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Wild at heart: Literary tigers from William Blake to Fiona McFarlane's The Night Guest

Like so many books about tigers, The Night Guest, by Australian first-time novelist Fiona McFarlane, is a battle to preserve the order and civility of the household from the madness and barbarity outside.

The Night Guest
Fiona McFarlane
Sceptre, 288pp, £14.99

From William Blake to Judith Kerr, writers have deployed tigers in literature to represent wildness, energy and disruption. Blake’s sublime, forest-dwelling feline was the antithesis of his meek and gentle lamb – “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” – while in Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came to Tea, the big cat threatens to consume every means of sustenance, displacing the family who had initially welcomed it in (mirroring Kerr’s experiences of Nazi Germany).

Ever since Disney gave him a voice, A A Milne’s ebullient Tigger has become a figure of childish amusement, when really he’s an incorrigible pest. He wakes Pooh Bear in the small hours of the morning, gets himself stuck in a tree and nearly drowns poor Eeyore. Like Kipling’s Shere Khan, he expects those around him to bend to his will.

The first-time novelist Fiona McFarlane has pitted a tiger against a lamb in the form of her two central characters, Frida Young and Ruth Field. Ruth is a widowed pensioner, living out her dotage on the south Australian coast. One night she hears a tiger romping through her kitchen. The following morning Frida appears, “as if blown in from the sea”, a “government carer” sent free of charge to be “[her] right arm”.

The significance of the tiger is never fully explained or fixed in place: does it symbolise the threat posed by Frida, or is it Ruth’s senility, her independence or lost youth? As in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, much of the novel is taken up with power struggles and territorial disputes. Frida moves in. She brings chemicals to get rid of the smell of the sea, puts up banisters and urges Ruth to sell her car, making her dependent and weakening her resolve. But Ruth is never straightforwardly meek. She questions, debates, resists and loves the roughness of swearing (despite having given elocution lessons before she retired). She remembers fondly her childhood in the Fijian jungle, where her parents were missionaries and she fell in love with a young, passionate doctor – the opposite of the steady man she eventually married.

Like so many books about tigers, The Night Guest is a battle to preserve internal order and civility from the madness and barbarity lurking outside. It is a domestic drama, but given that Ruth’s mind leads her to internalise events – “If I see one car in the next ten seconds, she thought, I’ll tell her to go away” – it is an inward struggle too. McFarlane beautifully captures the protracted loss of Ruth’s faculties, one day at a time, like the tide eroding the shore.

In T S Eliot’s “Gerontion”, written in 1920, the tiger takes on a new mantle. “In the juvenescence of the year/Came Christ the tiger”, says the aged narrator, “Us he devours … Tenants of the house”. The Night Guest takes place in the Pacific springtime, November, when casuarina trees, humpback whales and golden wattle blossoms appear along the coast. The book builds to a breathtaking final scene, in which the dry desert of Ruth’s bewildered mind bursts forth into animal majesty and the full extent of Frida’s machinations become clear.

“Long live the tiger!” Ruth cries.

Image: Henri Rousseau's Dream (1997) by Frances Broomfield

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron the captive

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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