The Company Man
Robert Jackson Bennett
Orbit paperback £7.99
review by David Hebblethwaite
Robert Jackson Bennett produced one of the fantasy debuts of 2010 in Mr Shivers.
His follow-up is a larger story, in more than one sense, and showcases his distinctive imagination once again; but it doesn't quite achieve the
intensity and unity of vision which made the earlier book so great.
The Company Man takes us to 1919 in a world which has been transformed (and hence dominated by) the extraordinary technology of the McNaughton
Corporation. The firm's headquarters are in Evesden, which has grown from the tiny fishing settlement where William McNaughton first found the eccentric
inventor Lawrence Kulahee and his marvellous machines, into the world's foremost city. It's there that a series of strange deaths cause detective
Donald Garvey to call on his friend Cyril Hayes, a McNaughton trouble-shooter with telepathic abilities, to investigate. But the company are concerned
that Hayes may be turning into a loose cannon, and provide him with an assistant, Samantha Henderson. What the two of them will ultimately discover
is a whole lot more than just the identity of a murderer.
Bennett has a down-to-earth way of approaching the fantastic which, at its best, is nicely refreshing. Hayes may be telepathic, but he's no superhero
and his ability is not presented as something that seems like a 'power' - if he's in physical proximity to someone, Hayes can start to gain a sense
of their thoughts, and the more time he has, the more detailed that sense becomes. His telepathy is nothing flashy, just a skill to be put to work
like any other. Similarly, when the great secret behind McNaughton's tech is revealed towards the end, the explanation may not be unfamiliar in itself
- you might even be able to guess - but the way Bennett handles it makes it feel different, because it's so firmly embedded in the idiom of the novel.
But that same idiom - a cool, noir-like tone - does not always serve The Company Man so well. When Bennett is describing the fantastic sights
of Evesden, there is a sense of detachment (not necessarily intentional, but there all the same) which tends to get in the way. The characters in
general are quite distant, something emphasised by Bennett's technique of referring to most of the characters by their last names; this distancing
is fine for creating the noir atmosphere, but less so in terms of bringing the characters to life. There's a subtext in the novel about what Hayes'
service to McNaughton has done to him as a person, and how the city of Evesden "makes [people] forget what makes them them" (page 238); but I don't
find it very thoroughly worked out, especially not in comparison with the analogous aspects of Mr Shivers.
As The Company Man draws to a close, however, it really takes flight; Bennett's imagination and vision are in full flow. The journey may have
its ups and downs, but the destination makes it all worth while.