February 13, 2018

Madness Is Better Than Defeat

By Ned Beauman
An indulgent jungle invention
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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.

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