Friday, October 13, 2017

'Madness is Better Than Defeat' by Ned Beauman

13 October 2017

Ned Beauman's novel 'The Teleportation Accident' (reviewed here in July 2013) was the best book I read in 2013 (indeed it was my overall cultural Pick of the Year). His new novel, ‘Madness is Better Than Defeat’ (which I have just finished reading as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Eric Meyers) is definitely in the running for a similar accolade at the end of 2017. After setting his previous novel, ‘Glow’ (reviewed here in June 2014), in contemporary London, ‘Madness is Better Than Defeat’ returns Beauman to the kind of historical 20th century setting that seems to suit him best. It tells the tale of two ill-fated American expeditions which arrive simultaneously at a recently discovered Mayan temple in the jungle of Spanish Honduras in 1938 – one party intent on dismantling the temple and transporting it back to New York, while the other had planned to use the temple as the backdrop for a Hollywood film, ‘Hearts of Darkness’. A stand-off in the jungle ensues – and lasts for the next 20 years! But, of course with a Ned Beaman novel, it’s much more complicated than that. He presents at least four explanations for the bizarre events in the jungle, constructing an incredibly complex nest of narratives and never quite explaining who or what we are expected to believe. Like each of his previous books, ‘Madness is Better Than Defeat’ is clever, surprising, baffling, hilarious, and completely bonkers. Beauman writes beautifully witty similes and metaphors: “overhead there flew a macau with prismatic feathers, like an advance scout for a rainbow”. The plot is deliberately confusing but what this book is really about is the process of narrative. ‘Madness is Better Than Defeat’ takes the idea of an unreliable narrator to new extremes (even offering a rational explanation, of sorts, for the presence of an omniscient third-person narrator). This a jigsaw puzzle tale, told by someone who wasn’t present at most of the events that are recounted. And the timeframe jumps backwards and forwards between 1938 and 1959, only very gradually (and partially) filling in huge gaps in the story. Many of the characters have plenty to say about way you should construct a story – creating a meta narrative about the way the book itself is built. If that sounds perplexing, it is – but in a very entertaining way. This is ‘Citizen Kane’ plus ‘Lord of the Flies’ and ‘Treasure Island’ reimagined by Graham Greene. I loved it.



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