Wednesday 29 January 2020

Adventures in the jungle... back and forth in time

Fiction: Madness is Better Than Defeat, Ned Beauman, Sceptre, hardback, 469 pages, €19

Indiana and the Mayan temple: Ned Beauman delivers an enthralling tale
Indiana and the Mayan temple: Ned Beauman delivers an enthralling tale
Madness is Better Than Defeat by Ned Beauman
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

For a reader like me, who loves genre escapism but generally needs the writing to be something close to excellent, a book like Madness is Better Than Defeat is almost perfect. Ned Beauman's novel tells a rattling good adventure yarn - this would make a fantastic Indiana Jones-style movie - in prose that's elegant, eloquent, very smooth and a real pleasure to read.

Beauman, a Londoner wunderkind already on his third publication, moves back and forth in time, and traverses the world atlas, for this story of power, ambition, lust, art, identity, mythology and, yes, madness. The narrative is framed by the memoirs of Zonulet, a former newspaper hack turned CIA spook, writing initially in 1959. Cloistered in an American basement somewhere, surrounded by masses of evidence and apparently in disgrace with the Agency, he brings us from the beginning, in 1938, to the present.

Through a clever plot device, Beauman explains how Zonulet can know the thoughts, feelings and entire conversations of other people, in other countries, decades earlier. This does two things: it circumvents that annoying convention in fiction whereby first-person narrators are somehow omniscient, and it partly explains the source of the madness, or at least obsession, which infects most of the book's many characters.

Zonulet has been gifted some kind of beyond-space-and-time extrasensory perception after inhaling a mould, brought from the jungles of Honduras, which has reacted with a chemical solvent. I didn't say it was realistic, merely that it was clever.

Besides, the conceit works fine in Madness is Better Than Defeat, which isn't realism anyway. It's not quite fantasy either, however, to reference Indiana Jones again, it's 95pc located in our universe, with that 5pc allowing authorial wriggle-room for introducing an element of… what? Science fiction. Magic. Mystery.

The story concerns a just-discovered Mayan temple, deep in the jungle primeval, in the late 1930s. Two expeditions, unbeknownst to each other - or so we think at first - set out there, for completely opposing reasons.

One, led by rich New York gadabout Elias Coehorn Jr, intends to dismantle the monument, brick by brick, and reassemble it in NYC, under the orders of his terrifying billionaire father. (Think John Huston in Chinatown, but even more of an evil bastard.)

The other, led by eccentric filmmaker Jervis Whelt, wants to use the temple as the setting for a Tarzan-style adventure film. By the time he arrives, it has been half-torn down.

Neither group will compromise. So the Angelenos end up living on the temple's steps, the New Yorkers setting up camp across the way. And they all stay there for the next 20 years.

The place exerts a strange grip on everyone who comes within its orbit. Lassitude and dissociation from their previous existences take hold. They adapt to the torpid rhythms of jungle life. Alliances are formed. Romances blossom. Babies are born, people die, by accident or old age.

And all this time, nobody comes to rescue them, or find out what happened to two fairly large groups of people, who seemingly disappeared in 1938. Weirder still, they don't seem particularly bothered by this.

Meanwhile Whelt reckons he's met Mayan gods inside a secret chamber, and Zonulet - along with former colleague and future paramour, Meredith Vansaska - pieces together, over years, what's happening in Honduras. Even at a remove of thousands of miles, this peculiar place draws them in.

With an ease and confidence belying his youth - but reflecting the fact he's already been Booker longlisted - Beauman draws vivid characters and settings (be they physical or psychological) in a few sentences or a snatch of dialogue. The plot is brisk and expertly paced, and absolutely packed with incident.

In fact, if I have one criticism, it's that the story itself is so richly detailed, and hurtles along at such a fast clip (though always with the author in full control of the reins), that I got confused on occasion. I wasn't sure what year we were in now, say, or what exactly had happened to such-and-such in the previous scene. Then again, these were rare - and it's quite possible they were also deliberate.

The world itself is confusing, and weird, and unknowable in the end. If Madness is Better Than Defeat has a big deep "point" to make, that might be it.

I'm not sure it does though, which, by the way, is perfectly fine. This is one of the most purely enjoyable novels I've read in years - by turns sad, moving, thoughtful, intriguing, clever, enlightening, surprising and laugh-out-loud funny - which is more than enough. I can't think of any type of reader who wouldn't enjoy it: whether your thing is genre, literary or, like this, a fizzling, sparking, sparkling mixture of the two.

Darragh McManus' novels include Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl

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