Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Nelson Mandela, Nadine Gordimer and a critique of the modern media.

Conversations with Myself by Nelson Mandela

Peter Godwin gives a highly laudatory account of Conversations with Myself in the Observer, describing it as a self-portrait of "a man devoid of self-pity, who is immune to the temptations of self-aggrandisement". Godwin praises the book for containing "substantive political insights" on the negotiations to end apartheid, but notes that it is also filled with "unexpectedly lighthearted moments".

Graham Boynton, in his Telegraph review, is less glowing in his still fulsome praise, complaining of the "unnecessary foreword by Barack Obama" and the "strange traces of Harvard-speak throughout", the legacy of Mandela's American ghostwriter, Richard Stenghel. Boynton is, however, impressed by the book's ability to jump "from the mundane ... to the historic ... with barely a breath taken" and says it offers a thorough account of the "extraordinarily self-disciplined" Mandela.

Alec Russell, in the Financial Times, concurs, saluting Conversations with Myself as a "splendid finale to the Mandela literature".

The Return of the Public by Dan Hind

Writing in the Guardian, Roy Greenslade describes Hind's critique of the modern media as a "superb analysis of the way in which citizens have lost power in a political and economic system built around the free market".

John Lloyd, in the Financial Times, is more equivocal, pointing out that "Hind wildly overestimates the appetite for information and revelation, as he does the ability of journalism to create the kind of public he wants" but accepting that "there is something large-hearted in the view that the facts will not just set us free, but allow us to be fuller citizens".

In the Independent, Boyd Tonkin is largely positive, semi-ironically praising the "near-theological splendour of his opprobrium", though acknowledging that Hind's schemes to harness "the ultra-involved citizens of tomorrow" sometimes seem "fanciful or utopian".

Life Times: Stories 1952-2007 by Nadine Gordimer

In the Telegraph, Ruth Scurr is impressed that Gordimer's stories are both "deeply embedded in the social, political or historical context that gave rise to them" and yet seem "almost undated in content, style or tone". The first and final stories in this collection "provide a more meaningful frame to Gordimer's work than any stark set of dates".

Penelope Lively, though, writing in the Financial Times, is perplexed as to why the stories are "clumped according to collection but not dated". While, according to Lively, the inclusion of certain stories suggests that "perhaps sometimes she just wrote too much", this collection still illustrates Gordimer's "extraordinary capacity to summon up a time, a place, a people".

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