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Breakfast cereals are the glue that holds our civilisation together

Snap, crackle and pop is really this: the snap of our bones on the wheel of fate, the crackle of our skins in the fires of damnation, and the apoptosis that awaits our mortal cells.

Let us recast the riddle of the Sphinx: who snaps, crackles and pops in the morning; snaps, crackles and pops in the afternoon; and snaps, crackles and pops in the evening? Answer: me – and probably you, too, for if there’s one food that unites infancy and extreme old age, the toothless and those defanged by time-the-devourer, then it’s breakfast cereals. Indeed, to allocate these comestibles a given slot within the daily-go-round is just as spurious as confining them to any point in the human life cycle; cereals are . . . Well, there’s no other way of putting it: serial. Other foods may come and go but the great granular underlay of cereal remains. We are just as likely – arguably more so – to find ourselves standing at the kitchen counter in the middle of the night crunching down Golden Crunch as we are to be up with the lark and the iconic Kellogg’s rooster.

Yes, the snap, crackle and pop is really this: the snap of our bones on the wheel of fate, the crackle of our skins in the fires of damnation, and the apoptosis that awaits every single one of our mortal cells. (Memo to Self: must pitch Kellogg’s an ad campaign along these lines.) I started out eating Rice Krispies, savouring their delicious timpani as I plunged home my spoon and I dare say I shall exit this world with this same susurrus in my ears – and in between, bowl of cereal has followed bowl, as night succeeds day. Moreover, cereal being a food that comes with high sugar content, on to which you add still more, the eating of it is highly addictive, so it might be more appropriate to say bowl follows bowl as minute succeeds minute.

It’s fair enough, this serial cereal, because even more than bread, cereal returns us to the very roots of our civilisation, which lie in the amassing of food surpluses in the form of grain storage. If you like, one productive way of viewing the early despotisms of the Fertile Crescent, which arose from the domestication of einkorn and emmer wheat, hulled barley et cetera, is that these were in fact giant cereal boxes upon which the cultural plan of the future was incised in cuneiform. Archaeologists have actually discovered primitive cereal boxes at cave sites in the Zagros Mountains, although there’s considerable dispute over whether they fulfilled practical or merely ceremonial functions. For my part, I think the decipherment of an inscription on one of these rectilinear clay vessels – “Free Toy Inside!” – is pretty much a clincher.

If cereal is foundational (we have no difficulty envisioning Nebuchadnezzar tucking in to a bowl of Lucky Charms and asses’ milk), it is also ubiquitous: not simply in our diets, but also in our environment. What other foodstuff is so widespread in the domestic sphere? One moment we’re puncturing Coco Pops strewn across the lino, the next we’re crunching Cheerios into the carpet; indeed, the experience of having small children is essentially one of witnessing the merging of cereals and floor coverings into a single, semi-edible mass. But cereals don’t just lie underfoot; due to their high concentration of sugar and the addition of milk, they are the very mortar of disorder: entropy is held in check by them; a cornflake glues a mug to a table; a Golden Graham rivets a textbook to a desk; and such is the bonding strength of Weetabix that entire houses can be built using it in combination with courses of Shredded Wheat.

Then again, of what other foodstuff can it be said that its packaging really is of equal significance? When I was a child, the reading of the back of the cereal box was an integral bite of the whole munch. Frequently, in those days, new technological projects were blazoned on cereal boxes; it was from these that I first heard about the jumbo jet, the hovercraft, the Channel Tunnel and all sorts of other wonders. Cereal box copywriters were bold apostles of progress who nonetheless always managed to place their future wonders in credible time frames: as I recall, almost always in the next five to ten years. Imagine getting a box of Honey Loops from the pantry now and discovering from a screed printed on it that a high-speed railway connecting London with the northern cities will be built by 2020 – and then, lo and behold, this actually coming to pass! No wonder the 1960s and 1970s now appear a more optimistic era. Yes, there was racism, poverty and terrorism aplenty, but at least you could have faith in what was written on cereal boxes.

Some readers will no doubt be wondering when I’m going to get on to discussing the merits of individual cereals, but the answer to this is: never. Or, rather, the very supposition that one breakfast cereal can be better than another is to call attention to the elephant in the room that’s studded with raisins and dusted with whole grains and nuts. I refer, of course, to muesli – which surely deserves a column of its own. Besides, barring spurious flavourings, and shapes that are so evanescent they barely maintain their three-dimensional form long enough to make it from bowl to mouth, there is little to distinguish these slops. This is why I’ve returned to Rice Krispies time and again, although I still have absolutely no idea what riboflavin is.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double

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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