Taking aim at Sarah

It’s been a tough time for wise-cracking American talk-show hosts of late. Letterman, Leno and Stewart have found Obama just a little too perfect to make the butt of their jokes and their lines about McCain’s age were getting a little, well, old. But then along came Sarah, the answer to their prayers. They’ve been taking aim at her lack of experience, her image and of course her gun-love. "Another vice president who's a hunter” remarked Jay Leno. "What could go wrong there?"

With rumours of Sarah Palin having an affair appearing in the National Enquirer (who turned out to be right about John Edwards's indiscretions after all), it looks like Sarah will keep setting them up and the comics knocking them down until election day.

Coping with a leak

Now to hissy fit news. In a move that will only affect those who know the names of the Jonas Brothers, author Stephenie Meyer is threatening not to finish the final part of her Twilight book series (a sort of teenage romance with vampires) after an early draft was leaked online. "I feel too sad about what has happened to continue working on Midnight Sun, and so it is on hold indefinitely”, sobbed Meyer. “This has been a very upsetting experience for me, but I hope it will at least leave my fans with a better understanding of copyright and the importance of artistic control." We can but hope, Stephenie.

Elsewhere, Metallica are coping rather better with internet leaks after their new album, Death Magnetic, appeared online this week, ahead of its official release on 12th September. "If this thing leaks all over the world today or tomorrow, happy days", said Lars Ulrich. "It's 2008 and it's part of how it is these days." Whether their management will be quite as philosophical is questionable. Earlier this summer a playback of Death Magnetic was organised for a variety of music magazines. Thequietus.com turned up and wrote a fond review, only to face irate phone calls from the band's management demanding it be taken offline. At which point Metallica themselves got involved, and expressed surprise at their management’s decision: "WHY?!!! Why take down mostly positive reviews of the new material and prevent people from getting psyched about the next record. . . that makes no sense to us!"

No joy for lesbian horses

Finally, the wait is over. The Diagram of Diagrams has been announced. The Diagram Prize is the prize for the oddest book title, now celebrating its 30th birthday with a competition for the best of the worst. Despite tough competition from How To Avoid Huge Ships and People Who Don’t Know They’re Dead, the public has chosen a winner: Greek Rural Postmen and Their Cancellation Numbers. Commiserations to the Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories.

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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