Kenneth Champeon

Some novels try to make you see or feel or think; others are a kind of intellectual indulgence for the author and those in the know. Ned Beauman’s new novel is one such inside joke—likely to be amusing to those who get it, exasperating to those who don’t. The person laughing loudest may indeed be Beauman himself.

Madness Is Better Than Defeat revolves around a Hollywood production of a film called Hearts in Darkness. But despite this title—and the novel’s epigram, which also alludes to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness—the film isn’t about a Colonel Kurtz, but rather about a “Coutts.” The filming takes place not in colonial Congo but at a Mayan temple in Honduras in the 1930s. This tropical locale acts as a kind of quicksand for hapless Caucasians, as the shoot transforms into a 20-year standoff that tangentially involves the CIA and their sordid work ousting leaders for American corporations.

There is none of Conrad’s brooding in the latest energetic novel by Beauman, who uses a lot of what he calls “ten-dollar words” as he mocks Conrad’s plodding, Slavic style. He assumes familiarity with Charles Dickens’ Bleak House and makes repeated nods to philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who believed reality consisted only of ideas. There’s a boat called the SS Alterity. Get it? Maybe not.

At its best, Beauman’s novel calls to mind a younger Thomas Pynchon. But an older Pynchon wrote that serious literature shows a real awareness of death. He also reflected that to start with ideas and derive characters from them was a mug’s game. Beauman’s command of the language is first-rate, and the breadth of his ideas vindicates his philosophy degree from Cambridge. But by Pynchon’s reckoning, Beauman’s cavalier attitude toward death makes him unserious. His characters are but shadows of Beauman’s thoughts.

For a novel so concerned with darkness, it’s unexpectedly lightweight.

An indulgent jungle invention

Ernest Hemingway once ventured that all American literature derives from Huckleberry Finn. By this he meant American literature elevates vernacular speech, befitting literature in a democracy. Denis Johnson’s posthumous anthology, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, is superlative proof of that.

Johnson is best known for his Vietnam War novel Tree of Smoke and short story collection Jesus’ Son. A pupil of Raymond Carver, he has garnered a reputation for the sordid and the hard-boiled. But only one story in his new collection, “The Starlight on Idaho,” might be called Carver-esque. It concerns a man in rehab and in fact is less Carver than Bukowski. It’s a no-hoper’s cri de coeur, avoiding the prevalent clichés of the rehab genre.

Johnson’s stories are that of a depleted and decadent civilization. He observes trains everywhere going off the rails. The joke of the title story, which is composed of many interlinked tales, is that modern life is distinctly lacking in largesse and sea maidens. The story “Doppelgänger, Poltergeist” is dedicated to Elvis, as the King is as close to mythology as such a society can come. Swirling speculations about Elvis’ supposed twin lost in childbirth reach a crescendo, which occurs just as the World Trade Center towers are struck and collapse.

Once a recovering addict, the late Johnson seems fixated on death and recovery. His stylistic range is certainly wondrous, straddling the starkness of “Starlight” and the hysterical realism of “Doppelgänger, Poltergeist.” Critics like B.R. Myers have found Johnson’s prose affected and artless, and one does wonder sometimes what purpose fiction serves if it doesn’t inspire. After all, even folksy Huckleberry Finn did that. But Johnson’s stories are pertinent and engaging. They hold up a mirror to society’s dregs and to that extent are flawless.

 

This article was originally published in the January 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Ernest Hemingway once ventured that all American literature derives from Huckleberry Finn. By this he meant American literature elevates vernacular speech, befitting literature in a democracy. Denis Johnson’s posthumous anthology, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, is superlative proof of that.

A new novel about Hurricane Katrina could seem like retreading ancient history. That was before Hurricane Harvey made an ocean of southeast Texas and harassed Louisiana. Before Irma smashed into the Caribbean and Florida, and Maria into Puerto Rico. All made landfall close to the 12th anniversary of Katrina, which left wounds that are still raw.

C. Morgan Babst’s debut novel draws its title from a Japanese phrase signifying ephemerality, but it doubles as a description of New Orleans after Katrina. As a fictional retelling thereof, the book has few superiors. In Babst’s phrase, Katrina was a “hate crime of municipal proportion,” referring to the racial disparity in the storm’s victims.

Reminiscent of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, The Floating World is also a meditation on kinship and family history. Like Franzen’s chaotic family, the one here is ambivalent toward their hometown. Before Katrina, the protagonist, Del, escaped to New York. After Katrina, the family patriarch sinks into assisted living. Their relations with each other and the world are stormy. One of them might have committed a murder.

The Deep South can seem fatalistic at the best of times, but the hurricane dragged this to new depths. Babst evokes Katrina’s symbology, like the Xs marking houses containing the deceased. She also revisits discussions about whether NOLA has a future in light of rising seas, to what extent the city’s devil-may-care ethos contributed to its destruction, and how the media fed off the Big Easy’s pain.

The author resists the temptation to turn her novel into a tract or advocacy—not that it lacks passion. To the contrary, the novel is very much of our irritable, harried times.

Like Harvey, Katrina was not just a storm but also a reconfiguration of a community. Babst’s novel is an invaluable record of that social devastation—and a warning of the devastations like Harvey to come.

 

This article was originally published in the November 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

C. Morgan Babst’s debut novel draws its title from a Japanese phrase signifying ephemerality, but it doubles as a description of New Orleans after Katrina. As a fictional retelling thereof, the book has few superiors. In Babst’s phrase, Katrina was a “hate crime of municipal proportion,” referring to the racial disparity in the storm’s victims.

