Thursday, April 5, 2018

Madness Is Better Than Defeat: Mayhem in the Jungle

Ned Beauman writes some of the zaniest, funniest novels I've ever read, and his newest — Madness Is Better Than Defeat — might be his zaniest, funniest, and best yet. It's the story of a temple in Honduras, and CIA agents, and shadowy secret organizations, and drugs, and Hollywood, and newspapers in the golden age of journalism, and ex-Nazis, and titans of industry, and the nature of memory, and so so so much more. I loved it, despite its un-summarize-able plot. I mean, you don't read a Ned Beauman novel and expect a straight line. Indeed, the opening scene of this novel takes place in an underground speakeasy where people are betting on a guy wrestling an octopus underwater — which (and of course Beauman knows what he's doing here) is a beautifully apt metaphor for this novel. Just when a tentacle of plot starts to make sense, another one appears to smack it down.

Beauman novels have a plot logic all their own — you just have to accept that not everything is going to make complete sense. Things just happen, sometimes loosed of logic (though they usually wind up making sense later on...but sometimes not). Beauman his own unique way of tying his twisted plot together — and believe me, there are a ton of strings to bind.

And so, the basic premise in this novel is two competing expeditions embark into the jungles of Honduras in 1938 to find an old Indian temple. A CIA agent who is telling this story 20-plus years later becomes enmeshed in these expeditions for wacky reasons. We first see him looking through a CIA warehouse in the late 1950s looking for evidence he thinks will clear him of some crime, though we don't know what that is or what he's looking for, or even how the hell he's involved with the temple expeditions. But it all becomes slowly clear-ish.

Scared off? Don't be — just be fairly warned. I fully admit Beauman is a bit of an acquired taste. I made the mistake of recommending two of his other novels, Glow and The Teleportation Accident, both of which I really loved, to just about everyone I knew. Then I was disappointed when many of those people that read them wondered if I'd lost my damn mind.

This, like his previous work, is an incredibly funny, clever novel — I just love his writing. He has no qualms about spending a page-long digression just to set up a one-line joke. He has no problem breaking the fourth wall, and then having his characters joking about breaking the fourth wall — meta on top of meta! And his wandering eye catches everything. It's easy to compare him to Pynchon for his non-sensical plots and general goofiness, but I also like to think of him as similar to David Foster Wallace in how he observes and then relates the world he's created, and also how he mixes the low- and high-brow. It took me more than three weeks to read this because I really wanted to take it slow and digest as much of this as I could. It's a spectacularly inventive book, and I highly recommend it...if you're brave.

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