blamed. Hayes and Garvey, company investigators, begin to look for clues under the watchful eye of Samantha, who is supposed to keep them on track.

 

Hayes and Garvey’s noir detective story intertwines with Samantha’s procedural one. Where they shake down contacts or wander into the wrong bar in town, enjoying the city’s entropy; she is an ordered follower of the paper trail. Garvey, after dining with Samantha, comments that he thinks “this city has a voice”(p. 186) but cannot articulate what it is. Hayes too begins to hear things, believing himself to be slightly telepathic. They feel its rhythms and beat of the city but cannot comprehend the company’s story within which they are implicated.

 

As part of the company, Samantha is adept at following the paper trail. In doing so, she discovers the company’s plan to discredit the union through its re-creation of Tazz, the union organiser. Her paperwork skills make her more in tune with the ‘modern’ way of doing things on a way that neither the other two can achieve. When Hayes and Garvey realise that Tazz’s story does not match with their own recollections of him, she provides the evidence of the company’s plans through its paperwork rather than any admission of guilt. Their work leads the revealing of the world as the city erupts and the conspiracies collapse.

In a moment of near Sf recognition Hayes is brought to an alien craft in the hills and becomes truly aware of the possibilities of the world. After crashing, an alien intelligence has lain dormant waiting for the appropriate moment to share its knowledge, despite concluding that advancement will only lead to conflict either between companies or between countries. It does comes across as a slightly pessimistic response to the optimism of uplift through technology. Whilst the machine might be amoral, its users are not often in the same frame of mind. Notoriously secretive about its technology, McNaughton is quite literally rooted in the land that it sits on and has been using the technology without fully understanding it. When Hayes and Samantha meet Tazz, they are introduced to the giant machines underneath the factory and his plans to try and link them together. Both he and McNaughton try to use them for their own ends. They obey Clarke’s law regarding any sufficiently advanced technology will resemble magic. When McNaughton ‘airship’ crashes in tests, they refuse to reveal its secrets or even to contemplate moving away from their factory base, creating a conspiracy to mask their own incompetence.

This recognition can only be achieved after Hayes goes through his own self-revelation. As he follows the inconsistencies in the world, he is forced to recognise his own and confront them. Though he lives a hard-drinking life, his friendship with Samantha forces him to reconsider it and the death of his former partner and their child. Bennett makes no excuses for Hayes and he remains, like Garvey, an anti-hero. Garvey’s inability to recognise the moment of change leads to his demise at the hands of the mob. As such one wonders if Bennett is simultaneously challenging the idea of the hard-drinking, hard-bitten noir detective and their ability to remain relevant to the new story.

The reformed Hayes cannot escape his past when he elects to murder the child who has gone murderously feral in grief. He accepts, though, the possibilities of change and takes on the alien information, fully aware of what it might bring in the ruins of Evesden. Rather than reacting to the chaos, he chooses it. There is something almost science fictional in this choice as the works of the cyber- and post-cyberpunks have been arguing: the makers will inherit the world instead of the meek. In the aftermath, whilst using the technology that McNaughton exploited, Hayes responds “I am looking to make sure that the heart of the world keeps beating”(p 452) though even he is not sure that it will be enough to restore the world.

Bennett appears to enjoy cusps, the moment of change. Instead of forcing the world to change, he follows it and sees where it goes. He appears to be interested in the ideas of self-reliance, healing and a muscular approach to the world. He offers no answers to the recognition: no sense of wonder at the alien craft, the king, McNaughton, crumbles in plain sight and there is only rough justice. The aftermath could go either way.

The Company Man (Orbit, 9781841497921, pb, £7.99)

Earlier review of his debut, Mr Shivers (spoiler warning)

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