Friday Arts Diary | 30 August 2013

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Film

BFI Monster Weekend, British Museum, Friday 29 August – Sunday 1 September, Films start at 20:00 daily 

Experience the British film industry at its best this weekend as the British Museum presents a trio of titles from the golden age of gothic horror. On Friday enjoy Jacques Tourneur’s chillingly realistic masterpiece The Night of the Demon which is sure to spook even the least superstitious among you. Saturday plays host to Hammer Horror’s Dracula, a bloody yet beautiful adaptation of Bram Stoker’s classic novel. The festival concludes on Sunday with The Mummy – an unconventional love story that has enchanted young and old alike. The eerie surroundings of the British Museum courtyard and classic soundtracks will further tempt London’s thrill seekers to join the fun.  

Concert

iTunes Festival, Roundhouse, Sunday 1 September – Monday 30 September

It’s that time of year again. Teenagers up and down the country will be applying for tickets to the iTunes Festival – 30 days of seriously good (and free) music gigs held in Camden’s Roundhouse. Global superstars including chart topper Ellie Goulding and the object of Miley Cyrus’ striptease Robin Thicke will take the stage alongside emerging talent Bastille and The Voice’s Jessie J. As long as Miley Cyrus doesn’t ‘butt’ in it will be a month to remember.             

Music Festival

The Zoo Project Festival, Leicestershire,  until Sunday 1 September 

The Zoo Project Festival returns for a second year and promises to be bigger and better than before. Situated deep in the heartland of the British Countryside, within the woodlands of Donington Park in Leicestershire, The Zoo Project is an unparalleled experience. With 70 star-studded acts lined up and 16 hours of music a day unleash the animal inside as you party till 4am; a Safari Spa is always on hand to help with those head-throbbing mornings after.

South Asian Festival

London Mela, Gunnersbury Park, Acton, Sunday 1 September 1pm – 9pm

Immerse yourself in another culture as the London Mela – Europe’s largest outdoor South Asian festival – returns to Gunnersbury Park. Crowds always flock to Acton to enjoy the lineup of British Asian music and Bollywood figures including music artist A S Kang and singer-songwriter Arjun. Foodies will enjoy the gastronomic delights from the surrounding stalls; with DJs, dance, markets and street art as well as a funfair it’s sure to be a family day out full of weird and wonderful experiences.  

TV

Bad Education, BBC Three, 22:00, Tuesday 3 September 

Jack Whitehall bares all in his return to the big screen in the second series of the hit sitcom. Whitehall plays Alfie Wickers – the caricature of that completely useless teacher we all had at school – and in this episode alone treats us to comedy gold. From his unsuccessful attempts to lure a co-star who plays for the other team to being the object of the fascist tendencies of another, the UK’s poshest comedian will have you cringing the whole way through.  

Jack Whitehall stars in Bad Education. 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