Busting a skank

A twenty tonne lion has provoked heated debate in Scotland and prompted the resignation of the curator Richard Calvocoressi. Created by Ronald Rae, the benign granite sculpture has charmed visitors in Holyrood Park (opposite the Scottish parliament) since it was first exhibited there two years ago. However, when Rae offered the lion to the Scottish parliament’s unique art collection his gift was refused. Calvocoressi, who at the time was a key figure of the Scottish Parliament's Art Advisory body, suggested that the lion (valued at £120,000) would devalue the collection as a whole, as its "rustic folk-art qualities" were at odds with the collection's ideals. Calvocoressi, who had been a member of the advisory body since 2005, suggested that the lion would be more at home in a business park than in front of the parliament buildings. The curator, who is head of the Henry Moore Foundation was disappointed to find his advice countered by public support for the lion - 2000 people signed a petition in favour of the beast and a number of MSPs backed Rae’s renewed offer to loan the lion on a temporary contract. Writing in the Observer last week Calvocoressicommented that the decision to allow the lion to reside in Holyrood park for three more years is sadly representative of the power of the Parliamentary Corporate Body’s desire to satisfy public demand. He expressed his dismay that his expertise was disregarded, ruefully commenting that “when it comes to art, everyone is suddenly an expert.” Ronald Rae, who has a number of other exhibits in Holyrood Park, defended his work, stating: "Richard Calvocoressi is an arrogant prick and his curatorial skills are crap . . . the public had spoken."

"Big Boi" from

OutKast has been busting a skank in the world of dance this week. The rapper’s new venture, Big, is currently being performed with artists from Atlanta Ballet. The performance, a multimedia extravaganza featuring local school children and videos, will incorporate OutKast tracks and an unreleased hip hop number titled "Sir Lucious Left Foot Saves the Day". Working in collaboration with choreographer Lauri Stallings, "Big Boi" (also known as Antwan Patton) agreed to the work in the hope that it would broaden hip hop’s boundaries. Showing admirable open-mindedness and dedication to the cause, the star commented “I’m down to try anything once.” The marriage of hip hop and ballet is not the only unusual pairing to surface this week. The ENO has announced that they have appointed the Iranian film director Abbas Kiarostami to direct a production of Mozart’s comic opera Cosi fan Tutte in 2009. Kiarostami, best known for Through the Olive Trees and Taste of Cherry is one of a sequence o f film directorswho have turned their talents to opera. Critics have greeted the trend with mixed reactions.However the late Anthony Minghella directed an ENO production of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly with great success in 2005. It is scheduled to be revived as a tribute to him next year.

Other arts news: Brigitte Bardot also courted controversy this week, when she was prosecuted after reportedly inciting racial hatred in a letter. The 73 year-old actress, who is now a passionate animal rights activist, wrote to the French government in 2006, criticizing the Muslim practise of slaughtering sheep without stunning them first. In a letter circulated to the Brigitte Bardot Foundation she wrote “We're fed up with being led by the nose by this population that is destroying us, destroying our country by imposing its acts." A campaign of a more palatable kind was also launched this week in conjuction with the Teenage Cancer Trust: an orchestra of instruments constructed out of parts of Ford cars is going on tour support the charity. A track featuring Genesis guitarist Mike Rutherford playing the "clutch guitar" is available online.

Getty
Show Hide image

Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear