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Game of Thrones season four begins with no end in sight for book series

Are you tired of waiting for the rest of George R R Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire?

HBO’s Game of Thrones is the Jägerbomb to Tolkien’s ginger beer. How else to describe a fantasy series in which a moment of interrupted incest leads to civil war and the threat of human extinction at the hands of spectral frost monsters? It’s bloody, political and raunchy, populated by a well-drawn cast of sociopaths and misfits. And whilst it pales against the character-driven dramas like Breaking Bad and House of Cards to which we’ve recently been treated, Walter White’s shenanigans never involved dragons and full-frontal nudity.

Season four of the show premieres today. That’s exciting news for aficionados. But another sad milestone for fans of the cycle of novels from which Game of Thrones is adapted – A Song of Ice and Fire by George R R Martin – which remains incomplete after eighteen years of prevarication and delay.

Frank Underwood never ate a raw horse heart. Image: HBO

Here’s the timeline. Game of Thrones (the book) was released in 1996. A Clash of Kings followed in 1999, as did A Storm of Swords a year later. Then things started to go wrong, probably when Martin’s editors stopped speaking truth to power – the man is known to hold a grudge against their tribe. Fans waited five years for A Feast for Crows. Then six years for A Dance with Dragons. Three years on and The Winds of Winter still lacks a publication date. Fragments of the manuscript are occasionally leaked to Martin’s website, but like Chinese water torture this irregular trickle has driven readers to despair. They are desperate to know whether Martin is capable of redeeming himself after Crows and Dragons, which were by most accounts poorly paced and occasionally dull. Don't ask about A Dream of Spring, which will complete the heptalogy in some ineffably distant future.

The more impatient members of Martin’s entourage call themselves “GRRuMblers”. They are an entitled and obnoxious lot, given to venting their frustrations in whinging blog pieces and message board posts. But Martin also has defenders amongst those who argue that buying a book does not create an implicit contract for the delivery of future services. In the words of Neil Gaiman, “George R R Martin is not your bitch”.

Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister. Image: HBO

One assumes that Martin has good reason to avoid a J K Rowling-paced publication schedule. The pressure to satisfy a fan base Vulture calls the most devoted in pop culture must be nerve-shattering. He certainly does not seem hurried by a fear of looming mortality, unlike those readers who like comparing Martin’s age (65) to that of fellow fantasy novelist Robert Jordan (58), who died in 2007 midway through concluding his epic Wheel of Time series. (Why must we be so fearful of Martin shuffling off anyway? Many unfinished works are considerably better than hurriedly completed ones. Compare Kafka’s The Trial to the autobiography of Jade Goody etc.)

Martin's great error was appending a note to the back of A Feast For Crows which assured readers that a sequel would be along the next year. That surely created some kind of obligation. As it happened, A Dance with Dragons took Martin longer to complete than the ministry of Jesus, Magellan’s circumnavigation, Paradise Lost and the Manhattan Project.

Giants and dragons and direwolves, oh my! Image: HBO

Game of Thrones season four will be thrilling. But it will also remind fans of the books they are missing. HBO executives will no doubt push hard for A Song of Ice and Fire to be completed now their series has caught up with Martin’s pen (here's speculation as to what might happen if they fail to crack the whip). For readers who have inhabited the world of Westeros since the first Clinton administration, a long wait for resolution may soon be approaching the beginning of the end. 

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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