In the Critics this Week

In the Critics section of this week's NS, Laurie Penny interviews Neil Gaiman, Jude Rogers plugs in to Lorde and Ian Sansom is fascinated by Georges Simenon's Maigret.

This week’s critic at large is Laurie Penny, who interviews the ever-popular Neil Gaiman. Gaiman says that the real problem with such a degree of popularity is the inability to write it produces: he cannot find time to be a “writer”, rather he is a “traveler, a signer, a promoter, a talker, a lecturer.” Nevertheless, he has found the time to write not only one but two books: Fortunately, the Milk… a children’s book about the wild tales a father tells to his children to explain why he is late from the shops and The Ocean at the End of the Lane, an adult horror story about a bookish, lonely child who meets ancient monsters at the bottom of the neighbour’s garden.

Ultimately, Penny seeks to discover why Gaiman appeals so much to the lost and alone. She concludes: “More than anything else, Gaiman’s work is about escapism and he appeals to those who long to leave their lives. Which, at some point or another, is almost everyone.” Gaiman recognises this escapism in his work but for him “there’s nothing wrong with escape”.

This is a fascinating interview that, among other things, touches upon the self-reflexive nature of Gaiman’s work, his “personal brand” image that is now being emulated by younger authors - his past with the Church of Scientology and being in a punk band.

Jude Rogers reviews the debut album Pure Heroine by teen sensation Lorde. Her number one single “Royals” was used to herald the arrival of Bill de Blasio, New York City’s new mayor, onto the victory platform on 5 November. Rogers is aware that:

Politicians plumping for youthful aural support is nothing new. Gordon Brown said he “loved” the Arctic Monkeys (his slice of Lester Bangs criticism: “They are very loud”). But with Lorde comes a self-awareness that shimmers in every part of her presentation.

It is this self-awareness that has Roger’s hooked. Lorde sings about the rich-poor divide, she satirises the pop-star world and is “acutely aware of the way in which young people are caricatured.” All in all, Lorde is a refreshingly new voice: a clever female pop star aware of how she can “access and shape the world.”

Never heard of Georges Simenon? Well, you probably will soon, because over the course of the next seven years, Penguin are going to be releasing a new translation of each of his 75 – yes, 75 – Inspector Maigret novels every month. The first one – Pietr the Latvian – has been translated by David Bellos, and author Ian Sansom is a fan. He appreciates the novel for its paradoxical, liminal tone, most particularly that of its “beautiful-ugly”, “exceptional unexceptional”, “delightfully dull” detective protagonist. However, more so than the novel itself, it seems Sansom is fascinated by its author. “If Simenon were the analysand,” he writes, “then Maigret would undoubtedly be the therapist.” Over half the review, in fact, deals with how hedonistic and prolific Simenon was – “a writer with a quantitative career, as well as qualitative achievements”.

 

Also this week, Adrian Smith lauds the new C J Sansom: Dominion - a 650-page counterfactual historical novel which posits a rather big What If. What if, instead of Churchill, Lord Halifax had succeeded Chamberlain as Prime Minister, and France's surrender in 1940 led to Britain signing a peace treaty with Hitler? Smith and Sansom both hold PhDs in history, and Smith's qualms with the novel's comprehensive research are relatively minor (“Etonians play football not rugby”). The rest of Sansom's alternate timeline is praised as realistic while remaining compelling reading: the Gestapo operate out of the University of London library, Senate House (a building Hitler famously coveted), and blackshirted Fascist Oswald Mosley has become home secretary. Most extreme of all, Hitler assists Enoch Powell fight to retain India for the Empire instead of allowing it independence. However, Smith does note the contentious choice Sansom has made in his speculative portrayal of the Scottish National Party, whose nationalism leads them to collaborate with the Nazis. In the year before Scottish independence goes to the polls, apparently even things that never happened can cause controversy.

This week’s Critics section also features:

  • The Goldsmiths Prize
  • Ryan Gilbey's film critique of The Counselor and Don Jon
  • Downton Abbey and Poiriot according to Rachel Cooke
  • Antonia Quirke on BBC radio 3's Discovering Music
  • An analysis of Rahul Sagar's book Secrets and Leaks: the Dilemnas of State Secrets by Katrina Forrester
  • Neel Mukherjee's review of Penelope Fitzgerald: a Life by Hermione Lee
  • Frances Wilson assessment of John Sutherland's A Little History of Literature and John Freeman's How to Read a Novelist
  • Olivia Laing's examination of White Girls by Hilton Als 
Lorde performs at the VEVO Halloween party in London on 31 October, 2013. Photograph: Gareth Cattermole/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