A CIA agent, a naive young filmmaker, a dilettante heir and a lost Mayan temple form the basis of Ned Beauman’s latest, and arguably most impressive, novel. Two rival expeditions set off from the United States to the jungles of Honduras to find the temple — one with the intention of using it as a location in which to film an absurd comedy, the other determined to disassemble it and take it back to New York.
The two sides clash, each refusing to give way. The weeks roll into years; and life around the temple, populated with a disparate and distinct array of characters, steadily deteriorates into greater savagery. Meanwhile, Zonulet, rogue CIA agent (and primary narrator), under internal investigation, needs to unlock the secrets of the temple to prove his innocence.
Madness is Better than Defeat is then, above all, a typical Ned Beauman work. It’s all there: the convoluted plot, here compounded by shifts from first- to third- (and even briefly second-) person narration, to switches from the formal to the epistolary novel, to some playful Dickensian names.
It is also displays literary self-awareness. Much of the action around the temple brings to mind a more sophisticated and tamer version of Lord of the Flies. Meanwhile, the book’s early action sees the young director, Jervis Whelt, summoned by the reclusive Hollywood studio head, Arnold Spindler (a man with more than a touch of the Howard Hughes about him), who promptly tells Whelt that he is being sent into the jungle. It is a beautiful set piece that cannot help but bring to mind William Boot’s dispatch to cover ‘a very promising little war’ in the fictional Ishmaelia (based on Ethiopia) at the behest of the newspaper tycoon Lord Copper in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop.
Beauman is an intensely visual writer, a trait most apparent in his use of simile. A body draped across a steel roof truss is ‘like a pair of sneakers tossed over a telephone line,’ while a division within the CIA has ascended through ‘the body of the agency like some hungry teratoma or parasite homunculus’. He is at his best contrasting the physical and metaphysical to starkly incongruous — and vivid — effect: Zonulet feels his ‘sins sluicing off me like birdshit under a jet wash’.
If there is one adjective that describes Beauman’s prose it is ‘buoyant’ — a quality which allows the reader to get through a long book with little effort, and the author to carry the considerable heft of his intelligence lightly. And it is a roaming intelligence. The book exhibits a detailed knowledge of everything, from the early years of the CIA (originally OSS) to methods of manufacturing film in the jungle (even if both are embellished). At times it may feel like a display of cleverness; but the reader is prepared to forgive Beauman for the pleasure he delivers.