Books

Ned Beauman's Crazed Colonial Adventure, 'Madness Is Better Than Defeat', Gets Lost in the Weeds

Like Pynchon, Beauman wrings paranoia and gags from a dark confluence of American state and corporate power, yet unlike Pynchon, Beauman only seems interested in mining the material for superficial laughs.

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman

Alfred A Knopf

Feb 2018

Other

Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat centers on a temple in Honduras with a magnetic effect on dreamers and lunatics. In 1938, an expedition from New York comes to dismantle and move it, only to be thwarted by a group from Hollywood determined to shoot a movie in it. The two groups reach a stalemate and refuse to leave, but they aren't heard from again until the '50s when they attract the interest of the CIA. The CIA may have made a deal with a Mayan God and the CIA is definitely interested in the temple's strange fungus, which seems to endow omniscience. In the meantime, a duo of reporters uncovers the convoluted secret history that links both expeditions, which traces back to a dark feud between two industrial titans.

Beauman is a gifted stylist, writing fluid, colorful prose that zips through vast amounts of exposition. Like many authors mixing a maximally broad historical canvas with a pulpy, comic sensibility, the obvious referent is Thomas Pynchon. Like Pynchon, the author wrings paranoia and gags from a dark confluence of American state and corporate power, yet unlike Pynchon, whose fantastic inventions reflected a deeply considered, intricately structured, and also personally experienced reckoning with the unseen power of the military industrial complex, Beauman only seems interested in mining the material for superficial laughs. While Beauman has clearly done his research, attested to by a bevy of facts and period details, it's far less clear that he's formed any opinions on his subjects. Pointing out the shared fabulism of news, movies, and espionage, Beauman seems to see all the characters as morally neutral pieces to move around the board, whether they're Nazi war criminals or inexplicably determined reporters.

Inexplicable determination is a running theme in Madness Is Better Than Defeat, because almost every character's motivation is impossible to divine. Beauman manages to give three or four characters a reason to stay in the jungle, but that leaves over a hundred others who are inexplicably willing to abandon their families and homes for 18 years, receiving no payment and living in mortal peril the entire time (albeit missing the entirety of WWII). There is zero sense that the characters have a life off the page, they seem to wait literal decades with one thing on their mind until the plot is ready for them to appear again. The only real event of this interlude is that gossip reporter Trimble somehow parlays gossip into absolute power, something that might be interesting to actually see in action, but that Beauman just declares has happened in exposition with two flimsy examples. Far worse are the contrived, never-to-be-sent letters that serve as a naked crutch for delivering exposition until they are (shockingly!) discovered.

Beauman is able to dazzle the reader with scheme after scheme after scheme, but eventually one notices a lack of human emotion underpinning the action. The expedition members defer all independent thought to their leaders, who in turn are revealed to be pawns of their fathers, whom Beauman hints are in thrall to a supernatural force. No one feels autonomous and thus the story has no emotional center. Four hundred pages is a long time to spend in the company of characters who can't decide why they're doing what they're doing.

While parts are admittedly funny, the farcical tone is dampened by a mean streak. The story is punctuated by cruel, often crass, acts of violence, frequently towards women (central to the plot are two women, one who is raped and another who is falsely confined and assaulted; neither receives a single line of dialogue). Further, Beauman frequently uses violence to get himself out of plot holes, most noticeably at the ending, when he stages a giant shootout rather than actually answer the mysteries raised by the plot.

As some writing has become more personal, some inheritors of Pynchon's influence have swerved the other way, seeking to efface themselves completely and construct novels out of more and more external stuff – plots, histories, schemes within schemes. Pynchon himself might have pulled it off, but Beauman certainly doesn't, as all of his verbal pyrotechnics cannot distract from the ultimate question: Why? Why does the author care about any of this and why should the reader? As the reader finally emerges from the dense thickets of Madness Is Better Than Defeat, the author's actual emotions and opinions seem more opaque than ever and the only conclusion one can draw is that he hasn't actually been to the jungle.

4
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

The Top 20 Punk Protest Songs for July 4th

As punk music history verifies, American citizenry are not all shiny, happy people. These 20 songs reflect the other side of patriotism -- free speech brandished by the brave and uncouth.

Books

90 Years on 'Olivia' Remains a Classic of Lesbian Literature

It's good that we have our happy LGBTQ stories today, but it's also important to appreciate and understand the daunting depths of feeling that a love repressed can produce. In Dorothy Strachey's case, it produced the masterful Olivia.

Music

Indie Rocker Alpha Cat Presents 'Live at Vox Pop' (album stream)

A raw live set from Brooklyn in the summer of 2005 found Alpha Cat returning to the stage after personal tumult. Sales benefit organizations seeking to end discrimination toward those seeking help with mental health issues.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

‘The Avengers’ Offer a Lesson for Our Time of COVID-19

Whereas the heroes in Avengers: Endgame stew for five years, our grief has barely taken us to the after-credit sequence. Someone page Captain Marvel, please.

Music

Between the Grooves of Nirvana's 'Nevermind'

Our writers undertake a track-by-track analysis of the most celebrated album of the 1990s: Nirvana's Nevermind. From the surprise hit that brought grunge to the masses, to the hidden cacophonous noise-fest that may not even be on your copy of the record, it's all here.

Music

Deeper Graves Arrives via 'Open Roads' (album stream)

Chrome Waves, ex-Nachtmystium man Jeff Wilson offers up solo debut, Open Roads, featuring dark and remarkable sounds in tune with Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus.

Featured: Top of Home Page

The 50 Best Albums of 2020 So Far

Even in the coronavirus-shortened record release schedule of 2020, the year has offered a mountainous feast of sublime music. The 50 best albums of 2020 so far are an eclectic and increasingly "woke" bunch.

Books

First Tragedy, Then Farce, Then What?

Riffing off Marx's riff on Hegel on history, art historian and critic Hal Foster contemplates political culture and cultural politics in the age of Donald Trump in What Comes After Farce?

Reviews

HAIM Create Their Best Album with 'Women in Music Pt. III'

On Women in Music Pt. III, HAIM are done pretending and ready to be themselves. By learning to embrace the power in their weakest points, the group have created their best work to date.

Music

Amnesia Scanner's 'Tearless' Aesthetically Maps the Failing Anthropocene

Amnesia Scanner's Tearless aesthetically maps the failing Anthropocene through its globally connected features and experimental mesh of deconstructed club, reggaeton, and metalcore.

Music

How Lasting Is the Legacy of the Live 8 Charity Concert?

A voyage to the bottom of a T-shirt drawer prompts a look back at a major event in the history of celebrity charity concerts, 2005's Live 8, Philadelphia.

Music

Jessie Ware Embraces Her Club Culture Roots on Rapturous 'What's Your Pleasure?'

British diva Jessie Ware cooks up a glittery collection of hedonistic disco tracks and delivers one of the year's best records with What's Your Pleasure.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.