Reviews Round-Up

The critics’ verdicts on Brian Sewell, Ian Rankin and Chinua Achebe.

Standing in Another Man's Grave by Ian Rankin

After a six-year hiatus, Ian Rankin’s DI John Rebus is back from retirement. “Admirers of the Rebus books will be relieved the hero has returned with little change except an increase in the severity of warnings from his doctor,” writes Mark Lawson in the Guardian. Rebus comes face-to-face with the hero of Rankin’s two most recent police books: Malcolm Fox. “The sections in which Rankin's two characters find themselves in the same book are fascinating psychologically because the author so clearly lets the older man have the better of the exchanges,” Lawson writes. “When Rebus notes Fox "sliming" around HQ and reflects that he seems more like "middle management in a plastics company", it's clearly what Rebus would think about the interloper, but also usefully channels a resentment that Rankin readers must inevitably feel about the loss of their favourite cop.” The plot revolves around a serial killer’s murders which take place along the A9. This results in Rebus undertaking many journeys around Scotland in his beloved Saab. His traversing of the country is one of several aspects – another being the book on Scottish myths that Rebus is reading – which leads Lawson to view Standing in Another Man’s Grave as a state-of-Scotland novel, a feature of which is the question of independence: “Although this book has only one direct reference to the prospect of independence, it is steeped in the feeling of a country on the cusp of potentially radical change.” Writing in the Sunday Times’ Culture Section, John Dugdale concurs, and adds: “If a statement is being made, though, it is a negative one... Agreeing with Clarke that Scotland is 'hard to fathom', Rebus sceptically calls it 'a nation of 5m huddled together clinging to notions of community and shared history'.” Though he praises the novel for being well-crafted, Dugdale is not excited by it: “Rebus’ thoughts are not just unromantic but humdrum, offering nothing of interest on the places he passes through.” Lawson disagrees however, finding wit and humour in the book: “While some elements of Rebus are generic (troubles with drink and women), he is without doubt the funniest among the classic fictional detectives, and his 19th case features some fine one-liners and a satisfying gag involving a bossy colleague's stapler.”

 

Outsider II: Almost Always: Never Quite by Brian Sewell

After releasing the first part of his autobiography last year, the life of Brian is proving to have no shortage of drama. This sequel includes, amongst other things, spies, stalkers and sex sprees. But is it worth reading? Sporadically so according to the reviews. “The book is of variable quality,” notes Lynn Barber in the Sunday Times, whilst Matthew Bell for the Independent suggests that Sewell is more concerned with marketing tactics than literary quality when he “divided what could have been one volume into two”. The general critical consensus is that the most eagerly anticipated aspect of this book – Sewell’s curious relationship with his Courtauld tutor and Cold-war Spy Anthony Blunt - ends up being the most disappointing: “These chapters don't necessarily make for the most entertaining,” notes Bell. Indeed, Sewell’s career as a whole isn’t the highlight of this memoir, as much of his art historical anecdotes are “too insanely detailed to follow” in Barber's view. A less-than-riveting account of his professional life is, however, more than made up for in his account of his personal life which is “lewd, very funny, not very likeable” according to Philip Hensher in the Guardian: “The joy of the memoir is largely in its filth,” he summarises. Indeed, Outsider II seems to have been written exclusively to the principle that sex sells, albeit not entirely successfully. “Sewell’s obsession with sex…grows wearisome after a while,” comments Barber, in agreement with Bell. “The relentless dishing up of graphic sexual stories becomes a little exhausting.” For those seeking scandal, however, Sewell doesn’t fall short. As well as unremittingly salacious details, his deliciously unrestrained assessment of certain newspaper editors will be “enjoyed by many journalists and possibly by libel lawyers” according to Barber, and, in Bell’s view, “will cause some choking on canapés in London's medialand.” Nonetheless, each reviewer concludes that the “energy” of Sewell’s prose is the redeeming feature of his memoir, transforming it into an undeniably engaging read. “Tremendously enjoyable” praises Hensher, whilst Barber summarises ““there is constant pleasure in Sewell's prose: the elegance of phrase, the wry humour, and the clarity of insight”. After all, as the Independent notes, “what should a memoir be, if not genital warts and all?”

There Was A Country by Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe’s first book in three years richly rewards his admirers’ patience,” writes Chika Unigwe in the New Statesman. “It is the work of a master storyteller, able to combine seriousness with lightness of touch, even when writing about the terrifying events of a war that cost the life of one of his best friends, the poet Christopher Okigbo, and the lives of millions of others.” This war was the Nigerian-Biafran War, which resulted from a failed coup, a coup that was perceived to be plotted by the Igbo, Achebe’s tribe. “Biafra was the world's first properly televised conflict, and millions across the world were appalled by the horrors flickering on their screens,” writes Noo Saro-Wiwa in the Guardian. “Such people as Joan Baez, John Lennon, Martin Luther King and Karl Vonnegut galvanised international responses to the tragedy, in an age before 'Africa fatigue' had set in.” Achebe’s poetry is scattered throughout the book in which memoir becomes neutral historical analysis before reverting to memoir. The end of the book sees Achebe evaluate his country and prescribe recuperative measures: “The final chapter is an exhortation to better governance,” writes Saro-Wiwa, “in which he examines corruption, ethnic bigotry, state failure and the steps Nigeria must take to rehabilitate itself.” “Achebe, as an African intellectual, is perfectly placed to ask the important questions about why so few of the newly independent nations became, by most measures, successful,” writes Tim Ecott in The Telegraph. “Nigeria, he argues, had people of great quality, and its chaotic, shambolic, corrupt society is 'a great disappointment'.”

Ian Rankin in Edinburgh (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/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