Reviews Round-up: Badinter, Moran, Dikötter and de la Pava

The critics' verdicts on new book about TV viewing habits and the Chinese Revolution, as well as the reception of Sergio de la Pava's self-published debut "A Naked Singularity".

The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women, by Elizabeth Badinter

First published in 2010 by French historian and philosopher Elizabeth Badinter, The Conflict describes the author’s issues with contemporary maternal culture. Badinter not only disputes the ‘nature-is-best’ attitude at the core of modern parenting advice, but holds that this approach actually has a significantly negative impact on the women who are affected by its fundamental tenets.

Claudia Casper, for The Globe and Mail, gives a good overview of the ‘new maternalism’ that Badinter is so opposed to. Studies from biology, psychology and anthropology converged on the view that mothers should: “breastfeed on demand, be responsive to the child's feelings and every need, and put their own need to succeed, to socialize and have passionate sex lives a distant second to the needs of their children”. Casper draws attention to Badinter’s conclusion that it is “the overwhelmingly intensive demands of this new mothering” that is the “reason women are delaying having children, having fewer, or choosing to have none”.

According to Rachel Hewitt of The Guardian, the book “shows that naturalism is a philosophy, not an objective truth”. Hewitt highlights the domination of the modern maternal culture by naturalism; specifically, the impact that this has on mothers through the mechanism of guilt. This situation “can generate extreme guilt in those who do not, or cannot, live up to its high standards”. The danger is that this “encourages women to equate the extent of their self-sacrifice to their success as mothers”.

Diane Johnson, for the New York Review of Books, notes that part of the naturalism advocated involves: making women feel guilty for choosing work over motherhood; for returning to work post-birth; for using child-care; and for choosing to not breastfeed. These ‘attendant strictures’ have “the effect of controlling women and seeking to reconcile them to their lack of independence and worldly influence, binding them to their place (the home), keeping them economically disadvantaged (out of the workplace), and frustrating their individual talents and ambitions”.

Armchair Nation: An Intimate History of Britain in Front of the TV, by Joe Moran

Armchair Nation is a small encyclopaedia of television. It covers a vast range of material and milestones in limited depth, but maintains the reader’s attention. The author, Joe Moran, is a newspaper journalist and professor of English and Cultural History. The depth of research brought from his academic background shows through, but without being overbearing.

Dominic Sandbrook of The Sunday Times, highlights the effort made by Moran to give a balanced view of the impact that television has had on society. Everyone is familiar with the accusations against television. One of the most common of these is it stupefying effect. “Almost from the very first broadcast, high-minded types rushed to dismiss it as the opium of the masses, dulling the senses and debasing the intellect”. However, Sandbrook also notes the positive societal effects of television, such as cultural enrichment. “In rural Worcestershire, one writer overheard farm labourers chatting about Margot Fonteyn and Shakespeare, having come across them by accident after switching on for the boxing”.

Phil Hogan from The Guardian, summarises a variety of anecdotes from the first audibly transmitted airing of the word ‘fuck’ to the reinvention of snooker “with black tie and absurd new rituals”. The rebirth of snooker displays, according to Hogan, the power of television in “its repetition and reach, in its restless urge to replace one novelty with the next – to normalise the unusual and reshape a nation's conventions and tolerances”.

John Van der Kiste, writing for thebookbag.com, applauds Moran’s selection skills: “the author has done a sterling job in paring it down to the essentials”. Kiste highlights the section in which reality television is “castigated”, refering particularly to The X Factor: “a programme which claimed to be empowering but was actually infantilising, and one which flattered viewers by reminding them constantly that the result was in their hands, while getting them to pay to provide free product testing on new artists”.

The Tragedy of Liberation, by Frank Dikötter

After winning the Samuel Johnson Prize for his 2011 book Mao’s Great Famine, a study of the Great Leap Forward, Frank Dikötter tackles the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in his new work The Tragedy of Liberation. Contrary to many historians, Dikötter argues that the foundations of the society were just as disturbing as the subsequent decades, in a system characterised by unrelenting violence and state force.

Rana Mitter, writing for the Guardian, is impressed by this “angry” book, detailing the “violence and used coercion, both psychological and physical” employed by the state during its foundation. He is pleased by the emphasis placed on the rural population, commenting that “the history of China’s urban population has attracted more attention over the years, but Dikötter forces the gaze back to China's peasants, who were promised much from the revolution and often betrayed.” Despite his slight disappointment that “his analysis does leave space for a continuing debate on the reasons for the new regime's stability”, Mitter concludes that “this excellent book is horrific but essential reading for all who want to understand the darkness that lies at the heart of one of the world's most important revolutions.”

TH Barrett of the Independent, however, laments the source difficulties inherent in any research on this period, as “after most foreigners had been removed from China following Liberation, the only English-language commentators left were the handful of "foreign friends" nurtured by the new regime, whose knowledge of events was at best limited.” As such, Barrett notes that “not every detail in this book seems spot-on” and “time and again the footnotes lead back to official Chinese archives, often not readily accessible to foreign historians. The picture is therefore technically only ‘partial’”.

For Michael Sheridan in the Sunday Times, the work is “groundbreaking”, “exhaustive” and “revelatory” as he deems it “unsparing in its detail, relentless in its research, unforgiving in its judgements”. Although the sheer wealth of detail “sometimes becomes overwhelming”, Sheridan concludes that “mainstream academic scholarship must be revised in the light of Dikötter’s work”

A Naked Singularity, by Sergio de la Pava

Sergio de la Pava originally self-published his debut novel A Naked Singularity in 2008, but has only just come to mainstream attention, winning the PEN prize for debut fiction this month. The ambitious novel follows the nervous breakdown of an overworked 24-year-old public defender, Casi, rendered predominantly in dialogue and characterised by long digressions.

The Guardian’s Stuart Kelly gave the debut a positive review, saying he had “yearned for this kind of exuberant, precise fiction”. He calls it a “compelling” but doesn’t by any means claim that it is without fault. But although de la Pava’s “ambition might outweigh execution” and “the shifts in tone between appear awkward”, in the end, Kelly would “rather have the raggedy brilliance of A Naked Singularity over the pursed and smirking lips of much contemporary British fiction any day of the week.” He concludes “A Naked Singularity poses moral questions far more thorny and vexing than most.” Nevertheless, he wished de la Pava “had an editor”.

The Wall Street Journal was similarly taken in by this debut’s raw appeal. Not put off by the lack imperfections, the reviewer declares that “The weird, restless, ungainly structure is the book's greatest asset ... Whatever the book loses in polish it amply repays in its uncompromising originality.” To sum up, the reviewer quotes a line from the book itself, to declare it “beautiful and ugly simultaneously.”

In Slate Magazine, Paul Ford echoes comments about ambition and is also charmed by de la Pava’s humour. He comments that “even while the lives it describes are often bleak, the book is funny, consistently so”. All in all, Ford deems it to be “an explication on the quality of perfection, and more broadly, on the nature of talent.”

Frank Dikötter sheds light on the early years of Maoist China. Photograph: Getty Images.

Book talk from the New Statesman culture desk.

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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