You wouldn’t know it to look at him, but Robert Jackson Bennett has been on a lot of stages.
The tall, quiet 27-year-old, who just won a 2012 Edgar Award for his second novel The Company Man, spent much of his childhood in Katy, Texas, performing on the viola before an audience. Bennett claims that he, like a lot of kids who perform at an early age, was intolerably arrogant. Speaking to CultureMap about his latest novel, a coming-of-age tale called The Troupe, he deadpans, “Part of the fun of writing [the teenage protagonist] was getting to punch 16-year-old me in the face.”
The fictional George is also a talented young musician, a piano prodigy in fact, and vaudeville provides the delightfully garish setting in which his coming-of-age tale unfolds. The Troupe, which combines elements of science fiction, young adult, fantasy, horror and mystery, is not easy to pigeonhole, but then all of Bennett's books sample freely from different genres. Perhaps this explains how The Company Man, which Bennett called "just a science-fiction book," ended up winning a prestigious award granted by the Mystery Writers of America.
“There’s a line about how when you start painting, you have a thousand bad paintings in you — so just get them all out at once. And that's pretty much true about writing.”
“I was really surprised. I showed up thinking that I would air out my tuxedo and get fed and drink some glasses of wine and clap for some famous people and go home.” Instead, he took home an Edgar and met one of his childhood heroes, Neil Gaiman — who actually knew who he was.
From reading Gaiman at 10 to shaking his hand at 27, Bennett’s writing career looks something like a blur to the outside observer. He began writing seriously soon after graduating from the University of Texas, producing three unpublished novels fresh out of college.
“There’s a line about how when you start painting, you have a thousand bad paintings in you — so just get them all out at once. And that's pretty much true about writing.” Bennett's first published novel, Mr. Shivers, won him significant praise in 2010.
The young protagonist of The Troupe, Bennett's third published novel, sets out in search of mysterious showman Hieronymus Silenus and his vaudeville troupe, notorious for performing strange and beautiful shows that, curiously enough, no one can remember afterward. Once George joins the Silenus troupe, however, he finds that beneath the greasepaint and theatrics lies a turbulent struggle between good and evil in which he is destined to play a key part. The book is largely concerned with his frustrating attempts to understand the world he has been thrust into.
“It's a story about the process of growing up,” Bennett explains. “A lot of the fantasy stuff that happens in the book is never really explained to him. It just kind of happens in the background, and it’s something that he glimpses from the periphery. When you're a kid, that's how it feels.”
For Bennett, the book is about trying to understand the artistic process; and the troupe’s constant performances, from week to week and town to town, seem in a strange way to reflect Bennett’s own impressive pace as a novelist. As he puts it: “All fiction is a show.”
But in The Troupe, the “show” turns out to be vital for understanding, not just creation, but capital-C "Creation." As Bennett puts it, “The big centerpiece, the piece of art that you're trying to understand, is the world itself.” George, caught up in his efforts to understand his father, the other eccentric members of the troupe, and the shaping forces of the world itself, must learn the essential lesson of growing up: “There are some things that you just aren't understanding, that you can't understand. And try to make peace with that.”
The grotesqueries of the vaudeville world, its bizarre characters and magical intrigues, keep the novel from getting bogged down in pontifications.
These metaphysical explorations sometimes seem like a lot of weight to bear for an essentially light and often funny novel. However, the grotesqueries of the vaudeville world, its bizarre characters and magical intrigues, keep the novel from getting bogged down in pontifications. The book’s own performance gets faster and more frenetic toward the end, like a merry-go-round spinning off its axis, and its grandiose climax feels earned, if a bit overwhelming.
Having already explored a multitude of genres, what's left for Bennett to try?
“My fourth book American Elsewhere, forthcoming from Orbit Books in 2013] has a female protagonist. And I’d like to write more characters that are people of color, both because I feel like they don't get written about much and also because it would be interesting to try. . . And one of the things that I'm looking at trying, and maybe they'll pick this up, maybe they won't, is writing a wholly invented world. I haven't ever really done that. All my books are based in America, and so I think that that would be a pretty jarring break.”
It seems likely that all of these things will happen, and probably in short order. “I've been told that my pace is insane,” Bennett said, adding that with a one-year-old child and a more demanding job, that pace is getting harder to maintain. Still, when asked to sign a copy of The Troupe with some writerly advice, he came up with his answer pretty quickly: “The key is coffee, and an unhealthy level of obsession.”