Polls often find that most Americans believe in angels, so it’s not hard to credit that a 19th-century Irishwoman might believe in fairies. Hannah Kent’s eerie novel The Good People invites us into this superstitious milieu.

The Irishwoman is Nóra. Inaugurating the novel is the funeral of her husband, evoking Faulkner in its impoverishment and starkness. The death leaves Nóra alone to care for her grandson, Micheál. But early on, the child evinces peculiar qualities and mannerisms. Nóra takes on a maid, Mary, to help and comes to believe that the child may be a changeling, a fairy, one of the “Good People.”

The novel thus centers on Nóra’s attempts to exorcise this uncanny being. She thinks this will transform the boy into her true kin or return the spirit to its rightful domain. Her methods become increasingly extreme, and finally Nance, a folk doctor specializing in keening, suggests submersion in a river. This leads to a prosecution, and the novel closes with a rather contrived courtroom scene. “CSI: Fairies,” you might say.

These three women are the principals, but the novel also features a kindly priest skeptical of the local folklore. Kent showcases botanical language and writes in a prose that’s often delectable. Her novel is more literary than thriller; for long stretches of the novel nothing much happens. There is but one central conflict, between Nóra and Micheál, but the resolution is decisive if unsatisfying.

Meanwhile, the novel succeeds in imagining a community of violent ignorance and lassitude. As in Faulkner’s best, Kent presents us with shells of people, consumed with survival. (Two decades later, famine would ravage the Emerald Isle.) The novel’s more historical aspects are more interesting and credible than those supernatural—but when most folks believe in angels, one would not want to presume.

Polls often find that most Americans believe in angels, so it’s not hard to credit that a 19th-century Irishwoman might believe in fairies. Hannah Kent’s eerie novel The Good People invites us into this superstitious milieu.

Not long ago, it would have been fantasy that Ireland would have a gay prime minister, but the majority-Catholic country welcomed its first in 2017. The country has evolved from an often hateful hierocracy to a seat of social liberalism. Of this evolution, John Boyne’s new novel is an essential witness.

In 1945, the priesthood tears the novel’s narrator, Cyril, as an infant from his mother. A banker and his literary wife, Maude Avery, adopt him. Cyril discovers that he has no interest in girls, instead nursing a crush on his best mate, Julian. Homosexuality in Ireland being both sinful and criminal, Cyril must stay mum. But he confesses his many backroom trysts to a priest, who croaks as a result.

Like many gay men, Cyril marries out of convention, but not before professing his love to Julian. This goes over like a lead balloon, so Cyril finds himself in Amsterdam in Conradian exile. Dutch mores are more amenable; Cyril meets the love of his life. But even Holland has its hostilities. So the pair ends up in New York City at the height of the AIDS crisis. There Cyril becomes a volunteer in an AIDS clinic, and he and his partner adopt a son after a fashion. Normalcy is within reach before a homophobe assaults the pair in Central Park.

These are Furies on the visible spectrum. They pursue Cyril back to Ireland, where signs of a thaw are already evident. (Cyril is even propositioned by a bisexual pol aspiring to become prime minister.) Cyril reconciles with the ghosts of his past, including his estranged wife and biological mother.

More than a coming-of-age story, The Heart’s Invisible Furies is one man’s journey from persecution to toleration. Punctuated with simple dialogue, its nearly 600 pages betray Maude’s dictum that “brevity is the key.” But the novel seldom lags and often delights.

 

This article was originally published in the September 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Not long ago, it would have been fantasy that Ireland would have a gay prime minister, but the majority-Catholic country welcomed its first in 2017. The country has evolved from an often hateful hierocracy to a seat of social liberalism. Of this evolution, John Boyne’s new novel is an essential witness.

Indian civilization produced the Kama Sutra and sculpture of unsurpassed lasciviousness, yet its Bollywood films spare no artifice to prevent its leads from kissing. Some Indians will tell you the British made them into prudes. Others blame Islam. These tensions and the hypocrisies they entail inform Balli Kaur Jaswal’s entertaining novel.

Its main character, Nikki, is a young Punjabi woman living in London. When her sister announces her intention to have an arranged marriage, Nikki posts her sister’s advert at the local Sikh community center. There she stumbles into teaching a class in English to the aforementioned widows. But the women end up composing erotica, much of it told in full. In this the novel resembles the Decameron of Boccaccio, if one wishes to be charitable. But the widows’ stories are even more provocative.

Needless to say, word gets out. Among those alarmed is a group called the Brotherhood. Suggestive of the Muslim Brotherhood, they are in practice more like the Taliban. They harass women who go about with heads uncovered. But despite these intimidations, as well as mild alarm from the woman who first hired her, Nikki falls under the spell of the widows’ titillating yarns. Meanwhile, Nikki has her own love interest and even gets entangled in a mystery involving a newlywed presumed to have burned herself to death.

As for the author, Jaswal seems well past caring whether her novel will give offense. The tone throughout is one of impish glee, and the erotica is convincing despite its humorous frame. At times the novel screams chick lit, but the cultural milieu adds a new twist on the Bridget Jones subgenre.

It also lays waste to many a cherished stereotype. Readers will never think of Punjabi widows quite the same way. They may be more Kama Sutra than Bollywood.

Indian civilization produced the Kama Sutra and sculpture of unsurpassed lasciviousness, yet its Bollywood films spare no artifice to prevent its leads from kissing. Some Indians will tell you the British made them into prudes. Others blame Islam. These tensions and the hypocrisies they entail inform Balli Kaur Jaswal’s entertaining novel.

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