Release Date: 20130512
Publisher: Orbit Books
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. Having read Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus and paged through Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti by Genevieve Valentine, 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. The 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, The 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. Continue reading
There was a moment the other day when I saw a famous author on twitter point out to everyone that they were not their characters. “If I was,” they said, “we’d all be in danger.” This was a joke, of course – the suggestion was that since a fair share of their characters were murderers or psychotics, then the author could not be them, as the author is not, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, a murderer or a psychotic.
This joke highlights one of the fun, fuzzy, gray areas in writing relationships – where do characters come from? How do writers make them up? Or do they make them up at all?
Characters aren’t precisely “made up,” I don’t think. When we think of fictional characters, we imagine them as just sort of popping into space – they do not exist, and then the writer thinks of them, and suddenly they’re there. Something from nothing, in essence.
But it’s not from nothing. People think writers work with no raw material at all, but they actually do – they work with themselves.
Imagine a writer as a huge, swirling, dripping ball of knowledge, memory, and experience. The ball is so big it’s impossible to hold in your hands, or even to get your arms around – after all, we’re talking about years and years of conscious and subconscious impressions, connotations, associations, all kinds of messy intangibles. And you can’t funnel that into any one character – the ball is just too big and unwieldy for anyone to make a copy of it.
So what does a writer do? They pull off a chunk, like a piece of clay. Then they take that chunk and massage it, and maybe add more chunks from the main ball if they think it’s necessary, and they sculpt it and shape it and adjust it until it has the semblance of a real person – the sculpted chunk’s got emotions, experience, agency, prejudices, goals, all that kind of fun crap.
Probably one of the first circus- or carnival-themed stories I ever read and fell in love with was Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. I was quite young, and I remember I loved it because it felt like it could happen to me in real life at any moment: I would be walking home from school one chilly autumn afternoon, and I would see a poster taped to a wall promising a traveling show of amazing wonders, and I would attend, and… Something Amazing Would Happen.
I wouldn’t know what, exactly – it would be impossible to know, because all of that would be kept veiled behind the curtain until I’d paid my fee and taken my seat. But finally the lights would go down, and then…
That’s how these things work. We all know it. It’s a story model that’s written into our bones. It doesn’t have to be a circus, or a carnival, or even a show – consider the Faerie Market from Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, when visitors from the other side of the wall flood the town offering mysterious goods and wares. One young man buys something… and Something Amazing Happens.