Book Serendipity, Mid-February to Mid-April
I call it “Book Serendipity” when two or more books that I read at the same time or in quick succession have something in common – the more bizarre, the better. This is a regular feature of mine every couple of months. Because I usually have 20–30 books on the go at once, I suppose I’m more prone to such incidents. The following are in roughly chronological order.
Last time, my biggest set of coincidences was around books set in or about Korea or by Korean authors; this time it was Ghana and Ghanaian authors:
- Reading two books set in Ghana at the same time: Fledgling by Hannah Bourne-Taylor and His Only Wife by Peace Adzo Medie. I had also read a third book set in Ghana, What Napoleon Could Not Do by DK Nnuro, early in the year and then found its title phrase (i.e., “you have done what Napoleon could not do,” an expression of praise) quoted in the Medie! It must be a popular saying there.
- Reading two books by young Ghanaian British authors at the same time: Quiet by Victoria Adukwei Bulley and Maame by Jessica George.
And the rest:
- An overweight male character with gout in Where the God of Love Hangs Out by Amy Bloom and The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho by Paterson Joseph.
- I’d never heard of “shoegaze music” before I saw it in Michelle Zauner’s bio at the back of Crying in H Mart, but then I also saw it mentioned in Pulling the Chariot of the Sun by Shane McCrae.
- Sheila Heti’s writing on motherhood is quoted in Without Children by Peggy O’Donnell Heffington and In Vitro by Isabel Zapata. Before long I got back into her novel Pure Colour. A quote from another of her books (How Should a Person Be?) is one of the epigraphs to Lorrie Moore’s I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home.
- Reading two Mexican books about motherhood at the same time: Still Born by Guadalupe Nettel and In Vitro by Isabel Zapata.
- Two coming-of-age novels set on the cusp of war in 1939: The Inner Circle by T.C. Boyle and Martha Quest by Doris Lessing.
- A scene of looking at peculiar human behaviour and imagining how David Attenborough would narrate it in a documentary in Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson and I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai.
- The painter Caravaggio is mentioned in a novel (The Things We Do to Our Friends by Heather Darwent) plus two poetry books (The Fourth Sister by Laura Scott and Manorism by Yomi Sode) I was reading at the same time.
- Characters are plagued by mosquitoes in The Last Animal by Ramona Ausubel and Through the Groves by Anne Hull.
- Edinburgh’s history of grave robbing is mentioned in The Things We Do to Our Friends by Heather Darwent and Womb by Leah Hazard.
- I read a chapter about mayflies in Lev Parikian’s book Taking Flight and then a poem about mayflies later the same day in Ephemeron by Fiona Benson.
- Childhood reminiscences about playing the board game Operation and wetting the bed appear in Homesick by Jennifer Croft and Through the Groves by Anne Hull.
- Fiddler on the Roof songs are mentioned in Through the Groves by Anne Hull and We All Want Impossible Things by Catherine Newman.
- There’s a minor character named Frith in Shadow Girls by Carol Birch and Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.
- Scenes of a female couple snogging in a bar bathroom in Through the Groves by Anne Hull and The Garnett Girls by Georgina Moore.
- The main character regrets not spending more time with her father before his sudden death in Maame by Jessica George and Pure Colour by Sheila Heti.
- The main character is called Mira in Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton and Pure Colour by Sheila Heti, and a Mira is briefly mentioned in one of the stories in Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evans.
- Macbeth references in Shadow Girls by Carol Birch and Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton – my second Macbeth-sourced title in recent times, after Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin last year.
- A ‘Goldilocks scenario’ is referred to in Womb by Leah Hazard (the ideal contraction strength) and Taking Flight by Lev Parikian (the ideal body weight for a bird).
- Caribbean patois and mention of an ackee tree in the short story collection If I Survive You by Jonathan Escoffery and the poetry collection Cane, Corn & Gully by Safiya Kamaria Kinshasa.
- The Japanese folktale “The Boy Who Drew Cats” appeared in Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng, which I read last year, and then also in Enchantment by Katherine May.
