A new, more positive, biography of poet Philip Larkin has been published Photograph: Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.
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Reviews round-up | 2 September

The critics’ verdicts on David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, Will Self’s Shark, and a new biography of Philip Larkin by James Booth.

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

The Bone Clocks, a book David Mitchell has described as his “mid-life crisis novel,” is the story of a 1980s teenager who gets entagled in a conspiracy threatening the structure of time. The New Statesman’s Olivia Laing admires Mitchell’s ability to recreate the past: “Mitchell has a flair for period furniture, for the loving accumulation of details that make the near as well as distant past luminous,” she writes. However, she is less convinced by the overall structure of the book. “It has its emotional charge defused by the author’s decision to wrestle it into an increasingly irritating edifice of plot.”

The Times’ Melissa Katsoulis is more enthusiastic, writing, “In the wrong hands, magical storytelling like this would make you cringe. But in Mitchell’s it thrills. He is funny, hip and full of life.” She even goes so far as to start making predictions about literary prizes: “This beautiful explosion of adventurous ideas may well take him, finally, beyond the Booker shortlist.”

Louise Jury in the Independent suggests that not every aspect of Mitchell’s novel will be found universally appealing: “for sci-fi fantasists, the imaginary world Mitchell creates might be a thing of wonder, a Dungeons and Dragons for literate grown-ups. For others, I suspect the flesh and blood anguish of a long life lived well against the odds will prove the greater pleasure.” Overall, however, she is positive about the book, calling Mitchell a “consummate craftsman” for his ability to weave together different stories.

Shark by Will Self

Will Self’s eleventh novel is a prequel in narrative, though sequel in publication date, to Umbrella, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2012. The New Statesman’s Mark Lawson praises Self for “saving the life of the hard reward that rewards the attention demanded,” even if he is a little hesitant about the density of the prose: “the ideal reader of Shark might be someone who doesn’t have a job but does have insomnia and a catheter. Even the most diligent Self fan, when confronted with such density of typography and exposition, must sometimes think: give us a break.”

The Daily Telegraph’s Jon Day is similarly full of admiration for Shark: “not only is this a truly wonderful novel, it also makes you want to revisit his previous work and read it with a keener eye.” He also suggests that Self has improved on what he began in Umbrella: “where Umbrella’s tricksiness sometimes made it feel like a work of historical fiction, in Shark the language feels urgent and necessary. What Self aired in Umbrella has hardened into a style.”

The highest praise comes from the Guardian, in which Stuart Kelly writes, “Shark confirms that Self is the most daring and delightful novelist of his generation . . . I have every expectation that when this trilogy does conclude, it will be recognised as the most remorseless vivisection and plangent evocation of our sad, silly, solemn and strange last century.”

Philip Larkin: Life, Art, and Love by James Booth

James Booth's new biography of Philip Larkin gives a more positive version of the famous poet than is customary. The Telegraph’s Michael Deacon points out that “although Booth has carried out his own interviews and draws on previously unpublished letters, his biography contains no game-changing revelations,” and as such Booth’s positive presentation of Larkin relies on reinterpreting the existing evidence. “Sometimes, it works,” Deacon writes. Other attempts, however, are “not very convincing.”

The Observer’s Rachel Cooke is similarly mixed in her praise. Booth is said to be “unfair to Larkin’s lovers, women he apparently regards as the poet’s ‘creation’.” He also “overstate[s] the Larkin-haters’ case, the better that he might ride to the rescue.” All the same, “there is compensation in the form of his lengthy readings of the poems, which are close and thoughtful if not exactly exhilarating, and in his use of Larkin’s letters, which remind the reader again and again what a fantastic writer the poet was, even in casual mode.”

In the Spectator, on the other hand, Peter J. Conradi is much more positive, calling Booth’s biography “superb.” Conradi also suggests the book is superior to Motion’s: “Booth’s psychology is subtler than Motion’s and more convincing. His achievement is to paint a satisfying and believably complex picture . . . As for Larkin the misogynist, it is mysterious how the character painted by Motion could have had any love life at all, let alone a highly complex and fulfilling one.”

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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