Alas! I come to this book through backtracking through Bennett’s bibliography, first starting with City of Stairs (review) and following with American Elsewhere (review). I mostly fell in love with his writing and sense of place, and while The Troupe has ingredients of those, it lacks the nuances of the other two as well as the sheer inventiveness of Stairs.
Clearly not destined to be my favorite of his works, I kept hearing echoes of the young adult classic, A Wrinkle in Time, the ballad of Tam Lin and–hush, now–the Piers Anthony Incarnations of Immortality about Nature, Being a Green Mother. I suppose that’s a clue that I’m old: when everything reminds me of something else. But one that’s one of the benefits of being old as well; the ability to recognize the conceptual lineage of a work and its place within the cultural field.
George Carole is a sixteen year-old piano prodigy who has been making his living playing for vaudeville shows. He’s not just earning a living; he’s seeking the leader of a vaudeville troupe, Silenus, who he suspects is his father. The troupe he travels with is known nationwide, composed of four unusual acts including a puppeteer, a dancer-singer, a strongwoman, and a remarkable musical chorus act that no one can exactly remember. When George goes backstage after witnessing their performance, he has an opportunity to warn them about some suspicious men in gray who are following the troupe as well. A narrow escape results in George’s accompanying the troupe. From there, George works to integrate his talent, learns–but only a little–about each of the performers, and struggles with telling Silenus his secret. Silenus is on his own mission: to discover portions of the First Song, the song that called the world into creation, and is willing to put his troupe into danger to recover pieces of it.
The writing is exacting, but not magical. It lacks the playfulness in both language and ideas evident in Stairs (see my review for examples). At times, it starts to hit that magic, chiefly in scenes that lend themselves to fantastical description: “With the perverse, determined steadiness of a crab molting from its shell, the shadow produced the image of a man in a gray coat and black bowler, and then it seemed to somehow fold up inside him once it was done” and I can hear the same writer that enchanted me in Stairs. For the most part, however, we are inside George’s head, and although George ends up in some marvelous places, he’s largely preoccupied with his own needs, demonstrating little curiosity and introspection about what occurs there. Sadly, it ends up hamstringing Bennett’s ability to evoke the wonder in those situations.
Characterization is perhaps one of best aspects of the book, depending on one’s tolerance for immature youth and arrogant, autocratic men.
“George gave her the sort of impatient look that can only be given by the very young to the very old…“
About a third of the way through The Troupe, I started remembering Charles Wallace from A Wrinkle in Time. Mind you, though I long considered it a fabulous book, Charles Wallace was one of my least favorite people in it, so it’s not a comparison to be desired. Prodigy, fatherless, lacking compassion yet blessed with insight; both Charles and George are emotionally young and make plentiful mistakes. Given the time period and his financial independence, George is almost painfully young, and reminds me of a pre-adolescent, not a teen. As a character, George seems more suitable for a young adult book. The other members of the troupe provide some much-needed relief from those two, but again, they only shine as George relates to them, except the Puppeteer.
Judging by the four and five-star reviews I’ve seen, this book resonates for many people. There’s some character twists near the end that I appreciated, particularly about the troupe. The opposing forces were interesting and villainous in different, although largely predictable, ways. Which essentially sums up my reaction: interesting but predictable.
For me, The Troupe doesn’t have enough inventiveness to move it above a ‘liked it’ reaction. Perhaps I’m unfairly comparing it to Bennett’s later works. At least I wasn’t drawn in by the marketing, which states “Vaudeville: Mad, mercenary, dreamy, and absurd. A world of clashing cultures and ferocious showmanship and wickedly delightful deceptions.” I get the feeling that the blurb-writer didn’t read this one at all. I’d say it’s the opposite, and not about vaudeville at all, but about dual narcissistic quests through unusual setting: George’s search for a father and Silenus’ quest to own a song. It isn’t a culture clash at all, but a metaphysical journey, and while Silenus employs deception to achieve his ends, I wouldn’t rate any of it ‘wickedly delightful’ scale. A further note for horror fans: I’d also say marketing was deceptive there as well. One horror-like vinette about the puppets, otherwise the horror is on the scale of Grimm’s fairy tales. Certainly read The Troupe if reviews sound appealing, but don’t be misled by the book description.