In the Critics this week | 30 August 2013

Laura Miller on <em>Downton Abbey</em>, Felix Martin on economics, Ed Smith on the role of genetics in sport and much more.

To kick us off in the critics this week, Laura Miller explores the allure of Downton Abbey across the pond, after ITV’s quintessentially British hit became the most popular drama in the history of the Public Broadcasting Service in the US earlier this year. She explains that while for us it’s the “equivalent of American prime-time soaps such as Dynasty”, for the Americans it is the perfect blend of familiarity and peculiarity. The period is alien: “For Americans, the interlocking, class-defined relationships in a British country house in the early twentieth century are intriguingly particular” and so “the geographic, historical and cultural gulf between modern America and Edwardian Britain gives the milieu of Downtown Abbey an exotic, theme-park quality”. But yet, according to Miller, many characters map very neatly onto American high school stock characters. Miller concludes that Downton enrages many in the UK for its depiction of painfully true class divisions that last a lifetime, but for the Americans it is the more frivolous and short-lived high school era that comes to mind and this is the key to its success.

Economics is the order of the week for Felix Martin in his review of Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, and Mass Flourishing: How Grass-Roots Innovation Created Jobs, Challenge and Change, by Edmund Phelps. In his review of Scarcity, Martin puts forwards the pros and cons of behavioural economics and is ultimately impressed by the book, concluding that the authors don’t claim to have all the answers but that “they style their book as an ‘invitation to read about a science in the making’ and it is indeed a succinct, digestible and often delightfully witty introduction to an important new branch of economics."

Mass Flourishing presents a very different economic thesis, rejecting the psychologists in favour or historians. Although Martin notes that the book “might not be to everyone’s taste” and that on first reading the thesis sounds somewhat “simplistic and historically naive”, he concludes that, although uncertain at first, “the more [he] read, the more [his] expectations were confounded and the more [he] found [himself] thinking that its basic thesis had a great deal of truth to it.” He only hopes that the economics curriculum catches up with these valuable works.

Ed Smith reviews David Epstein’s book The Sport Gene: What makes the Perfect Athlete in a very interesting discussion whether it’s talent or hard work that makes an athlete successful. He notes that modern athletes eschew the word “talent” and instead are determined to make it seem that they have achieved everything “purely through exertion and suffering”. But Smith is persuaded by Epstein’s premise that top athletes have a genetic disposition that marks them out from the rest of us; but each sportsperson is different and so homogenisation of training routines is ultimately fruitless. Instead, as everyone has a different optimal training routine, “coaches and physiologists should abandon their tendency to believe that they know best for everyone and instead encourage divergence, irreverence, tinkering and trial and error”.

In music, Kate Mossman unpicks Arctic Monkey’s latest album, AM. Although she hails lead singer Alex Turner as “one of the great lyricists of the twenty-first century”, it is musically that she deems this album to pack its punches as “any thrills to be had lie in the instrumentation and slick, brawny production” in a record that on occasion pleases Mossman so much she “wants to turn [her] iPod up enough to damage [her] ears”.

Helen Lewis discusses the impact and broader significance the of the word “vagina” in her review of The Vagina: a Literary and Cultural History by Emma Rees. She agrees wholeheartedly with Rees’ condemnation of “all the cutesy little-girlisms beloved of advertisers” and concludes that “the word ‘vagina’ is medical enough to sound grown up and blunt enough not to be cutesy. It is still jarring in normal conversation, but you can mention it on the Six O’Clock News. Which, when you think about it, is close to what feminism should be like.”

Also in the critics this week:

  • Philip Maughan gives his view on Mass Observation: This Is Your Photo, a photography exhibition in the Photographers’ Gallery
  • Rachel Cooke passes judgement on What Remains, the new BBC Sunday night detective series
  • Antonia Quirke reviews BBC Radio 3’s The Albertopolis of the South
  • Ryan Gibley is impressed by Sorrentino’s new film The Great Beauty, despite his “very-very-noisily-with-whooping-and-crashing” approach
  • Claire Lowdon reviews Charlotte Mendelson’s Almost English
  • Michael Brooks discusses organ transplants and compatibility in his view on Daniel M Davis’ The Compatibility Gene
  • Olivia Lanig analyses Tim Dee’s Four Fields
  • Leo Robson gives his view on both Alfred Hayes’ My Face for the World to See and Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins

To get hold of a copy of the magazine, visit your local W H Smiths or go to newstatesman.com/subscribe.

 

Highclere Castle, the main filming location for Downton Abbey. Photograph: 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