- Chinese characters are mentioned to have taken part in the Tiananmen Square massacre/June 4th incident in Dear Chrysanthemums by Fiona Sze-Lorrain and Oh My Mother! by Connie Wang.
- Endometriosis comes up in What My Bones Know by Stephanie Foo and Womb by Leah Hazard.
What’s the weirdest reading coincidence you’ve had lately?
I own too many unread books by…
A side effect of packing my library in preparation for moving: I’ve noticed there are certain authors whose works I tend to acquire secondhand and then stockpile rather than read. (I’ve also included in the tallies copies that I know are sitting in boxes in the USA.)
D.H. Lawrence: 9+ (Aaron’s Rod, Kangaroo, The Lost Girl, The Plumed Serpent, a Complete Poems volume, Sea and Sardinia, a Selected Short Stories volume, Studies in Classic American Literature, The Woman Who Rode Away)
Lawrence was one of my research specialties as an undergraduate, so I read all his major works in my early twenties, as well as some lesser-known stuff, but haven’t felt compelled to pick up anything by him since. I’m not sure I’d care for him anymore, and it’s as if I don’t want to destroy the mystique. Yet I also can’t bring myself to get rid of these.
T.C. Boyle: 7 (A Friend of the Earth, The Inner Circle, Riven Rock, The Tortilla Curtain, Water Music, The Women, World’s End)
I’ve read five of Boyle’s books and have had a mixed experience, but his plots – whether biographical (Alfred Kinsey! the wives and lovers of Frank Lloyd Wright!) or environmental – tend to attract me. My husband has actually become the bigger fan, so has read 3–4 of these that I haven’t.
W. Somerset Maugham: 7 (Ashenden, Christmas Holiday, Creatures of Circumstance, Liza of Lambeth, The Magician, The Razor’s Edge, The Summing Up)
I read four of Maugham’s novels between 2014 and 2020. He’s an unappreciated author these days. Back when we had a free bookshop in my local mall, I volunteered weekly and most weeks came away with a backpack full of goodies. One week it was a partial leatherbound set of Maugham, which I’ve since supplemented with other paperbacks.
Robertson Davies: 6.5 (The Salterton Trilogy, The Deptford Trilogy, The Cornish Trilogy)
I loved Fifth Business and The Rebel Angels, read for subsequent Robertson Davies week challenges run by Lory, but made aborted attempts at both ‘sequels’, so the rest of his three major trilogies remain unread on my shelves.
Barbara Comyns: 5 (The Juniper Tree, The House of Dolls, Mr Fox, The Skin Chairs, A Touch of Mistletoe)
I blame Liz for this one: after I read Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead during Novellas in November last year, she passed on her Comyns stash in a lovely Christmas parcel. Most are short enough to suit a future #NovNov, but I have The Juniper Tree earmarked for 20 Books of Summer (flora themed) and A Touch of Mistletoe for Christmastide.
Wendy Perriam: 5 (Absinthe for Elevenses, Breaking and Entering, Cuckoo, Michael, Michael, Sin City)
Again, mostly Liz’s fault. (Though two others came from my Hay-on-Wye haul in September 2020.) I’ve still only read the one novel by Perriam, The Stillness The Dancing, but it was great and made me confident that I’d enjoy engaging with her repeated themes.
Richard Mabey: 4 (The Common Ground, Gilbert White biography, Nature Cure, The Unofficial Countryside)
Considering that Mabey is the father of modern British nature writing, it’s kind of shocking that I’ve never read anything by him. I’ve put Nature Cure on my bedside pile to start soon.
Virginia Woolf: 4 (Between the Acts, The Waves, The Years, a volume of her diaries)
I’ve tried The Waves and The Years and didn’t get further than a few pages; I find Woolf unreadably dense in a way I didn’t in my early twenties, when I studied To the Lighthouse (go figure). But there’s still this compulsion to have read them so that I can be a well-rounded literary person.
