Fourth novel something of a tall order

Acclaimed author Ned Beauman doesn't quite nail it in his latest novel.

Ned Beauman

By Peter Stupples

Ned Beauman’s earlier books have been highly praised, from The Guardian to The Financial Times. He has won awards and his second novel, The Teleportation Accident, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

His fourth novel, Madness is Better than Defeat, relates a number of intersecting stories that have at their core the making of a film entitled Hearts in Darkness that is, not surprisingly, set in a jungle far from Western civilisation. The jungle is placed in Spanish Honduras where, from its densest heart, rises a pyramidal Mayan temple. This is discovered by chance by a British explorer/academic who is made crazy by a knowledge he gained  while  studying his find.

The story of the mystical temple is taken up by a Hollywood studio, Kingdom Pictures, and in 1938 they send in a film crew with a rookie director to make a movie. At the same time an American magnate, head of the Eastern Aggregate Company, decides he must possess this temple to decorate the grounds of his estate. He also sends an expedition into the same jungle, led by his worthless erstwhile son, to bring the temple back stone by numbered stone. This second group arrives first and dismantles half the temple but is thwarted in its mission by the arrival of the film cast and crew.

The standoff between the two groups becomes a way of life. They all stay in the jungle for 20 years, forgotten, it seems by the outside world (a rescue mission is slaughtered by natives). All the time they are now and again observed by a third group of American agents/journalists, ex-CIA, trying to trace the disappearance of one of their "men" who seemed to be on to something. In the meantime the temple has its own secrets.

This twisted tale of greed, myopic enthusiasm, power rivalry, deception and group insanity, a little like Lord of the Flies if rewritten by J.G. Ballard (who is quoted as saying, "in a completely sane world, madness is the only freedom") is told with tongue in cheek, as if to keep pointing out to the reader that they cannot be seriously still reading such a preposterous story.

But then you look up from reading and think about the world in which we live and wonder: Beauman has something to say about the fantasy of a money economy, about the way gossip has us gasping for more, about the way our weaknesses leave us open to deceit, about, say, the Elgin Marbles.

He has a gift for one-liners, witty metaphors, wisecracks. He is smart. But he fails to give his characters any depth, any motivation for their existence on the page, as if one dimension is the new 3-D. At nearly 500 pages this is a big ask. Perhaps, after all, defeat is better than madness.

- Peter Stupples teaches at the Dunedin School of Art.

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