The Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Music

Café Oto, London E8 – Evan Parker, John Edwards and Eddie Prevost, 7 August

Evan Parker, Eddie Prevost and John Edwards launch their new trio CD – the first release in Eddie Prevost’s Meetings with Remarkable Saxophonists series. Legendary British saxophonist Evan Parker’s trademark sound is filled with circular breathing and multiphonics, stretched over trance-like lines. He has fuelled the free music scene since the 1960s, both here as well as through his European wanderings – famously contributing to Peter Brötzmann’s 1968 Machine Gun session. Parker is joined by the formidable technicians, bassist John Edwards and percussionist Eddie Prevost (founder of AMM), who have long pushed the boundaries of the musical imagination.

Theatre

Noël Coward Theatre, London WC2 – Julius Caesar, 8 August – 15 September

The RSC’s new production of Julius Caesar is transferred to the Noël Coward Theatre this August as part of the World Shakespeare Festival. Newly appointed RSC Artistic Director Gregory Doran shifts Shakespeare’s political thriller to post-colonial sub-Saharan Africa, acquiring dark contemporary undertones. The company includes Jeffery Kissoon as Caesar, Paterson Joseph as Brutus and Cyril Nri as Cassius.

Talk

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London SE1 – Marina Abramovic: The Lecture For Women Only, 5 August

Performance artist Marina Abramovic has designed her latest project, The Lecture For Women Only, entitled The Spirit In Any Condition Does Not Burn, for an exclusively female audience. The gendered format comes as an attempt to explore concepts of femininity and men are not being admitted to the auditorium. Abramovic, most famous for her 736 hour MoMA retrospective The Artist is Present, is hosting the lecture as part of Antony Hegarty’s 2012 Meltdown festival.

Art

Tate Modern, London SE1 – Tania Bruguera: Immigrant Movement International, 7 – 15 August

Cuban artist Tania Bruguera arrives at the Tanks at Tate Modern, a new space devoted to live art, to take up a three week residency for her art project Immigrant Movement International. Bruguera’s work aims to be an artist-initiated socio-political force exploring the nature of citizenship and values shared by immigrants. Lawyers, politicians and member of the public are drawn into debates around the immigrant experience today.

Film

Purcell Room, London SE1 – Diamanda Galás: Schrei 27, 3 August

Diamanda Galás’s film Schrei 27 - an emotive and critical exploration of the torture of an individual in isolation - produced with director David Pepe, was premiered in 2011. Here Galás gives a lecture on her work as an activist and artist, followed by a screening of Schrei 27.
 

Evan Parker plays at Cafe Oto (Photo: Andy Newcombe)
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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