Kent Haruf: 3 (Plainsong, Eventide, Benediction)
Our Souls at Night topped my backlist reads in 2020, but an attempt at reading Plainsong soon after failed. I think it was more involved, with more strands, than I was expecting after the simplicity of his novella. So the trilogy, acquired piecemeal secondhand, has languished on my shelves. I’ll try again with Plainsong this year.
Elizabeth Jane Howard: 3 (Marking Time, Confusion, Casting Off)
I loved sinking into The Light Years, the first volume of The Cazalet Chronicles (read for a book club meeting last January), and even read the first 60 pages of the sequel, Marking Time, but then tailed off – you can see I’m terrible about continuing with series. But I’d like to get back into this one and, when I do, I have Books 2–4 out of five awaiting me.
Mary Karr: 3 (The Liars’ Club, Cherry, Lit)
Karr was key to the resurgence in popularity of memoirs in the 1990s. I’ve read her book about memoir (as well as a commencement speech she gave, and a volume of her poems), but not yet one of her actual memoirs. I found them all free or secondhand on trips back to the States. I don’t know whether it’s important to go in the chronological order listed above, or if I should just jump in with whichever, maybe Lit, about her struggle with alcoholism.
Sue Miller: 3 (The Lake Shore Limited, While I Was Gone, The World Below)
After I read Monogamy in December 2020 and it ended up on my Best-of list for that year, I scurried to get hold of a bunch of her other books. I’ve since read The Senator’s Wife, which was a big disappointment, but I’m looking forward to trying more.
Howard Norman: 3 (Devotion, The Northern Lights, What Is Left the Daughter)
I’ve read six of Norman’s books; he’s an underrated treasure of an author. I have no idea why I haven’t read these yet. Two are marooned in America, but The Northern Lights could make it onto a reading stack anytime. I just need the right excuse, it seems.
I’m thinking back to 2020, when I realized I had four unread Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie books on my shelves. Through various challenges – doorstoppers, summer reads, short stories, novellas – I managed to read them ALL that year, followed by another two in 2021. I don’t usually enjoy binging on particular authors in that way, but her books are different enough from each other (and just so good) that I didn’t mind.
I can’t promise to try the same tactic with these underread authors this year, but I can at least resolve to read one book by each of them, to reduce the backlog.
Do you have particular authors you own a lot by … but fail to read?
Bookbarn Book Haul & More
We’re back from our weekend in Bristol and Exeter to hang out with university friends and attend our goddaughter’s dedication service. On the way (ish) down, we stopped at Bookbarn International, one of my favorite places to look for secondhand books. The shop is always coming up with new ideas and ventures – a rare books room, a café, stationery and store-brand merchandise, new stock alongside the used books, and so on – and has recently been doing some renovating of the main shop space. I contributed to a crowdfunder for this and got to pick up my rewards while I was there, including the items at right and a £10 store voucher, which, along with the small balance of my vendor account, more than covered my purchases that day.
We arrived around noon so started with a café lunch of all-day veggie cooked breakfasts plus cakes and coffee. Delicious! Then it was time for some dedicated browsing. All of the books on the main shop floor are £1 each; they’re working on restocking this area after the refurbishment. I found 12 books here, and ordered another two (the Janet Frame biography and Gail Godwin’s nonfiction book Heart) from the warehouse for £2 each.
From my book haul, I’m particularly pleased with:
- The sequel to another Robertson Davies novel I own
- The Frame biography – I loved her three-part autobiography and have also been dipping into her fiction; it will be fascinating to learn the ‘truth’ behind how she presented her life in memoir and autofiction. This copy looks to be in new condition, too.
- The Tulip by Anna Pavord, which I’ve long meant to read
- Another Carolyn Parkhurst novel – I loved The Dogs of Babel and Harmony
- Another Wendy Perriam novel – I read my first last year and have been hoping to find more
I also bought copies of two of my favorite memoirs, And When Did You Last See Your Father? and Journal of a Solitude (though I own a copy in America, I’d like it to be part of my rereading project this year). I now own two unread novels each by Candia McWilliam and Michèle Roberts and three by Rose Tremain, so I’ll need to be sure I read one from each author this year. I also have a bad habit of hoarding biographies but not reading them, so I want to at least read the Frame one before the year is out.
