Ned Beauman’s new novel, “Madness Is Better Than Defeat,” begins with a wrestling match between a man and an octopus, which offers a fair warning of what it feels like to get wrapped up in this tentacled book. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on his shapeshifting plot, Beauman sprays more ink and leaves you wondering where he’s darted off to next.
For fans of this effervescent writer, such confusion is an elixir. In 2013, Beauman’s second novel, “The Teleportation Accident,” was longlisted for the Booker Prize, and Granta named him one of the best British writers under 40. Now, at the ripe age of 32, he still seems miraculously youthful and antique, as familiar with the currents of the present moment as he is with the early 20th century.
I have to confess that as the pages of “Madness Is Better Than Defeat” furled on toward 400, I wasn’t always entirely sure what was happening (I was never sure why it was happening), but it’s all so weirdly delightful that I kept racing along after him muttering, “Madness is better than defeat!”
I thought Bauman was joking — it’s never entirely clear when he isn’t — but that phrase does actually come from the end of a script Orson Welles wrote for an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” Although Welles never completed that film, it’s the gonzo centerpiece of Beauman’s novel, which stares into the menacing jungle and whispers, “The humor! The humor!”
The narrator is a CIA agent named Zonulet who’s struggling to exonerate himself for unspecified crimes in Honduras. “This is going to be a tell-all,” he says, “detailed and consistent and lifelike enough to exude the stench of truth.” All he has to do is locate and reconstruct the evidence he needs from a cavernous collection of top-secret papers and artifacts kept in a warehouse in Springfield, Va.
“I’m past the point of cultivating a readership,” Zonulet says, but Beauman certainly is not. This is a novel that never takes a breath, that works for our attention like a stand-up comic in front of a firing squad.
The story is equal parts “Indiana Jones” and “Gilligan’s Island” — shaken, not stirred. In the late 1930s, a powerful businessman dispatches his dissipated son and a team to Honduras to disassemble a long-lost Mayan temple and bring it back to display in New York. Coincidentally — sure — a Hollywood mogul sends a young, debut director to the same Mayan temple to film a movie called “Hearts in Darkness,” a picture that “ought to sit somewhere between ‘It Happened One Night’ and ‘Too Hot to Handle.’ ” Although the temple has been abandoned for centuries, these two teams — the New York grave robbers and the Hollywood actors — arrive at the site at the same time: one to dismantle the temple, the other to use it as their set. A stand-off ensues.
And lasts for 20 years.
This is so many flavors of crazy that it tastes like licking a toad. Completely isolated in the jungle, these thoroughly unprepared Americans develop their own government and economy that vacillates from “a toytown version of a free market” to a brutal dictatorship. The New Yorkers manage to build an ice machine and trade the cool relief for food. A particularly nasty journalist prints a weekly gossip rag, circulation 129. The actors rehearse “Hearts in Darkness” until the lead’s face is torn off by a monkey — “Not to worry,” he says, “my face is insured at Lloyd’s” — but then the script has to be rewritten a la “Phantom of the Opera.” The Hollywood director figures out a way to manufacture more film from tapir cartilage. Eventually, the return to America attains a kind of eschatological dimension: One far-off divine event to which the whole creation moves.
Why the CIA should be interested in this prolonged absurdity is the abiding mystery of “Madness Is Better Than Defeat.” Why we should be interested, though, is obvious. Aside from the endlessly surprising course through this hall of mirrors, Beauman’s voice is hypnotically witty: Candied absurdity steamed in a banana leaf. A single paragraph might offer us reflections on psychotropic fungus, German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz and fiat money. Flying through this jungle of parody, the story swings from noir crime to screwball comedy to spy thriller.
Eventually, even the characters in the novel get in on the gag and start to gasp at its boundless reach: “It must be as long as ‘Moby-Dick’ already, and you’re not even close to finishing the story,” someone complains. “I hope the hardcover will have an index.” Alas, it doesn’t. I spent far too long flipping back and forth trying to figure out who was who and where we were before I just gave up and let the river of Beauman’s genius sweep me along.
“Where did you learn to write this way?” a friend asks Zonulet. We might ask Beauman the same question.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World and host of TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
By Ned Beauman
Knopf. 399 pp. $27.95