In the Critics this Week

This week's books pages feature everything from Disraeli to walls, futuristic distopias to an autism memoir.

The books section this week begins with David Marquand’s glittering review of Dick Leonard’s “crowning achievement”, The Great Rivalry: Disraeli and Gladstone. Marquand begins by pouring flattery upon Leonard’s literary skill, and approach to this book.

It is written with captivating panache, packed with well-chosen quotations, full of psychological insight and, at one and the same time, readable, entertaining and illuminating.

Marquand himself then goes on to explore Disraeli and Gladstone’s own crowing achievements, from their approach to imperial affairs, to their most significant pieces of legislation. Marquand subsequently questions who Leonard himself preferred in the Great Rivalry, believing it to be Disraeli, due to Gladstone’s somewhat perturbing charisma:

Disraeli [unlike Gladstone] was not charismatic in the Weberian sense. He was more fun to be with than Gladstone, perhaps because he didn’t take himself so seriously. But by definition, charismatic leaders do take themselves seriously. They think of themselves as the vehicles and instruments of a higher cause: Gladstone’s statement after receiving the Queen’s commission to form his first government that his “mission” was to “pacify Ireland” is a good example. There is something wild, un-controlled and untethered about charismatic leadership, and that disconcerts rational moderates such as Leonard and me.

All in all, Marquand manages to produce an inventive and analytical review.

Michael Prodger continues the Disraeli theme with his review of Douglas Hurd and Edward Young’s Disraeli: or the Two Lives. Once again, Disraeli’s character is closely examined, a man with an obscuring “vividness of character”, “a Boris Johnson but with substance”.

In a precise and insightful review, Prodger praises a “concise but balanced assessment, on a man who “was always led interested in other people than he was in himself””.

In contrast, NS deputy editor Helen Lewis’ review of Susan Greenfield’s 2121: A Tale from the Next Century is far from complimentary. After examining the author’s recent fall from grace in scientific circles, Lewis launches into a cutting, and at times humorous attack on Greenfield’s debut novel.

The prose is a mess. There are errant commas, clunking clichés and banal phrases such as “tossed about in a vast sea of heightened emotions devoid of passions. Everyone seems weirdly obsessed with comparing their current situation with that in the early 21st century- “she gestured to the high-speed pod, still recognisable as a distant descendant of its predecessors from a century or two ago” - which, when you think about it, makes as much sense as a writer now describing a car as “still reminiscent of a 19th-century landau."

Lewis combines a questioning of the author’s motive, and an attack on her literary ability to produce a biting and comical review.

Owen Hatherley’s review of Marcel Di Cintio’s Walls: Travels Along the Barricades, adds a global feel to this week’s book section. Hatherley explains that Di Cintio’s travel book offers far more than just his “acute” and “vivid renderings” of landscapes. Hatherley praises Di Cintio’s “unobtrusive and erudite” historical asides, before concluding with what he sees as one of the most enduring aspects.

What is memorable in Walls is its deep pessimism. Whenever a dismantlement appears to be imminent, as in Nicosia, inertia and cynicism invariably win out over the let’s-all-hold-hands anti-politics of the UN and the NGOs. In Belfast, Di Cintio notes the removal of the “peace line” that once divided a park in Ardoyne but considers the underground wall that runs between the Catholic and Protestant sections of Belfast City Cemetery to be “a more relevant symbol than the image of little girls frolicking through a gate that opens every once in a while. The constructions of brick, concrete and steel that divide people are not only enduring but thriving.

Hatherley’s examination of this poignant book proves to be expansive and engaging.

Caroline Crampton completes this week’s books section with her review of Naoki Higashida’s The Reason I Jump, an inspirational and personal account which looks to enlighten readers on the reality of dealing with autism. Translated by David Mitchell and K A Yoshida, who themselves have an autistic child, Crampton delves into the book’s approach to autism. She discusses both our misconceptions, and the book’s genius in uncovering them.

Every page dismantles another preconception about autism. For a start, Higashida writes mainly in the plural- we need your help, we need your understanding- as if he is not alone but part of a great community of silent children around the world. He explains that it’s physically painful to hold back his “weird voice” (that loud, thick, over-worked diction that autistic people some-times use) because it feels “as if I’m strangling my own throat.

Reading this review in itself forces one to think on their own views regarding autism, invoking empathy and encouraging understanding.

This week's magazine also features Talitha Stevenson reviewing The Trip to Echo Spring by Olivia Laing, and Fiona Sampson on Clive James's translation of The Divine Comedy.

Also in the Critics:

  • Jason Cowley on Kenneth Branagh's Macbeth.
  • Ryan Gilbey reviews the latest collaboration between Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, At World's End.
  • All the latest in TV, radio, opera and theatre from Antonia Quirke, Matt Trueman, Rachel Cooke and Alexandra Coughlan.

This week's New Statesman is out now

An 1880s Vanity Fair image for Gradstone and MPs. Credit: Michael Nicholson/Corbis.
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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