Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics' verdict on Naomi Alderman, Mick Jackson and Bert Trautmann.

The Lessons by Naomi Alderman

For Alice Fisher in the Guardian, the second novel from Naomi Alderman is "sturdily plotted and hooks you in: it's a good read if not unique". Its plot is reminiscent of Brideshead Revisited, The Line of Beauty or The Secret History, while "if you've read all three you'll find it impossible to read The Lessons without attributing each story development to one of these predecessors". However, "Alderman evokes the shock of the fresh start at university well", and "she's particularly good at describing the arcana and intensity of Oxford life." Amanda Craig in the Independent argues that "Nothing could be more different, superficially, from Alderman's prize-winning debut, Disobedience", and warns that "at times the novel becomes brittle to the point of self-parody, and The Lessons will certainly annoy many who are automatically hostile to Oxbridge and elitism". However, "Alderman's sharpness of observation punctures the parties, sex, drugs, eccentrics and conversation while never quite descending into satire", and she concludes that "this is a second novel from a young writer of huge talent, ambition and energy and, despite falling into an over-familiar genre, it is a pleasure to read." Damian Barr in the Independent on Sunday looks beyond Waugh's influence: "Alderman's book goes far beyond the Brideshead she carefully evokes. For a start, her Mark is ferally and unashamedly gay - lustily cruising fellow students and fusty academics", and "Whereas Brideshead is basically the story of Charles and Sebastian, The Lessons deals with the complex web of relationships spun between all the people under Mark's influence." But "Oxford is the biggest character in The Lessons, and the city, so inextricably bound with the university, is the harshest teacher."

The Lessons will be reviewed in the next issue of the New Statesman.

 

The Widow's Tale by Mick Jackson

Mick Jackson's third novel is "is tightly packed with explosive emotion", writes Hilary Mantel in theGuardian; however, she finds the central character to be "a stereotype", which is unfortunate because "the book's success as a novel stands or falls by whether the widow convinces us, whether we are motivated to stick close and see her through ... All her opinions are weekend-supplement truisms, and her voice itself is uneven". Mantel's concludes that "Jackson has thought deeply about bereavement, and it seems shabby to dispraise a book so acutely observed", but "you need to pay your dues to fiction's form as well as its content." Of the eponymous widow Lucy Daniel in the Telegraph writes that "her droll monologue plays over a background of muddled grief", though "after a while the book seems to consist of nothing but asides." She feels ultimately that "in keeping with our widow's interest in the ascetic life, the book itself has an ascetic discipline." For Helen Rumbelow in the Times, The Widow's Tale is "spare, short, utterly contemporary", and "very funny". Like the other reviews, Adrian Turpin's recognises that the story is a "pilgrimage", though for him it is a "a writer's commonplace book moonlighting as a novel. For all its aphoristic tartness - which is reminiscent in places of Simon Gray's diaries - it never entirely convinces as fiction."

 

Trautmann's Journey by Catrine Clay

Simon Hattenstone in the Observer asks: "why did Trautmann agree to collaborate with this book? To ease his conscience, get the truth out there, or did he simply feel he had nothing to hide?" Catrine Clay's account of the Manchester City goalkeeper with Nazi origins is "a fascinating if dispiriting read", Hattenstone decides, summing it up thus: "Clay's book is not a conventional biography and it's certainly not a sport book. Rather than using the times to tell the story of Trautmann, she uses Trautmann to tell the story of Nazi Germany. In a way, he becomes an everyman, soaked in the blood and horror of the Holocaust." Miranda Seymour in the Telegraph writes that "much of the poignancy of Trautmann's story derives from the skill with which Clay develops our sense of the discrepancy between his experiences and what was actually going on", and, more sympathetically: "Trautmann's participation in Clay's book fits with his admirable commitment to the promotion, through sport, of Anglo-German relations". She sums it up by saying: "a thoughtful biographer has given depth and substance to the plainly told story of an uncommon life." Roger Moorhouse in the Independent writes that "Trautmann's Journey is a remarkable story, well told", and is keen to stress that "Though it is not short of affection for its subject, this is no hagiography. Trautmann emerges as an often equivocal character; a sport-obsessed curmudgeon with a quick temper and an apparent inability to accept authority."

 

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