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.