I’ve been a Ned Beauman fan ever since I read his debut, Boxer, Beetle, in 2011. Born in 1985, the Londoner is now the author of four novels and was named one of Granta’s 20 best British novelists under the age of 40. His books are madcap and complex; three out of four have historical settings (all broadly in the World War II era), but this is definitely not historical fiction as we know it. If I tell you that some common elements in his work are Nazis, pharmaceuticals and gay sex, and that his first two books reminded me most of Nick Harkaway, you’ll get some idea of the niche he’s working in.
Madness Is Better than Defeat takes its title from a line in Orson Welles’s never-filmed screenplay of Heart of Darkness. We open in 1959 with Zonulet, a 43-year-old alcoholic CIA officer, writing a tell-all memoir about what happened when two parties set out to find a Mayan temple in Honduras in 1938. Sadistic business magnate Elias Coehorn, Sr. sent his feckless son, Elias Jr., to dismantle the temple and bring it back to New York City, while Arnold Spindler, chairman of Kingdom Pictures, tasked Jervis Whelt with directing a movie on location at the temple: Hearts in Darkness, a comedy about a spoiled society boy who’s sent on an archaeological dig to a Mayan temple and opens a nightclub when he gets there.
The scene is set for a clash of cultures: the New York faction bent on destruction versus the Los Angeles crew intent on creation. They’re joined by Joan Burlingame, a stuffy Cambridge anthropologist, and Leland Trimble, a gossip journalist who was formerly Zonulet’s colleague at the New York Evening Mirror. To start with the screwball plot is uncannily similar to that of Hearts in Darkness itself, and it seems the stalemate between the two groups will be mined purely for comic potential. But as the years pass and the deadlock continues, this becomes more of a psychological study of a community in isolation, rather like The Lord of the Flies or T.C. Boyle’s The Terranauts.
Alliances are formed and broken based on blackmail over the characters’ past and present indiscretions; routines and workarounds are developed (though an attempt to recreate Bloody Marys and Eggs Benedict fails); soon a whole new generation is being raised with little knowledge of what’s happened outside this jungle for more than a decade; all they have to go on is false information about the outcome of World War II conveyed by an ex-Nazi.
They spoke in American accents and they had all been taught a sort of eschatology in which they would one day return with their parents to Hollywood or New York. But they belonged to the rainforest and to the temple. And the geometry of the latter … was so primal to them that any talk of disassembly or reassembly struck them as abstract, almost paradoxical.
One of the hardest things to believe about the story line – so you’ll simply have to suspend your disbelief – is that no one was overly concerned when these two groups failed to reappear after assignments that were meant to last only a matter of weeks. Not until Zonulet gets to Honduras in 1956 to learn more about a secret CIA guerrilla training camp in the area is there sustained interest in what became of these exiled Americans, and it’s another two years before their jungle idyll comes to an explosive end.
What we have here is a twist on the Mummy’s Curse trope, with the temple causing many to lose their minds or their lives. I wish the novel could have retained its initial screwball charm without going quite so dark and strange, but that’s Beauman for you. I also thought that this was a good 100–150 pages too long, with many more secondary characters, subplots and asides than necessary. Ironically, even after nearly 500 pages, its conclusion left me wondering about some loose ends. But the writing is consistently amusing, particularly the voices captured in letters or diaries and the wacky metaphors:
- “The sky in the west was mixing an Old-Fashioned”
- “All her blood had thickened in her head like the last of the catsup”
- “They were so slathered in mulch that their two bodies together might have been some octopod newly burped from a mudpot.”
- “To describe the truck as temperamental would have been condescending; rather, I had the impression it had been earnestly wrestling with a deep crisis of personal faith about the very principle of internal combustion as a motive power.”
If you’re new to Ned Beauman, I’d suggest starting with The Teleportation Accident, my favorite of his novels. From there you could move on to Boxer, Beetle or Glow; this one can wait until you’re a confirmed admirer.
Madness Is Better than Defeat is published in the UK today, August 24th, by Sceptre and will be available in the USA in February. With thanks to Ruby Mitchell for the free review copy.