David Bowie in 1973. Photo: Michael Ochs/Gettuy
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From the archive: Martin Amis on the “mild fad” of David Bowie

The feelings David Bowie aroused will vanish along with the fashion built around him, argued Martin Amis in 1973.

First published in the New Statesman on 6 July 1973.

When Glam-Rock superstar David Bowie flounced on to the Hammersmith Odeon stage last Monday night, recognisably male and not even partially naked, it seemed that we would be denied the phenomenon-of-our-times spectacle which your reporter was banking on. The preludial ambience, too, was discouragingly humdrum: behind me in the audience upper-class slummers boomingly voiced their fears of having to endure a “really grotty” supporting band; in front of me teenage couples snogged with old-fashioned – not to say reactionary – zeal; beside me a joint was lit and furtively extinguished; and on stage, prior to curtain-up, a fat old teddy-boy appeared, asked Hammersmith if it was feeling good, wanted a louder answer, got one, and left us with a lie about the anticipated time lapse before Mr Bowie’s arrival. Once under way, admittedly, that musician went through various stages of déshabillé – now in orange rompers, now a miniskirt, now in hot-pants, now a leotard – but we never got to see the famous silver catsuit and pink jockstrap. Bowie did, it’s true, have a habit of turning away from the audience and sulkily twitching his backside at it before floating off to arouse each aisle in turn with his silky gaze – but there was no sign of the celebrated sodomistic routine involving lead guitarist Mick Ronson, no acts of stylised masturbation and fellatio with microphone and mikestand. Perhaps Mr Bowie just wasn’t feeling up to it that evening, or perhaps Mr Bowie was just a mild fad hystericised by “the media”, an entrepreneur of camp who knew how little, as well as how much, he could get away with.

But despite these austerities the superstar’s dinky weapon of a torso remained the centrepiece of the concert. When Bowie entered, half the audience rushed the stage and the other half got to its feet; during the interval, the fat teddy-boy lumbered on to coax and cajole everyone back to their places; when Bowie re-entered, half the audience rushed the stage and the other half got to its feet – or its knees. Interestingly, this physical presence was exerted with none of the Grand-Guignol goonery of an Alice Cooper (black leather and bull-whips) or a Gary Glitter (moronic foot-stomping), and without any of the sincere, and therefore quite charmless, exhibitionism of the beefy Mr Ronson. For all his preening and swanking Bowie often seemed a frail, almost waiflike figure, curiously dwarfed by the electric aura of knowing sexiness and modish violence on which his act depends – panicky strobes, dizzying light effects, a Clockwork Orange-theme ritornello, and SS lightning-flashes.

This incongruity may be responsible for Bowie’s appeal and for what (if anything) is sinister about it. Among certain more affluent hippies Bowie is apparently the symbol of a kind of thrilling extremism, a life-style (the word is for once permissible) characterised by sexual omnivorousness, lavish use of stimulants – particularly cocaine, very much an élitist drug, being both expensive and galvanising – self-parodied narcissism, and a glamorously early death. To dignify this unhappy outlook with such a term as “nihilist” would, of course, be absurd; but Bowie does appear to be a new focus for the vague, predatory, escapist reveries of the alienated young. Although Bowie himself is unlikely to last long as a cult, it is hard to believe that the feelings he has aroused or aggravated will vanish along with the fashion built round him. 

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Anniversary Issue 2015

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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