Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

  Comedy

Chris Tucker, London, Hammersmith Apollo, London W6, 24-28 November
The actor and comedian returns to the stand-up comedy circuit after a five-year absence with a world tour beginning at the capital’s Hammersmith Apollo. A man who was given a record-breaking $25 million for the third Rush Hour film, Tucker’s absence comes to an end with the tour and his role in Silver Linings Playbook, out now. The comedian first started doing stand-up after graduating from high school and during the 1990s frequently performed on HBO series, Def Comedy Jam.

Film

Iranian Film Festival, until 23 November, London
The third annual Iranian film festival in London concludes its run with feature film, The Last Step and other short films. Directed by and starring Ali Mostafa, the surreal film sees a man die and stay on screen, offering observations to his film star wife. For the first time, the festival will be followed up with regular screenings in London next year of the best of Persian cinema. My Persian Nights will bring films from the middle eastern country to London in overnight, outdoor and drive-in shows next year.

Art

Ian Hamilton Finlay, Tate Modern, London SE1, until 17 February 2013
Don’t miss this chance to see one of the most renowned British artists of the past century on show at Tate Britain. Ian Hamilton-Finlay was a concrete poet before he became an artist, and throughout his career the two art forms have remained inseparable –whether he was inscribing text onto stones, crafting hand-made books or cultivating his masterpiece artist’s garden, Little Sparta. Twenty-four of his works are currently omn display in the Duveen Galleries at Tate Britain, in materials varying from classical bronze and ceramic to electric neon.

Dance

Unleashed, Barbican Centre, London EC2, 23-24 November
More than a year on from the London riots, there is still no definitive understanding of what caused them. Adding a new dimension to the barrage of media commentary which accompanied the outbursts, Unleashed is a theatre show that explores the hopes, fears and lifestyles of the riot-generation.
Made by the Young People of Barbican Guildhall Creative Learning and Blue Boy Entertainment, this art-council funded show combines music, dance and poetry in a high-energy exploration of what it means to be a young person living in London today. This is guaranteed to be your only chance this year to tackle the question of cuts, jobs and David Cameron via the medium of break dancing.

Literary

Book Slam Launch II, Rough Trade East, London E1, 28 November
London’s finest literary salon presents some of our best comics, writers, musicians, plus shining greats of the Twittersphere. Scriptwriting legend Jesse Armstrong has writing credits for almost every television show worth watching - Peep Show, The Thick of It, Fresh Meat and Four Lions. He will be speaking alongside the delightful Salena Godden, as well as comedian Peter Serafinowicz. Music is provided from the 25-piece Basement Orchestra.

Ian Hamilton Finlay, A Wartime Garden (collaboration with John Andrew, 1989) © The estate of Ian Hamilton Finlay
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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