A sideshow of the world – Robert Jackson Bennett’s The Troupe

Cover image of robert jackson bennett's The TroupeRobert Jackson Bennett’s The Troupe continues his exploration and widening of the American Weird Tale. Having mixed Hemingway with the Dust Bowl in Mr Shivers and noir or Metropolis dystopia with a Mccarthy fear of the alien in The Company Man, The Troupe goes back to the heart of America and revisits vaudeville in its touring glory. Bennett seems to enjoy the idea of rushing towards the end, where the real idea of the journey is not to avoid change but to embrace it and then move on whilst remaining in the world.

When George Carole goes chasing after the Silenus vaudeville troupe with a feeling that he should be in it, he cannot imagine why. Following his audition and probation, he is able to join and begins learning about himself and exploring the chaotically colourful world of the stage. He becomes involved in a god game, the rules of which are ever changing and being altered by the supernatural elements. Accessing the supernatural quite by chance or possibly whim on their part and perhaps being braver than the troupe, George more aware of the fantastic nature of the world and the bargains made. If Mr Shivers was about accepting death or change and becoming that change, then The Troupe reverses this where George can become life though only through the acceptance of rage and loss.

Rather than expecting the world or the magic to suddenly end; he anticipates that it will change and move on. Bennett’s approach to the world is simultaneously horrific and fantastic. In Mr Shivers, Marcus Connolly drifts across the rail roads looking for the mysterious Mr Shivers who he blames for murdering his family. Eventually he sees the man fighting a bull in a realisation of duende and understands that this is a time of reckoning. The dust bowl, perhaps the Depression, requires a new god, one that will see the land through into growth taking root and reviving the land. Connolly’s verve and youth make him the ideal candidate to be the literalisation of death. In The Troupe, George’s journey ends up being his own appointment in Samarra and his own version of the duende, looking for a revival from the edge of society. Connolly and George make and accept their appointment but subvert it with their acceptance of it and that it is mutable. Perhaps it is tied to time and death becomes more akin to the tarot meaning of change. If so, then the appointment might be almost relished, a way of forcing necessary change. The new shape of the world is revealed to them as something which they can mould, revealing their horror as being a feeling of loss of control.

The troupe becomes central to the story rather than remaining a travelling sideshow. Reminiscent of Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! (2011) where she explored the idea of dying gods and sideshows in the deep South, Bennett looks at it as a way of trying to revive the world yet perhaps going in ever decreasing circles. Rather than accepting the change, the Weird novel looks at changing it through adapting the existing worlds. It has a changing set of meanings and layers, any of which might take over from the world. In Swamplandia!, we almost know that the journey into the Underworld will end up in death and crossing an individual family’s Styx. Meanings and options are implicitly closed off as reality takes hold and logic is remade to fit it.

Bennett offers the place as one which can be remade and improved. Using the god game, he almost takes an Gnostic view of the world, in which the human may become divine. The grey gods who attempt to run the world find themselves losing more control than originally envisioned. Taking inspiration from the idea of the Angels being disappointed in humans and their free will, Bennett’s grey gods try to control and find the original Song of Creation. Unable to be creative themselves, they want to remove all traces of it even though they are divided. Rather than taking the queue from a world which is turmoil and in need of understanding, where the clashes of light and darkness create uncertainty and the complete possibility of misreading the world such as in the work of William Hope Hodgson or Lovecraft, where the familiar is shifting into fear through a change of angle, Bennett’s take on the Weird is more towards acceptance leading to change. In similar fashion to Jesse Bullington’s argument that the Weird is about the odd being accepted into the world as myth and legend, its facts lost and embellished in the drifting landscapes of the world. World building in the Weird is not about maps or a defined geography, it becomes one of stories which might be interpreted in a variety of fantastic ways and the physical world being made entirely mutable through interpretation.

Rather than the less successful relatively static positioning of the world in The Company Men, a novel which was more reminiscent of a noirish take on the anti-McCarthy work, the expansion and movement provide a place for the story to develop and grow. It could be read as a noir novel of corporate greed and guilt, where the world is for the taking. Equally it might also be seen as a science fictional take on the potential uses of a freely given uplift, in which vested interests would seek to control it for their ends, keeping it secret. The world, if unaware of its alien or supernatural elements is less bright and perhaps this is what the weird is getting towards. An acceptance of not having boundaries. By its nature in the 1920s and 1930s, the Weird tended towards the darker end of the spectrum, more towards horror and is seen as a subset of that subset of the fantastic.

If we accept that the fantastic at that time and moment was less interested in defining a quest or a journey, but in rediscovering the strange, taking direction from Lord Dunsany or Hope Mirrlees, then the Weird becomes more akin the strange and wonderful rather than being expected to evoke emotions of horror. The unease it finds is that if realising that our understanding of the world is woefully incomplete, perhaps can never be completed. The oddness of the world is a projection about our own fears, as George begins to realise when he finally settles down. Although his first novel is more powerful in expressing this with its indetermination, The Troupe finds George discovering the peace with his grey guardian after he accepts his role and changes the god game for this round. There is the uncertainty about how long it might last after his passing. Like the Brothers Grossbart in Bullington’s The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart (2009), the protagonist will slip into an alternate history or myth, splicing in and out of the real. Yet unlike the expressed fears of the 1930s drawing from fears of the war and the financial cataclysm of the Depression, Bennett and Bullington look fiercely into change and use it as their motivation.

The cataclysm which temporarily offers respite from the gathering clouds of the supernatural incursions into the mundane becomes a moment to be anticipated and even forced. Rather than passively waiting and hoping that the world will change for the better, the moment is made theirs but potentially entirely ignored but for those few who are aware of it. For most characters in Bennett’s novels, the world is entirely mundane. Those few who are aware, and become less afraid, who actively seek the moment and make it theirs before the fantastic elements settle back into their new roles rather than fleeing to the West. The Troupe is stronger than The Company Man as it captures and retains an atmosphere of fear and wonder in equal proportion. It retains a sense of potential for wonder rather than being returned to something that it is not and perhaps this is where a major the difference lies between novels using the fantastic as a tool and the fantastic novel using the mundane. In the former the world becomes closed down and its meanings removed, whereas the Weird relies on this potential.

Robert Jackson Bennett is maturing as strange author who is perhaps less abstract than Jesse Bullington and less political than China Miéville. His world does not end with the closing of the pages, it seems to have existed once and segued off into its own history.

Earlier posts on Robert Jackson Bennett

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