In the Critics this week

Dylan Jones on David Bowie, Ed Smith on Wagner and new fiction from Deborah Levy.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, Dylan Jones, the editor of GQ, visits “David Bowie Is …” at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The exhibition, Jones writes, “is a proper multimedia extravaganza, and for Bowie obsessives like myself is probably the final word on the man (in a good way)”.

Our Critic at large this week is Ed Smith, who examines the enduring power of the music of Richard Wagner, whose bicentenary falls this year. Smith recalls going to a performance of Wagner’s Die Walkure at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. “The experience of Act III of Die Walkure that evening was as far removed from Hollywood shallowness as I am capable of imagining … The experience was qualitatively different from anything I’d known from watching a stage play or reading a novel.”

Deborah Levy, whose novel Swimming Home, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2012, contributes a new short story to this issue, “Migrations to elsewhere and other aches and pains”.

In Books, Aditya Chakrabortty, economics leader writer of the Guardian, reviews Who Owns the Future by Jaron Lanier and To Save Everything, Click Here by Evgeny Morozov. Both writers, Chakrabortty argues, are in thrall to what he calls “the engineering mindset”. “If this age belongs to any profession, it surely belongs to the engineer – not in the term’s historical sense of builders of dams and railways but in its new sense of makers of technology and software.”

Also in Books: Helen Lewis reviews Fifty Shades of Feminism, edited by Lisa Appignanesi, Rachel Holmes and Susie Orbach (“In 2013, feminism is at a crucial moment”); Suzy Klein reviews Dinner with Lenny: the Last Long Interview with Leonard Bernstein by Jonathan Cott (“The genius of Cott’s book is not only to remember but to recall with pinpoint accuracy and sympathy the flame of Leonard Bernstein that burned so brightly and so true”); Andrew Biswell uncovers the story of Anthony Burgess’s lost script for the film of the James Bond novel The Spy Who Loved Me (“[The producers] probably suspected (quite rightly) that Burgess was not taking the assignment entirely seriously”); Robert Hanks reviews the reissue of Louis MacNiece’s 1938 book about London Zoo (“To read Zoo is to share with [MacNiece] a glimmer of understanding of the distance and nearness of civilisation to the state of nature”); Hannah Rosefield reviews Mohsin Hamid’s novel How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (“How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia turns out to be as much moral fable as it is satire”); Jonathan Derbyshire reviews Eric Hobsbawm’s final book, Fractured Times (“Hobsbawm’s indifference the main problems of Marxist historiography … ensured that his work reached a much larger audience than that of many of his contemporaries”).

In the Books Interview, Jonathan Derbyshire talks to Lucy Wadham about her book Heads and Straights, part of the Penguin Lines series celebrating the 150th anniversary of the London Underground (“There were a number of key events in the life of my family … that had happened near Circle Line stops”).

Elsewhere in the Critics: Alexandra Coghlan talks to Sir John Eliot Gardiner about Bach (“Bach fills whatever space you allow him to enter,” Gardiner tells Coghlan); Andrew Billen reviews The Book of Mormon at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London (“It is clear … that someone has lost their nerve”); Rachel Cooke is beguiled by Michael Cockerell’s documentary about Boris Johnson (“Whatever else he is, Boris isn’t dull”); Ryan Gilbey reviews Francois Ozon’s latest film, In the House (“In the House never sacrifices its thriller credentials”); Antonia Quirke celebrates Simon Russell Beale’s radio presenting (“Not just whole programmes but whole stations happily adjust around him”).

PLUS: Will Self’s Real Meals and “Riddle”, a poem by Bernard O’Donoghue.

The 'Starman' costume from David Bowie's appearance on 'Top of the Pops' in 1972. Photo: 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