The Friday arts diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Music

Gateshead International Jazz Festival, The Sage, Gateshead, 5-7 April

According to its organisers, Gateshead International Jazz Festival is the largest UK festival held under one roof. Headline acts include the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, Lighthouse, Ruby Turner and the Brand New Heavies. But its nuanced programme of smaller performances is equally interesting: Broadcaster/musician Alyn Shipton, will be exploring the relationship between jazz and poetry, notably the work of Philip Larkin and W B Yeats, in a piece entitled Jazz Words. Meanwhile, seminal French guitarist Bireli Lagrene will be making a rare appearance to the festival, with a jazz quartet reminiscent of the Blue Note acts of the 1960s.

Dance

Labyrinth of Love tour. Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, 9-19 April

The Rambert dance company returns to Edinburgh with the critically-acclaimed Labyrinth of Love. Grammy award-wining composer Michael Daugherty’s score is performed live by both the Rambert Orchestra and soprano Sarah Gabriel, in what is both a musically and visually stunning piece. Choreographed by Marguerite Donlon, Labyrinth of Love provides a fitting centre-piece for a production which also features Merce Cunningham’s seminal work Sounddance, Richard Alston’s solo Dutiful Ducks and Paul Taylor’s Roses.

Art

Rosemarie Trockel: A Cosmos. Serpentine Gallery, London W2, until 7 April

An exhibition that sets about creating a space in which ideas from different disciplines can cross-pollinate, A Cosmos sees German artist Trockel situate her work among other artefacts and objects. Each one was selected by Trockel, in dialogue with curator Lynne Cooke, to produce a context for the artist’s work, including science and natural history. Trockel has resisted an identifiable style throughout her 30-year career, which has seen her exhibit in Paris, London and New York. It closes this Sunday, so catch this marvellously eclectic exhibition while you still can.

Theatre

A day in the death of Joe Egg, Everyman Theatre, Liverpool, 5-27 April

This weekend sees the revival of the critically-acclaimed play A day in the death of Joe Egg by Peter Nichols. The play was first performed in 1967. This production stars Ralph Little, Rebecca Johnson and Marjorie Yates. A fast-paced black comedy centred on the struggle of a young couple raising a disabled child, Nichols’s script was described by the Stage’s Gareth K Vile as “brutal, funny and provocative. The actors are challenged to jump across genres, picturing a reality bounded by a child’s absolute dependence, but made into a hell by their own personal failures.” It’s one to watch.

Spoken Word

Scratch the word, The Ovalhouse, London SE11, 11 April

Scratch the word is an exciting "scratch" event, exploring the creative overlap between spoken word, live literature and video verse. A group of performance poets will each perform a 10-minute sample of their work, followed be a Q&A panel discussion hosted by organisers Spread the Word. It will also include performances from the likes of Nick Makoha, whose one-man show My Father and Other Superheroes is due to feature at the Southbank Centre’s London Literature Festival.

A tenor saxophone. Photograph: Mario Tama/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