Reviews round-up | 1 October

The critics' verdict on David Vann, William Boyd and Damian McBride.

Goat Mountain by David Vann

David Vann is no stranger to trauma. His debut collection, Legend of a Suicide (2008), uses his father’s suicide as source material. Each page records the uncurling of a family and descent into madness and death. Subsequent novels, Dirt (2012) and Caribou Island (2011) maintain the emotional intensity: the latter using another family murder for inspiration, this time committed by the author’s step-grandmother. Goat Mountain is Vann’s latest creation, and like his previous works, it begins with a death. Set on a 640-acre ranch in Northern California, an 11-year-old boy is at his family’s annual deer hunt. The action unravels when the boy’s father discovers a trespasser and hands his son a high-velocity rifle to take a closer look. The boy looks through the sights and shoots the intruder dead. Tragic, poignant and brutal, Goat Mountain has been criticised for its storytelling, but no one denies its intensity.

Benjamin Evans, writing in The Telegraph, praises Vann’s depiction of the Californian landscape.Vann evokes the scrub, ridges and conifers of northern California with the meticulous eye of a great landscape artist”, he writes. But Vann is fascinated with family dynamics as well as topography. “He seems fixated on how families tear themselves apart,” Evans continues, and he does so “with a hard-won natural authority.” But despite this authority, at times the narrative is stifled by a convoluted writing style, described by Evans with competing convolution: “his prose apes the cosmic grandiloquence of the notoriously inimitable Cormac McCarthy”. Aside from a tendency to say too little in too many words, Evans finds the retrospective narration of Goat Mountain dappled in “unrelenting thesis-fodder about atavistic masculinity” which ultimately “chokes off the artistry in Vann’s writing”.

The Economist nods to what Evans calls an “overwrought commentary” noting that “Mr Vann occasionally overstates his case, reminding the reader of a parallel to Greek tragedy where no reminder is needed.” But for The Economist, this is negated by the trajectory of the novel: “this story has the power of a bullet fired from a gun”. “The book has a quality of a ballad or a folk tale,” continues the review, where “motivation remains opaque and action simply follows action”. This opacity can be seen in the sheer lack of remorse from the boy following the murder, or the lack of expansion as to why the boy pulled the trigger in the first place. Goat Mountain “remains a closed and terrible world” with no place for 21st Century rationality.

Tom Gatti, the New Statesman's incoming Culture Editor, praises Goat Mountain for its “ratcheting real-time tension”. As is the general consensus, however, the references to Cain and Abel and other biblical association may be “powerful and the narrator’s psyche fascinating ... [but] there are times when this religious exegesis feels superfluous.” This is a small criticism to make, though. Gatti remarks how “Vann’s prose never lags” despite excessive glossing, “the novel is not just gripping: it tightens slowly around its reader like a boa constricter.” 

Solo by William Boyd

“The name’s Bond, James Bond.” It’s a phrase not many writers get the chance to write, except, of course, if you’re lucky enough to be approached by Ian Fleming Publications Ltd. William Boyd joins Kingsley Amis, Sebastian Faulks and Jeffery Deaver in published a 007 sequel, reintroducing us to the familiar spy of Fleming’s creation – but with a difference. The year is 1969, and a forty-five year old James Bond is summoned to headquarters to receive news of his next perilous instalment. This time the problem is Zanzarim, a West African nation rich in oil and tumultuous civil war and (of course) Bond is the country’s only hope. As ever, the tuxedo-donning Brit must single-handedly quash the rebels and save the established regime. But while the plot remains suitably action-packed, the psychology of the secret agent has undergone a distinctive shift. Boyd’s Bond has been met by mixed reactions from the critics. While some relish this new take on an old character, others feel the restyling rids the hero of a certain guilty pleasure.

Jon Stock of The Telegraph notes Boyd’s reshaping of the spy, who is still highly sexed (“his eye is immediately drawn to the ‘small-nippled breasts’ of a girl in a Chelsea café”) but has none of the misogynistic undertones of Fleming’s hero. In one particularly telling scene, Stock observed that Bond's moral compass is much more nuanced: “He watches [a catsuited woman] undress and is excited but ‘made vaguely uneasy by this unsought-for act of voyeurism’”.  “Fleming,” Stock writes, “would have no such qualms.” A hero brought up-to-date, Stock also praises Boyd’s narrative construction. “The poised, lyrical writing is a pleasure to read”, writes the Telegraph critic, “the prose sprinkled with apt similes (‘He was incredibly thin, his arms and legs like vanilla pods’”). However, when the action migrates to Africa the story takes a turn for the worse, where the secret agent is lacking in any demonstrative character: “the psychological justification ... is overstated, with too much telling of motive, and not enough showing.”

