Boldly titled Madness is Better than Defeat, the fourth novel from Ned Beauman gloriously showcases much of the former but little of the latter, his most complex and ambitious work to date in terms of structure, narrative and the myriad characters between whom he bounces like a bagatelle, a sprawling tale of the sweating insanity of the jungle which holds sway over those who come within its influence.
Primarily told in retrospect by Zonulet, he is a forty-three-year-old alcoholic entombed in a basement of papers and decaying film reels in which he prepares evidence for his defence in a tribunal he will likely not live to see, a case which dates back to 1938, eleven years before he began his decade long tenure with the CIA, events he did not witness but has reconstructed by unconventional means which become apparent through the telling.
It was in that year that Elias Coehorn, Jr was pressganged by his long-suffering father to lead an expedition to a newly discovered Mayan temple in Spanish Honduras on the threat of his allowance being cut off; unable to fend off his many debtors without familial support, he grudgingly sees no choice but to comply with his father’s bizarre demand that the temple be brought to him.
Simultaneously, Arnold Spindler, reclusive founder-chairman of Kingdom Pictures, has appointed Jervis Whelt as director of the adaptation of Hearts in Darkness despite him having no previous practical experience in the motion picture industry; with his cast and crew he ventures to Spanish Honduras to film on location at a newly discovered Mayan Temple where, to the consternation of all involved in the production, they finds Coehorn’s expedition already deconstructing the temple in order to transport it to New York.
As is typical of Beauman, Madness is Better than Defeat is a parade of terrible people doing awful things in response to outlandish circumstances in an absurd setting, a menagerie of wilful contrarians and antagonistic eccentrics, selfish egotists whose only reason for helping another human being is if it will give them an immediate or subsequent advantage, and set over a span of decades many do indeed have their weary eyes on the long game.
Trying to balance the deadlock between monomaniacs Coehorn and Whelt are the relatively sane voices of prudish anthropologist Joan Burlingame and wardrobe assistant Gracie Calix, but any character who displays a glimmer of kindness or goodness is swiftly beaten down, their efforts countered by gossipy journalist Leland Trimble and later the intrusion of Hauptsturmführer Kurt Meinong, hiding in South America from the aftermath of the fall of the Third Reich and seeing the isolated camp as a convenient locale from where to begin preparations for the Fourth.
Trimble supposedly covering the shoot for the New York Evening Mirror but instead enjoying the power he has over his blackmailed subjects, back home his former colleague Meredith Vansaska assists Zonulet in his attempts to find meaning in the 300,000,000 feet of jungle-made celluloid capturing around 50,000 hours recorded between 1938 and 1957, improbable complications and connections woven in a non-linear narrative, Beauman driving by the seat of his pants without brakes and swerving around the bends like a diver who has risen too fast.
The digressions so frequent and engrossing that it is often necessary to check back where they spun off from the central plot – for there actually is one – the titular madness is expressed in that loss of linear time, events overlapping, moments and memories played back in careful, hypnotic detail then years skipped in the turn of a page, the novel serving as the antithesis to the movie it postulates, an ouroboros in constant spiralling fractal freefall as it feeds back into itself.
That endemic madness alone perhaps insufficient, as ever Beauman loves an exotic ailment or physical impairment, savage attack by wounded octopus, maulings by monkeys and big cats, decaying brains in a fractured skull, an otherwise unviable foetus nourishing itself from the bleeding tumour it nestles besides, and through this it is Joan and Meredith who push the story forwards as the men indulge their whimsies and are coddled, finding strength in their personal recoveries from their own forms of madness, Joan enjoying a peace of mind in the jungle she could never have in the real world.
His previous research into Nazi Germany for Boxer, Beetle, the golden age of Hollywood for The Teleportation Accident and pharmacology for Glow brought together and synthesised into a new and dazzling whole, it questions the cultural biases and norms these supposedly enlightened people have brought into this strange world, asking if the Gods of the Temple have driven the men insane and whether a native would be judged by the same standards as a Hollywood director, or a disgraced CIA agent?
A microcosm of a nation state in possession of a valuable resource and those outside who covet it, sending agents provocateurs and flooding the economy with fake currency to attempt to engineer a favourable shift in power then when that fails simply going in with guns and trying to bury the evidence when it goes wrong, it is American foreign policy ground down and rendered into gelatin for makeshift cellulose in the same way Whelt’s cult of followers do with tapir bones; if madness is better than defeat, what is the price of victory?
Madness is Better than Defeat is available now from Sceptre books