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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Troupe - Robert Jackson Bennett

I admit, prior to reading The Troupe, I had no idea what vaudeville was all about.  I had an idea in my head, based on implied fuzzy cultural memory, but it's not something I'd ever taken a moment to actually look into.  According to the arbiter of truthiness, Wikipedia, vaudeville is:
...a theatrical genre of variety entertainment in the United States and Canada from the early 1880s until the early 1930s.  Each performance was made up of a series of separate, unrelated acts grouped together on a common bill.  Types of acts included popular and classical musicians, dancers, comedians, trained animals, magicians, female and male impersonators, acrobats, illustrated songs, jugglers, one-act plays or scenes from plays, athletes, lecturing celebrities, minstrels, and movies.
Having read The Night Circus and paged through Mechanique, two circus themed novels from 2011, I classified Bennett's novel in my mind as another entrant in this newly popularized subgenre.  Vaudville isn't the same as a circus, but I was expecting a similar type of novel where the setting is as much a character as the people that populate it.  Troupe shattered those notions.  Plot and character driven, set against a vaudville background, Bennett's novel calls to mind the stylings of Neil Gaiman and lives up to the comparison.

Sixteen-year-old pianist George Carole has joined vaudeville to find Heironomo Silenus, the man he suspects to be his father.  As he chases down Silenus's troupe, he begins to understand that their performances are unique even for vaudeville and strange happenings follow in their wake.  It's not until after he joins them that George realizes the troupe isn't simply touring, and Silenus is hiding a secret as old as time itself.  Told in a tight third person voice, Troupe follows George through his experience as a vaudeville act, a lost young man searching for direction, and a chess piece in an endless metaphysical war.  Not surprisingly, the novel is divided into three parts that roughly correspond to each of those story arcs, although none are entirely resolved until the final pages.

While I opine for more vaudeville, a place Bennett abandons far earlier in the novel than I was ready for him to, The Troupe is another tremendous success for this Shirley Jackson Award winner and Philip K. Dick Award nominated author.  His prose is consistently excellent, making great use of dialogue and description that paint a haunting picture of his vaudevillian troupe, with George often acting a cipher for their complexities.

In many ways Troupe is a difficult book to talk about.  It's a beautiful novel that resonates as a mystery, historical look-in, thriller, and family drama.  Yet all of it feels somehow understated -- spoken in hushed tones and cloaked in shadow.  All of this lends an immense amount of gravitas to the somewhat ridiculous premise of a vaudeville troupe as keepers of an existential secret.  But, like a sepia photograph manipulated in photoshop, Bennett adds his dashes of color, bringing things to the foreground for brilliant moments all the more intense for the contrasted palette behind it.

The most significant of these moments occurs when Bennett moves his tale from a supernatural thriller that asks big questions, to the intimate personal journey of George's coming of age and his relationship to his father.  A new dad himself, Bennett takes a hard look at the interactions of parent and child in an illuminating and oftentimes heart wrenching way.  As the father of a two-year old little girl, I couldn't stop the emotional response at the novel's closing moments, leaving me breathless and in awe of Bennett's ability to distill the most familiar of themes from the abstract.

Earlier in this review I compared the novel to something Neil Gaiman might write, and I believe the comparison is apt.  I saw notes of American Gods and Neverwhere throughout, in the themes of gods and men, and the hidden worlds behind the curtain of reality.  Maybe I'm wrong.  Either way, I suggest reading it to find out.  I dare a parent to finish it without a few tear stained pages.

Robert Jackson Bennett can be found Twitter and on his blog.  To find out more about The Troupe visit this very cool book website.  The Troupe comes to stores February 21.

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At January 18, 2012 at 12:21 PM , Blogger Spaz said...

I loved his THE COMPANY MAN, and am about to start MR SHIVERS. I hope to read THE TROUPE later in the year.

At January 18, 2012 at 1:11 PM , Blogger Justin said...

I definitely want to read both of those. Need to make time.


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