Madness is Better Than Defeat
by Ned Beauman
Young author Ned Beauman, coming off a truly impressive track record of work – The Teleportation Accident, Glow, and his quirkily brilliant debut Boxer, Beetle – doubles and triples his usual narrative complexity in his dense, occasionally delirious, and often disarmingly funny new novel Madness is Better Than Defeat, in which two parallel expeditions converge on a mysterious ruined temple deep in the jungle of Spanish Honduras in 1938.
One of these expeditions is limitlessly funded by Elias Coehorn, the magnate behind Eastern Aggregate Company and headed by his flinty, narcissistic son Elias, with the intent of exploring and perhaps expropriating the temple (he takes along Cambridge undergraduate Joan Burlingame as his anthropological expert, much to her dismay). The other expedition is led by boyish, socially maladroit neophyte director Jervis Whelt, who's been deputized by reclusive Hollywood mogul Arnold Spindler, the head of Kingdom Pictures, who wants Whelt to direct the movie Hearts in Darkness (later to be known as “the most ill-starred movie in Hollywood history”) and insists on the importance of filming on location; “It's a new jungle every time,” we're told at one point. “The world of our movie doesn't exist until the instant the first reel starts. Nothing carries over. The opening narration is Genesis. Every poisonous fern is still dewy with vernix.”
From this whirring, clacking, very intentionally baroque premise Beauman proceeds to build a towering ziggurat of heated, eloquent absurdity, two carefully controlled plot-vectors that converge early upon each other and then feed off each other in increasingly bizarre ways. Jervis Whelt's nearly-mathematical theories about movie directing run into the same kinds of on-set nightmare complications that plagued Francis Ford Coppola during the filming of Apocalypse Now (particularly when the temple turns out to be not entirely abandoned). And Coehorn Junior quickly comes to like the autonomy he discovers in the jungle, far from his allowance-controlling father:
Coehorn got this feet. Here was an excitement he hadn't felt since those first clashes in 1938. Not long ago it had struck him that, like his father, he had founded a corporation. The industry in which the corporation did most of its business was the satisfaction of his whims and languors, and in that respect it might resemble a sort of burlesque of Eastern Aggregate, but it was no less functional or self-sustaining. He would never underrate his achievement. And yet he still wanted the temple as badly as ever.
At no point in this enormously textured novel does Beauman lose or even loosen his control over his florid, hyperventilating material, which is a marvel in its own right. He fills his narrative with dozens of outsize characters, each one prone to extemporaneous and often quite lengthy disquisitions on hundreds of subjects, and yet there's heart and touching emotion and smart, boisterous humor as well, and an intensely satisfying deeper plot that emerges slowly and makes the book's two parallel expeditions look more and more connected – through their two organizers, Coehorn Senior and Arnold Spindler (as one character memorably puts it, in appropriately theatrical terms, “That sort of hatred can have a very long run”). Readers disillusioned with how thin contemporary novels can feel will find this effusive, heartfelt story downright rejuvenating.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.