Between Bristol’s charity shops and Book-Cycle in Exeter, I bought another five novels during the weekend, including the Vann to reread and several by authors I want to increase my familiarity with. (Smug points for not buying the £2.50 copy of Boyle’s The Women at Bookbarn and then finding it at Book Cycle for 50 pence instead.) Total weekend spend on 19 books: £2.12.
Picked up any good secondhand bargains recently?
Short Story Collections Read Recently
This is the third year in a row that I’ve made a concerted effort to read more short stories in the alliterative month of September; see also my 2016 and 2017 performances. (I actually finished Sarah Hall’s collection in late August, but I’m going to cheat and include it anyway.) That makes for four volumes in total read recently. Surprisingly, I had my best luck with two that were published back in the early 1990s.
Like many devoted novel readers, I struggle with short stories because they can feel fragmentary or open-ended, and it takes that much more effort to keep up with multiple settings and groups of characters. Yet I also get frustrated when the narrative voice and themes are too similar across a whole set of tales.
However, when done well short stories can be marvelous, of course. I enjoyed K.J. Orr’s article on short stories in the September 7th issue of the Times Literary Supplement. Among the virtues of the short story, she lists the following:
- “the capacity to stoke questions of definition and instability, resolution and irresolution … ; to deliver its conundrums to the reader in a state of compression”
- “The unpredictability involved means that picking up a new short story always feels to me a moment full of possibilities.”
- “The short story can combine complexity and uncertainty with ebullience and humour. It can take on subjects and situations that risk seeming clichéd and open them to wonder. It can put the familiar and the strange in conversation.”
And yet sometimes the quality of the writing, or at least the intensity of my engagement, can vary wildly within a story collection, which often makes the books difficult to rate and respond to as a whole. That’s what I found with these first two.
Madame Zero by Sarah Hall (2017)
Three corkers; two pretty good; four been-there-read-that. My favorites were the first and last stories, “Mrs Fox” and “Evie” (winner of the BBC National Short Story Prize 2013 and shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award 2013, respectively). Both concern a fairly average marriage derailed when the wife undergoes a transformation. In the former Sophia literally turns into a fox and her husband scrambles for a way to make the relationship last. In “Evie,” Richard’s wife develops a voracious appetite for sweets and sex, and starts talking gibberish. This one is very explicit, but if you can get past that I found it both painful and powerful. I also especially liked “Case Study 2,” about a psychologist’s encounter with a boy who’s been brought up in a commune. It has faint echoes of T.C. Boyle’s “The Wild Child.”
“Wilderness” focuses on an intense episode of fear of heights during a trip to South Africa. In “Luxury Hour,” a new mother meets up with an old lover near the swimming pool they used to frequent and wonders where and why their lives diverged. This one reminded me of the first chapter of Rachel Cusk’s Transit.
As for the rest? “Goodnight Nobody” was completely forgettable, and the other three are in the vague speculative/post-apocalyptic vein that’s been done to death: “Theatre 6” = Red Clocks; “Later, His Ghost” = The Road et al.; “One in Four” = Station Eleven et al. I admire Hall’s writing in general, but The Wolf Border remains the best thing I’ve read by her.
The Outlaw Album: Stories by Daniel Woodrell (2011)
Based on the first six stories, I was planning a 5-star rating. (How can you resist this opening line? “Once Boshell finally killed his neighbor he couldn’t seem to quit killing him.”) But the second half of the book ended up being much less memorable; I wouldn’t say it wasn’t worth reading, but I got very little out of four of the stories, and the other two were okay but somewhat insubstantial. By contrast, the first two stories, “The Echo of Neighborly Bones” and “Uncle,” are gritty little masterpieces of violence and revenge.