Ludovic Hunter-Tilney, writing for the Financial Times, acknowledges the daunting task Boyd faces in writing Solo - “to stay true to the spirit of Fleming’s original while remoulding Bond for a readership 60 years distant from the first 007 novel.” It’s a task done, as already mentioned, by giving the seasoned spy a personality makeover. Like Stock, Hunter-Tilney notices the eradication of socipathy and sexual violence that Fleming’s books are so abundant in, but “the gamey tone of racism” is also replaced to “fit a very different world to Fleming’s.” Here, Bond’s “awareness of colour goes no further than appreciating the ‘perfect caramel skin’ of a love interest.” This more accommodating character, though, is said to come at a price. “One side-effect is the loss of the swaggering brutishness that makes the original Bond such a guilty pleasure,” confesses Hunter-Tilney, a loss that makes the spy “a bit of a dull dog at heart.” Despite this “diminution in tone,” the “perfectly judged narrative tempo” is a decent compensation. The FT’s commentator is impressed by the twists, which are “genuinely surprising”, and the baddie who is “suitably grotesque.”

The Daily Mail’s reviewer, Geoffrey Wansell, sees only positives when it comes to Boyd's Bond, witnessing none of the “vanilla” flavourings noted by Hunter-Tilney. “Producing a Bond sequel is one of the most daunting tasks any writer could ever undertake,” writes Wansell, “but William Boyd brings back the real Bond, triumphantly.” The Daily Mail critic is impressed with Boyd’s envisaging of the spy. “Boyd is not afraid to make Bond as politically incorrect as Fleming created him,” Wansell notes, enjoying Boyd’s robust stance when it comes to women: “the zip on the front of her outfit – her catsuit – was like a provocation, a challenge, crying to be pulled down.” The way this Bond “shamelessly eyes up women, harks back to a chauvinist English class system”. The character a heavy smoker and drinker. But these vices are needed, Wansell concludes, to succeed in credibility.

Power Trip: A Decade of Policy, Plots and Spins by Damian McBride

Amid the proposals for energy freezes, renditions of The Red Flag and keynote speeches at the Labour conference last week came a nastier development: an insiders account of Gordon Brown’s time as Chancellor and Prime Minister. Written by Damian McBride, a man who insists on his loyalty to the Labour party, the former spin doctor's account of personal feuds, political plots, and media manipulation reveals some remorse and some accounts of genuine morality – but over the quantity of these elements, the critics are conflicted.

Robert Shrimsley, managing editor of FT.com and former chief political correspondent for the Financial Times calls the work “ultimately a love story”, where McBride’s “devotion to Mr Brown is unwavering.” But while “Mr Brown is often the victim and plots in his name always take place without his knowledge,” the effect of this is almost always to “diminish the man he is attempting to raise up.” “Tales of selfishness and tantrums litter the pages,” Shrimsley continues, and despite the “pacy” storytelling, the glimpse into the Brown bunker offers too much social anecdote and not enough policy discussion. “The major events are skated over and discussed as process rather than strategy,” writes Shrimsley, with the emphasis firmly on Brown and McBride’s relationship.

The Times’ Francis Elliott compares the process of reading the expose to “stumbling into the business class lounge and realising just how bad economy was. The good stuff clearly went elsewhere.” Elliott is unimpressed by the billing of the work as a “penitent confessional,” writing that “McBride’s book is packed with pride.” Indeed, he continues, “it seems that [McBride] was a one-man newsroom powering Britain’s media.” And while “there are nuggets on process” - a case in point the process of “putting together a Budget” - these are largely exceptional. As a modern morality tale it fails, Elliott concludes, but “it succeeds as a laddish manual of political thuggery conducted while at least twice the drink-drive limit.”

Chris Mullin, writing for the Guardian, determines the “first no-holds-barred account of life at Brown’s court” to be a “much better book than one might imagine”. The “well written” expose, Mullin argues, is “generous to friend and foe alike.” Even the Two Eds - Miliband and Balls - “emerge pretty much unscathed,” while McBride “is positively gushing” about Brown in places: “However difficult he could sometimes be, when I was with him I always felt I was in the presence of greatness and of genius and I could never feel anything less than fierce and devoted loyalty." McBride’s role in dishing out the stories to the press is expressed with some pride, but not seen by Mullin to overwhelm the work: “He proudly describes how he would routinely raid other ministers’ territory in search of stories to feed the ravenous appetite of the lobby hacks (“If you didn't feed them properly you'd soon find your minister on the menu”). All in all, McBride’s exposé has come with questionable timing – “Why did he allow his publishers to sell the serial rights to the Daily Mail at a time when he must have known it would be used to inflict maximum damage on the Labour party?” – but the work tells us “a great deal about the state of British political journalism.”

David Vann in Brittany at the Etonnants Voyageurs festival. Image: 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