Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Robert Jackson Bennett - The Company Man

"What is our city built of?" Samantha asked as they walked. "What's down there, in its heart?" (p. 388)

Robert Jackson Bennett's second novel, The Company Man, brings us to Evesden, a city on the edge of America at the beginning of the 20th Century that houses the industrial monolith McNaughton Corporation. The city that has changed the world. McNaughton has brought forth strange new weapons, trolleys, and airships. And that's just scratching the surface of what it may one day unveil. Mr. Hayes, a man made cursed with and brilliant by the ability to hear the thoughts of those around him, works to protect that marvelous company's secrets. It's a dangerous job, for, though McNaughton may have wrought great works and avoided horrors like the First World War, the city of Evesden is sick and teeming with the human byproduct of these titanic changes. As union men begin to die, those masses begin to move. Hayes begins the novel investigating these mounting incidents and end it investigating the city and modernity itself.

The Company Man is a novel of two successive parts, joined by a revelation and a shifting of scale, and the first of those is something I can best characterize as a kind of steampunk noir. The city of Evesden is, needless to say, filled with marvels, marvels that awe not only the man of a century back but that are still stunning to us. Bennett is not only adept at dreaming up these technologies and then fashioning them believably into the fabric of his city but also at conveying the wonder the city's newcomers (like Hayes' new assistant, Samantha) feel and the hopes its more optimistic leaders put on these devices. But that is never allowed to stand alone.

Bennett shows wonder, but he does it through a muted color spectrum, paints the impossible in all the hues of the down-beaten and the looking up. Speaking of one of the locations he visits early on, Hayes said: The future was only a mile or two away but would come no closer to places like these (p. 6). The problems with Evesden are not merely ones of distribution, however. We see greatness up close, and, for all its splendor, it is nonetheless jagged and deadly, something described in terms of unforgiving industry and the eerily supernatural: On cold days the moisture from the shore would mix with the fumes from the plants, layering the thin, winding streets in a thick fog, and as you walked along one lane you would sometimes see a factory emerging from the curl of the clouds ahead, bejeweled with harsh blue lamps and covered in endless spires, like the deck of a ghost ship drifting mere yards away (p. 26).

If descriptions like those establish Bennett's tremendous prose powers, then it must be known that his other great strength is character, and it is as much through that lense as it is through his images that Bennett establishes the city's feel. We open with Hayes and the dogged cop Garvey looking down at a corpse. From there, we do not move onto a succession of other explosions but onto the friendship between the two men. Like the great noir writers of yore, Bennett is able to write dialogue that flows fast and feels real but is rich with meaning. As Hayes and Garvey converse and afterwards, as they move apart and the story progresses, we get a sense of who each man is and how he interacts with the world and, from their similarly and likely uselessly striving and yet distinct views, a grander sense of that world.

Each of the main characters – Hayes, Garvey, and Samantha – has, somewhere within the novel's pages, a sentence or passage that lays bare their very core. Such statements could easily spoil the characters' depths, something which Bennett manages to avoid in two ways. First, he saves these revelations for near the end, once the reader has seen enough of them to reach such conclusions on their own. Then there's how these thoughts are never stated in the objective, authorial voice but are, instead, left to other characters to say after they have come to know their companions well enough. Due to that degree of distance, these statements are not cheat sheets to the characters but rather insights into them, insights insightfully tainted by the speakers' own flaws and ideals. All of this, though, is not to suggest that Bennett's characters are no more than a sentence deep; their ethos so summed up, the characters' lives do not crumble into naught but examples. Each of them is more than their drives, and we see, through their interactions with each other and their world, the man behind the plot and even almost behind the character.

It's not only our three leads that develop personalities and souls, for the city of Evesden comes to life here. Bennett imbues its districts with not only histories but atmospheres and its masses with not only patterns and moods but lives. The Company Man is neither a particularly tight novel nor a particularly fast one, but its laxness, the way Hayes and its other characters branch out and speak to more and more people as it progresses rather than honing in, proves to be one of its greatest strengths. The city of Evesden is rife with rumors, and Bennett shows us the vastness of those mumblings, of the people trying to piece together the impossible events around him, and in doing so he fills in the heart of his world with endless and often desperate speculation.

So much of Evesden is, of course, tied up with the unions, with the growing struggle against McNaughton. It becomes clear as their struggle continues that neither side truly instigated it, that these conditions were almost inevitable and that they are nonetheless unlivable. Neither side is truly looking for war. They are, instead, looking to survive in this impossible world. As the union's followers say, combining as is so often combined in this book bibilical levels of hope with the utmost desperation: We came here looking for the promised land […] We didn't find it. This place chewed us up and spat us back out. We're not looking to Mr. Tazz for a general, Mr. Hayes. Not for someone to tell us who to hurt. Least, I don't look at him like that. We just wanted someone to show us the way out of here. That ain't so much, is it?" (p. 280)

In terms of plot, The Company Man is very much noir, at least for now. Hayes is pursuing a mystery, but this is not a sanitary puzzle for him to solve. When Bennett contrasts the methods of Hayes and Garvey, it is along lines perfectly familiar to anyone who has read Dashiell Hammett's puzzle-defying work of noir, "The Tenth Clew," (collected in The Continental Op): Garvey was forever inspecting every little item and every line of dialogue, trying to arrange the murder in his mind. Harvey found people more interesting, and especially getting them to tell him what he wanted to know. Investigation was as much a con game as it was a science (p. 192).

