Inside story

The accumulated knowledge of two lobby hacks can't enliven a Westminster farce.

It was the Sun wot wrote it! Or in this case, the Sun's Whitehall editor, Clodagh Hartley, with her accomplice John Higginson, of Metro, who have scripted a "riotous satire" for the Tabard Theatre in Chiswick.

The journalists from these two mighty organs -- sorry, it's catching -- have constructed a light Westminster farce about the expenses scandal, that could have been nicely timed to lob a "plague on both your houses" sort of hex just in time for the election (for the purposes of this play, the Lib Dems don't exist). As things stand, however, I think the politicians can sleep easy in their beds. About this matter, at least.

Now, imagine the most riotous satire, in your experience: Swift's A Modest Proposal perhaps, or in recent times, anything by Chris Morris. Now take everything that is riotous or indeed satirical out of it. Replace Iannucci with innuendo, if you will. The toothless inanity you are left with might be quite like Stiffed!

To be fair, the play is supposed to be featherweight. The cast list sets up a fanciful Restoration comedy mood: Paula Stiff (matron!) and George Moore-Lys (fnarr, fnarr!) are the Chancellor and her Shadow respectively, and both about to be embarrassed by the revelations of honest Sally Pauper, the journalist who is, of course, the heroine of this tale. Christopher Hone's set aptly underlines the play's flimsiness, as it appears to be made out of paper, with wiggly lines drawn on in felt-tip, like a pop-up book. The Commons is quite literally a House of Card, with neat pull-out sections enabling a seat here, a bar there. It positively invites a slick, Feydeau farce-style use of its many doors; a hysterical vortex of entrances and exits.

But Dan Herd's direction never delivers this sort of drive, which would have been a welcome shot in the arm to an anaemic script. The only actor to push into the realms of physical grotesquerie is Mark Wall as the Daily Telegraph editor, and he just ends up looking like he's in the wrong show, and head-butting innocent bystanders.

It all started promisingly enough, with the actors wandering on informally and looking about them. Unfortunately, on the night I was there, four latecomers also wandered on informally, looking about them, and I had high hopes for some time that they were part of the show and about to do something spectacular to save it. Disappointingly they weren't, and didn't.

One problem that soon becomes apparent is that the story to be satirised is itself so preposterous -- a real case of truth being stranger than fiction -- that the exaggeration typical of satirical swipes is left with nowhere to go. There is little more ludicrous than taking public money to build your ducks a house, so the play's equivalent, the statue of Churchill designed to ward off the foxes, grows pale and uninteresting by comparison.

The actors, though competent, are under-used. There are glimmers: Laura Evelyn's Sally Pauper is a pleasing straight woman, who, when drunk, has a kooky habit of speaking journalistic cant in heavily flagged quotation marks. Brendan Murphy, as Tory new boy Quentin Dellaware, has a Rob Brydon vibe going on, and also appears to speak in jittery inverted commas. There are inchoate hints here about the sound bite habit that bedevils both poacher and gamekeeper. Both characters' promising biographical details (she: lonely and loveless, he: gay) are picked up and then simply thrown out, however.

The atmosphere perks up somewhat when the auditorium is co-opted into the House of Commons, and we audience members are courted by the frontbenchers as they stand up and sound off like wheedling mountebanks: I can understand the apparent need of backbenchers to heckle like rowdy schoolchildren at a pantomime. Michael Martin is represented by a tiny puppet, subject to the tweaks and pulls of strings on both sides, and this reduction of Speaker to a plaintively screeching homunculus is where the satire suddenly grows teeth.

Considering this was written by "insiders" and supposedly reveals the "inner workings of parliament, the press and politicians" (sic) there is nothing here we didn't already know. We know when we've been stiffed, all right.

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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