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.