Reviews Round-Up

The critic's verdicts on Nate Silver, Alice Munro and Ben Thompson's Mary Whitehouse biography

The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver

Ever since Nate Silver induced global jaw-dropping when he correctly predicted 50 out of 50 states for the US election last week, his revered status in the field of psephology has been guaranteed. With his new book, however, his ranking on the bestsellers chart will surely rest on another question – can he make statistics sexy?

Just about so, according to Bryan Appleyard in the Sunday Times, "'Fascinating' is perhaps not a word you associate with statistics," he begins. "Well, get used to it." This "fat and fascinating book" succeeds in its aim of explaining a niche subject lucidly to a broad audience. Sophisticated mathematical models may not be the stuff of great literature, but Appleyard insitsts that Silver’s book is "full of satisfying facts", and "a useful attempt to explain a complicated and dynamic field".

If the reader is expecting a detective-style work in the genre of Freakonomics, or a "classic underdog tale" like Moneyball,  however, The Signal and the Noise may dissapoint, warns Noam Scheiber writing in the New York Times. "This one isn’t so much about his [Silver's] rise to statistical godliness, though it includes a smidgen of back story. It’s largely about evaluating predictions in a variety of fields, from finance to weather to epidemiology." Silver’s book, he goes on, "is more like an engagingly written user’s manual, with forays into topics like dynamic nonlinear systems". Ruth Scurr, reviewing for the Guardian agrees that the book is, in essence, "a lucid explanation of how to think probabilistically", rather than a populist work.

Still, these are the only criticism in what is otherwise a sea of praise, and you can see why. The recent election success has donated an awe of the modern-day oracle to Silver, and its no surprise he’s captured the public imagination. As Schieber notes, it’s as if there’s "no question he couldn’t answer with a big enough spreadsheet".

Dear Life by Alice Munro

The literary world has long been lacking a high enough hyperbole for Alice Munro. Can this – her latest collection of stories, published as the writer just turned 81 - maintain that same inimitable standard? Carrie Synder, writing for the Canadian National Post, doesn’t beat about the bush; “These stories are perfect. Of course they are”.

All the critics are unanimous that Dear Life, offers exactly what we would expect from Munro, and we’ve come to expect nothing less than linguistic and structural flawlessness. Each aspects of a Munro story are there, her characters are ‘bare and true’ according to Anne Enright in the Guardian. Her prose is "piercingly clear'"and "brisk - moving" notes Peter Kemp in the Sunday Times. But most pressingly, what we reputedly turn to Munro for is her devastating emotional resonance, and once again, Dear Life doesn’t disappoint; "You can't get away from people, in these stories. Even the ones you thought had wandered off show up again, if only to be avoided, if only as a voice in the next room".

In fact, critics have started to take it to so far for granted that a Munro collection will deliver the goods that much of the reviews are concerned not with weighing up her quality, but with deconstructing her literary techniques so as to explore exactly how she achieves her effects. Kemp delves into the mechanics of her technique, noting that "a perfectly chosen word crisps up a phrase" and "points of view are switched at just the right moment not only to prolong suspense but to deepen complication", whilst Synder examines how "even at the sentence level, she constructs fascinating conflict and unexpected oppositions".

The fact of Munro entering her octogenariancy with this collection has lead to speculation on how her writing style has altered, if at all, with age. "The timelines in her stories have become longer, and the sense of fatedness has stretched to match," notes Enright, although the general consensus is that age hasn't affected the writer other than to make her even - if that's possible - better.

Not one of the critics has a complaint of the collection, other than the minor note that Munro has chosen a new approach with the final four works, writing autobiographically in pieces that she herself concedes are "not quite stories". "Though I count myself as one of the people most interested in this writer on planet Earth, I find, to my surprise that they do not hold me in the same way – it is Munro's stories that I want; not her, after all" notes Enright of these works.

Look out for the review of Dear Life in the next issue of the New Statesman.

 

BAN THIS FILTH! Letter from the Mary Whitehouse Archive edited by Ben Thompson

Mary Whitehouse is, in many ways, the dream subject for a new biography. On the one hand, her entire character was something of "a gift to the satirist", and secondly, her persistent complaints at the moral demise of the BBC are oddly prophetic, given that the Newsnight omnishambles saga continues to dominate headlines this week. Critics of Ben Thompson’s book universally praise the poignant insights it lends into the very current question of morality and the media, "a fascinating book" amounting to "a net-curtain-twitching cultural history" says William Cook in this week’s New Statesman.

Cook notes that Thompson made a positive decision to veer away from the structural hallmarks of biography, “rather than writing a standard biography…Ben Thompson has hit upon the bright idea of annotating the letters...from her extensive archive”.

The highlight of the book, critics agree, is its humour. Cook is impressed by the ‘good jokes’, whilst Dominic Sandbrook in the Sunday Times goes further, citing a "hilarious book" with "comic gems on almost every page".

Critics are similarly united at Thompson’s  decision to respectfully portray Whitehouse as an intelligent woman with strong logic behind her actions, rather than ridiculing her endlessly. "To his credit, the author resists the temptation to sneer too much at ­Whitehouse," notes Sandbrook, whilst Andew Anthony, writing in the Guardian elaborates "he respects Whitehouse as a cultural phenomenon but is also archly drawn to her value as a social joke".

Martin Fletcher in the Independent goes on to conclude, "Ben Thompson's witty and engaging commentary is admirably even-handed: 'we complained about her when she was alive, we sort of miss her now she's gone.'"

Alice Munro in 2009 (Photo credit: PETER MUHLY/AFP/Getty Images)
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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