Friday, 3 February 2012

Quoth the Scotsman | Robert Jackson Bennett on Ending, Or Else

A couple of caveats to bear in mind before we start. Unless otherwise indicated, none of the quotes quoted in the following post are representative of the beliefs of the person in question quoted nor those of the person quoting the person in question. Additionally, any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.

That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

In short, Quoth the Scotsman is just a space here on TSS for me to post neat quotes as and when I come across them. Simple. As. That.

I've been reading The Troupe by Robert Jackson Bennett, whose incredible debut Mr Shivers only narrowly missed out on taking the top spot in The Best Books category of Top of the Scots 2010, way back when.

I mean, sure. Some other people liked it too. Little bitty blogs like Locus and Publisher's Weekly, you know... on occasion they went on about Mr Shivers as well, and its successor - last year's The Company Man - which has had pride of place on my tower of books To Be Read for a whole year now. Shame on me for allowing it to flounder for so long.

In any case, I aim to finish The Troupe over the weekend, and write up my review of it just as soon as I find the time to, so I don't want to say too much about the thing in advance of that. But before I nodded off last night I came across the following passage, and given how much I've talked about The End here on TSS - see here and there and everywhere - I couldn't very well not share it.

Now the conversation excerpted below occurs roughly halfway through Bennett's book, but the spoiler-shy amongst us needn't fear: it's an anecdote the leader of the titular troupe relates to our protagonist, George, and as such it has little bearing, if any, on the novel's actual narrative.

So, without any further ado:

"Let me tell you a story, kid," he said. "This took place a long, long time ago, in England of all places, before I ever joined up with this troupe or even knew it existed. I was in a bad spot, did a few stupid things, and I found myself tossed in the clink with the likely punishment of deportation awaiting me. Now, I thought I had it rough, but my cellmate had it even worse. He was a skinny little Irishman, name of Michael Feenan, and he was meant for the gallows, to dance from the hemp until he'd shed his mortal coil and what have you. Unlike a lot of folk in the clink, he didn't claim innocence. He said he'd done what he'd done - that being knifing a fella in a gin house - and he knew it was worth nothing to protest it, since we was all English bastards and we'd hang him no matter, you see. Which, you know, might've been true.

"Now, Feenan was set to dance a week from when I was thrown in his cell, but he was already in a bad state - when they'd arrested him he'd gotten a serious beating, and his right leg was broke in a couple of places. His shin and ankle were as swolled up and purple as a fucking plum, let me tell you. He could hardly sit up, it pained him so much. So when his time came, the guards were going to have to drag him up the scaffold steps like a cripple. But Feenan, he had different plans.

"He had his wife smuggle in some rope and some pieces of timber, and for that entire week he kept trying to make a brace for his leg. It was some of the most painful stuff I ever saw. Can you imagine what that's like, some yuck who knows nothing about anatomy strapping a brace around his own swollen, broken leg?  And then he'd try and walk on it on all things, testing it out. And nearly each time he'd fall. But Feenan never cried, or wept, or cursed. He'd just pull himself up, rearrange some of the brace, and try again.

"Finally on the day before his drop I asked him what he was doing. I mean, he was dead anyway, so why go to all this trouble? Why does the way a man walks to the scaffold matter? And he said, 'The walk to the scaffold is the last walk I'll ever get, Willie. [...] And after that, it's naught but the drop. And when the walk is all that's left, it matters.'

"So when his day came they took him out and let him walk by himself. I got to watch from the window of my cell. He stumbled only three times. And each time he picked himself up, rearranged himself until he was as dignified-looking as could be, and kept walking. Even though his leg pained him and his very body was a burden, he kept walking, right up until he was hanged. He was hanged on this very beam, in fact," said Silenus, and he tapped the warped piece of black wood. "Probably the best death it'd ever seen."

He lit a cigar. "The way things end matter, George," he said. "They matter more than the ending, or even where we're going to." (pp.218-9)

Which is certainly an interesting way to think about things.

I mean, I don't know that I agree with the sentiment Silenus expresses above entirely... but there's certainly something to it. Food for thought, methinks.

The Troupe came out yesterday in the UK, and it isn't giving the game away to say that you should very probably buy a copy if you can. Meanwhile I've been reliably informed that The Troupe will be published in the US on the 21st of this month, so save the date! :)

Failing that, do hang about for the full review in the not-too-distant. I make no promises, but there may even be cake!


  1. It's not out til the 21st here in the states. But, I've read it and it's really tremendous. That passage you quoted stuck with me also.

    There's a few of those "moments" in the book, keep reading.

  2. Thanks Justin -- have updated the post with the actual American release date, instead of the one I'd evidently invented.

    Looking forward to a few more of those moments!

  3. Oh, and I hate you guys for getting books before us.

  4. Oh man. I loved Mr Shivers. There's something about Robert's style that just does it for me. I'm in one of those rare patches between projects where I'm able to sit all day reading a book - thanks for reminding me that Company Man is on my tbr!

  5. The Company Man is a killer! Bennett is one of a kind.

  6. So I've officially finished The Troupe now, and I think the thing to do - before I start in on the review - is to read The Company Man... right now.

    For the very moment, I'll just say that The Troupe ends incredibly, so to those having trouble with the early parts of the book, as I did, be assured: it finishes far better than it starts.

  7. Just read your Tor review. Interestingly, I didn't find myself all that bogged down in the early going. Your comments about agency are right on though.

    I think I was enjoying the look at vaudeville. In fact, I almost wished for a little more of historical vaudeville context -- especially when he ties back to some of it later with his "Persian" dancer and the barriers to entry in the business.