The twentieth century—the American Century—is ahead of schedule. In 1872, while traveling in the Pacific Northwest, an entrepreneur called William McNaughton met an eccentric fisherman named Lawrence Kulahee with a shed full of inventions: pumps and purifiers, and even what seems to be a novel kind of generator. By 1919, the McNaughton Western Foundry Company is a goliath, grown immense and powerful on the proceeds of Kulahee's devices, scaled up for commercial use. Its home base remains the site of its founding, the tiny village of Evesden which has metastasized and is sprawling outwards at a rate that outstrips Chicago in its prime, enveloping nearby settlements without a grid to tame it, a showcase of technological wonders. It is called the city of the future. But it is not evenly distributed: there are slums and shanties in the shadows of the gleaming towers, parts of the city that the miracles don't touch. And in a dark corner of one of them, on a cold day in November, a body is found.
The Company Man excels as a story of this city. To most citizens of the world of the novel, Evesden is "alien . . . somehow wedged up on the coastline, something so foreign the mind could barely grasp it" (pp. 27-8). The citizens of the world outside the novel can recognize it as something more specific: with its crowded inequality, skyscrapers and subways, it is the Great American City as it came to exist in the late twentieth century. It is an anachronism, an intrusion that has deformed the world by its presence. This is the truth the novel's cast grope towards, as their investigation of that body—and other murders that follow—takes them beneath the skin of their home. The new girl in town, Samantha Fairbanks, realizes that her plush neighborhood is a "fairy world . . . A tiny bubble of promise that would come true for only a select few" (p. 154); Donald Garvey, the honorable divorced cop, and one of the few native Evesdeners we meet, despairs at the changes he has witnessed, at his sense that "something had happened that had sent the whole world reeling" (p. 250); Cyril Hayes, the psychic McNaughton fixer who can hear the whispers of his employer's great subterranean machines, comes to understand most fully that Evesden is unsustainable, that it contains its own destruction: and we can see that it is rushing towards our doom.
The intense Tiptree-ish envisioning of humanity's self-destructive tendencies is familiar from Bennett's first novel Mr Shivers (2010). That depression-era gothic ran, as The Company Man runs at times, a little too smoothly in the grooves of its forbears, but maintained a hypnotically claustrophobic tone, and conjured a vividly apocalyptic America. By necessity and design The Company Man is a less personal, more expansive novel, but Bennett makes the most of his new elbow room. If any element of the style falters, it's the dialogue, particularly in the case of Garvey—I can't claim to be an expert in American police jargon, but between "catching bodies" and referring to himself as "murder police," Garvey occasionally sounds a little too much like he's just walked off the set of The Wire. The disparate regions and landmarks of Evesden are described in muscular, memorable terms, however, from the eerie abandoned cement monoliths of the Construct land reclamation project, "like the ruins of a primitive temple" (p. 122), to the spotlights that rake the night sky, "a forest of soft white trunks" moving in "strange waltzes" (p. 55), to McNaughton HQ itself, "the Nail," a a fat shaft with a jade steeple scraping the sky. Perhaps more important is the attention paid to the mythology of the city, the rumors about the workings of the Nail, the wild speculation about the true origins of Kulahee's gizmos, the savior stories about union leader Mickey Tazz that circulate among the city's working class. All of it gives Evesden and its inhabitants crucial texture and history, and means that when Bennett does shift back into the more horrific register familiar from Mr Shivers, the novel becomes differently effective, offering a startling flash of the strange darkness lying just beneath the streets.
Where that darkness comes from, and who it affects, become two of the novel's core questions. Increasingly it becomes figured as the regrettable but unavoidable corollary of progress, an argument made most tellingly by Evans, Hayes's boss at McNaughton:
It's difficult to think of another way this city could have been built, another way we could have made what we made. It's said by men far smarter than I that the most efficient way to organize progress is through business, to harness our own desires, and . . . and, well. I don't know what to say. There are casualties, I suppose. Effects. Like the slums. Like the unions. But tell me of a way that we could hire everyone we wanted and pay them all what they wanted and not handicap our own goals, our own dreams? I know that sounds cliched, that those are arguments you're sure to have heard before. Patronizing ones as well, arguments anyone can poke holes in. I thought so, too. But after being here and seeing what we can make, they stopped being so cliched to me. I spent all four of my years here trying to think of a way to reconcile them. I've given up. (p. 215)
Evans is no higher than middle management; he is no great thinker (and clearly a little long-winded); and he has simply given up trying to see outside the system that sustains him and that he sustains in turn, has lost the ability to imagine any plausibly better world. He is the consummate company man: made by McNaughton and making the world in turn. But the holes in his arguments don't go away just because Evans is not thinking about them. Nor do the poor and desperate created by the action of those arguments in the world.
The Company Man increasingly builds an argument about the devastation wrought by great impersonal institutions unleashed by humanity's aspirations. As Garvey notes, a job, a city, a country, even a people can't love you back: "They're just things. Things that get too big and one day they just scrape you off their back" (p. 303). It can hardly qualify as a revelation to say that the murder investigation led by Hayes becomes tied to McNaughton, albeit indirectly, but through the involvement of Evesden's struggling industrial unions the case becomes understandable as a struggle between a company whose every action is a demonstration of belief in its manifest destiny—didn't the threat of its weapons avert the German Crisis? Won't its technologies eventually enable the uplift of the poor masses from their squalor?—and a city whose people attempt to resist being ground in the gears. There are no leaders on either side, only figureheads, dead on one side and fake on the other: only lumbering, alien inhumanity.
This is our modern world as horror: but when our heroes discover the secret core of Evesden, everything changes. Suddenly we're led through a pure science fiction resolve, an affirmation that the company can be rendered obsolete, that the world can be fixed by a man with the right tools. Charitably, this is an assertion that it's not the artefacts of modernity that are the problem, but how they are used. Less charitably, and more viscerally as I read it, it's a double betrayal: at the same time a sudden revelation of an escape hatch unavailable in our world, and a wrenching shift from a story that had seemed to be about the necessity of constructing a positive common purpose to one resolved in humanity's favor by an imaginary competent company man. For me, in turning so thoroughly away from recognition, The Company Man sabotages any sense that it might be a book to last; but in the potent world-creation that has gone before, it offers some hope that Robert Jackson Bennett can write one that will.