Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics' verdict on Philip Pullman, Hilary Spurling and James Kelman.

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ
by Philip Pullman

For Archbishop Rowan Williams in the Guardian, this book is a "very bold and deliberately outrageous fable" that represents "Pullman at his very impressive best, limpid and economical, though one or two passages feel like easy point-scoring -- the annunciation story told as a seduction, or the mechanics of a fraudulent resurrection".

Nick Rennison in the Sunday Times finds that Pullman "traces the familiar journey towards the cross and makes it fresh", and that his "retelling of the central story in western civilisation provides a brilliant new interpretation that is also a thought-provoking reflection on the process of how stories come into existence and accrue their meanings".

Salley Vickers in the Telegraph declares that "Pullman has done the story a service by reminding us of its extraordinary power to provoke and disturb", while Richard Holloway in the Observer describes the book as "powerful", and agrees with the other critics that the book has hints of Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov.

Burying the Bones: Pearl Buck's Life in China
by Hilary Spurling

In the Guardian, Isabel Hilton enthuses: "Hilary Spurling has written an elegant and sympathetic portrait of one of the most extraordinary Americans of the 20th century." Pearl Buck was a woman who did an "immense service . . . in presenting Chinese people as sentient human beings, individuals even, to the American reading public". For Hilton, Spurling's biography is "illuminating and compelling", and gives the impression "that Pearl Buck had the last laugh".

To Claudia FitzHerbert in the Telegraph, "Spurling describes a writer who delivers both halves of the injunction to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar". Moreover, Spurling "examines the meaning of this divided inheritance, where home is always elsewhere and familiarity replaces belonging".

Frances Wilson in the Sunday Times writes that "what interests Spurling is the source of her subject's 'magic power' as a writer", and how she could "tap directly into currents of memory and dream secreted deep within the popular imagination". She concludes that Spurling "has never written a dull sentence" and that she, too, "has magic power as a writer".

If It Is Your Life by James Kelman

Mike Wade in the Times writes of James Kelman and his new collection of short stories: "For readers accustomed to thinking of him as a dour writer, the happy surprises here are the love stories, recounted by Kelman's male narrators as they try to make sense of the women in their lives."

He decides that Kelman is "rescued by his black humour", which owes something to "the verbal comedy of Flann O'Brien", and concludes: "It is certainly never difficult to distinguish between this Scotsman and a ray of sunshine. But If It Is Your Life is a fine collection and an excellent window on Kelman's brooding world."

Anthony Cummins in the Telegraph is similarly impressed: "Kelman takes us inside his characters' heads, replicating the rhythm and tics of Glasgow talk by means of a demanding, highly crafted prose style that flits between thought and speech." He concludes: "Certain pieces are as good as anything Kelman has done . . . Like Kelman's best work, it is tender and funny in a way that may surprise those who know him only by reputation."

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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