Like a lot of Crime writing, Bennett uses plot twists. Alas, they are one of the few areas in which he is unsuccessful. None of the twists in The Company Man are bad or damaging to the narrative, but all are predictable. The fantastic rumor mill that I just discussed adds immeasurably to the book's power, but it also has the result of giving the reader just about all the answers long before the characters are ready to credit those answers. As a result, the book's middle section – in which the mystery is broadening and burgeoning into the territory of impossible revelations but won't quite get to them yet – lacks the power and drive of its opening and closing.

But then the other shoe drops, the scale shifts massively, and the book goes from a kind of stylized steampunk noir to full on, big screen Science Fiction noir. [Be warned: SPOILERS from here on out.] Throughout, characters have wondered about McNaughton's incredible technologies, speculated that they were unworldly and alien (p. 26). That they don't seem to have been built by men. Those men are correct. McNaughton's marvels have been harvested from the crashed remnants of an alien spacecraft. Now, armed with such wonders, man is on the brink of destroying himself. But that spacecraft did not come here by chance. It was sent by a star faring race that is trying to prevent new intelligences from doing just that, from growing and growing and tearing themselves to nothing. Its message, it says, is that your kind will die. […] That it will overreach, and crumble, and perish, and be forgotten. And that this will happen soon (p. 406). Now, crashed, its remnants are only aiding the apocalypse that it tried to stop.

In a lesser book, the final act would, from there, be obvious. Hayes and Garvey and Samantha would become heroes, saviors, would stop the coming destruction with a stirring speech or maybe a timely strike. But no. For all its large scale grandeur, this is still noir, and one man cannot stand against the world. As the remnants say, There is no stopping it. This is the way. It [our industry and world] is a machine grown so large, and with so much momentum that it cannot stop, only fall apart under its own force (p. 412). What can we do if we cannot save the world? We can survive, no matter the devastation. All life desires destruction, we are told. All that matters is if it survives it (p. 413). And so Hayes' ultimate role is not to be the world's protector but rather its rebuilder, the man who tries to conserve what little may be left after its annihilation. The man that, due to his gift and curse, knows more about man than any other.

The remnants of our world, though they must be saved, will not be forgiven. Often, in The Company Man's pages, characters who have done horrible things realize their sins. Often, they try to atone for them. They fail.  Will he forgive me? a pedohile asks Hayes, horrified of his sins and of God's judgment. Do you think he will forgive me? Hayes' answer? No […] No, I don't (p. 326). More cutting still is the fate of a child, twisted and warped by unearthly technologies. He was innocent. Still, There could be no return from this. No way back. Not from this (p. 432). The guilty, damned, and damming of The Company Man cannot be saved, and the world, filled with them as it is, cannot be, either. As Hayes says: I don't think there's any fixing anything. Not really. Not for long (p. 379).

There is no reason to think that the world to come will be different that, after the great nations war and destroy, man will be good. Good men like Hayes might save the world's ashes, but they will not set their course or constitute their heart. In Evesden and, no doubt, in what is to follow it, the good were forever fated to die young and die violently. Fated to change the world only in their remembrance left behind in the hearts of those who lived on. In the sinners. In those who unjustly survived the slain (p. 435).

Writing for Strange Horizons, Niall Harrison argued this shift to be where Bennett "sabotages" the heart of his own novel, turns away from the world he has created. I disagree; I think this is where he broadens that world, where he turns The Company Man from a statement about Evesden to a statement about the world, our world, and about man. It is true, of course, that this shift comes to subsume the earlier struggle with the unions, but Bennett's criticism was never, I believe, intended to encompass solely the idea of union reform. No, the unions are simply a symptom of a larger problem, of the costs of our new world and of the forces unleashed.

It's true that, by the end, the unions and the company are both juggernauts made of nothing, the one led by the ignorant, the other by the invented. But that absence of maniacal leadership shows a problem greater than that wrought by one man, a problem inherent in our world and race. By removing the easy antagonism of its opening, by pitting all of humanity against a greater threat (even if that threat is at our own hands), Bennett makes unavoidable the conclusion that there is no enemy to blame these woes on, no foe to lash back at, that this is our doing and that the solution must be ours. That this is something faced by all of us. Near the novel's end, Hayes and his superior sit in the McNaughton building, and his superior desperately tries to cling to some shred of a tie between them, something that unites them against the deadly world outside. Hayes tosses it away. As he says: I'm not company […] No one is. There's no union. No company. No city. Just people. Alone. And unwatched (p. 440).

The book ends with Hayes and Samantha standing over a piece of McNaughton machinery and activating it as they begin their quest to try and salvage what we can. The final two lines go thus:

"Yes, said Hayes."Things are going to get better."

And they sat and watched as the machine awoke (p. 454).

Viewed on their own, those lines are filled with hope. Viewed in terms of the rest of the novel, they seem to promise a future far more impossible than the most fantastic pieces of McNaughton's technology.  They are striving for the impossible, and that, I think, is The Company Man's very heart. At one point, we hear that a character was made for lost causes (p. 300). And yet he, and his fellows, continue fighting for them nonetheless, fighting against impossible and inevitable odds and never surrendering to the doomed and dooming world around them.


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  2. Nice review. I thought this book looked interesting, and found the steampunk/noir fusion to be rather appealing. I'll have to check it out!