I also particularly liked “Black Step” and “Night Stand,” about traumatized soldiers back from war (Woodrell himself was a Marine). Each has a creepy segment where the veteran gives sarcastic answers to the unspecified typical questions they always get; we have to infer that these are: How many people did you kill? What’s it like to kill someone? and What do you do with the bodies? There’s a nice balance between first- and third-person voices; lyrical and unlearned prose; and speech marks and none. I will definitely read more by Woodrell.
I thoroughly loved these next two debut collections. In each case I’d read one or two previous books by the author and not been wild about the writing (White Houses; In-Flight Entertainment and Cockfosters), but these two have convinced me to try more of their work.
Come to Me by Amy Bloom (1993)
Bloom was a practicing psychotherapist, so it’s no surprise she has deep insight into her characters’ motivations. This is a wonderful set of stories about people who love who they shouldn’t love. In “Song of Solomon,” a new mother falls for the obstetrician who delivered her baby; in “Sleepwalking,” a woman gives in to the advances of her late husband’s son from a previous marriage; in “Light Breaks Where No Sun Shines,” adolescent Susan develops crushes on any man who takes an interest in her. My favorite was probably “Love Is Not a Pie,” in which a young woman rethinks her impending marriage during her mother’s funeral, all the while remembering the unusual sleeping arrangement her parents had with another couple during their joint summer vacations. The title suggests that love is not a thing to be apportioned out equally until it’s used up, but a more mysterious and fluid entity.
Linked short stories can be a useful halfway-house for readers who prefer novels and are still unsure about reading stories. Happily, then, the heart of this collection is five pieces that orbit around the same characters. In “Hyacinths” we meet David as a boy in Manitoba and get a glimpse of him as an adult. In the next story we encounter his second wife, Galen, and her lover, Henry. “Silver Water” is about a mental health crisis with David and Galen’s daughter, and the next two stories are about Henry, his wife Marie, and the other bonds they form.
Although I read the book quickly while on holiday and so haven’t marked out any particular quotes, convincing dialogue and insightful observations are on almost every page. I was reminded most of short stories I’ve read by Elizabeth McCracken and Carol Shields.
Four Bare Legs in a Bed and Other Stories by Helen Simpson (1990)
Simpson won the inaugural Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award for this in 1991. Her protagonists are women disillusioned with the norms of marriage and motherhood. They ditch their safe relationships, or carry on brazen affairs; they fear pregnancy, or seek it out on their own terms. The feminist messages are never strident because they are couched in such brisk, tongue-in-cheek narratives. For instance, in “Christmas Jezebels” three sisters in 4th-century Lycia cleverly resist their father’s attempts to press them into prostitution and are saved by the bishop’s financial intervention; in “Escape Clauses” a middle-aged woman faces the death penalty for her supposed crimes of gardening naked and picnicking on private property, while her rapist gets just three months in prison because she was “asking for it.” (Nearly three decades on, it’s still so timely it hurts.)
I loved “The Bed,” a kind of fairy tale about a luxurious bed solving all a woman’s problems; “What Are Neighbours For,” in which each woman cattily plans what she can get out of the others; “Labour,” a brief five-act play set in a hospital delivery room; and “Zoë and the Pedagogues,” about a woman learning to drive who has two very different teachers (perhaps inevitably, this recalled Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors). “An Interesting Condition,” which takes place in an antenatal class, is like Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Bad Latch,” while multiple stories reminded me of Shena Mackay, especially “Send One Up for Me,” about a woman tiptoeing around her boarding house and trying not to anger the landlady.
Are you a short story fan? Read any good ones recently?
Short Fiction for September
I toyed with the wild idea of only reading short stories as my fiction for the month of September, but it was never really going to happen: I just don’t find short stories compelling enough, and in some ways they feel like hard work – every few pages, it seems, you have to adjust to a new scene and set of characters. In the end I made it through one anthology of flash fiction this month, and read parts of three other story collections. Mini reviews below…
Best Small Fictions 2017, edited by Amy Hempel
Now in its third year, the Best Small Fictions anthology collects the year’s best short stories under 1000 words. (I reviewed the two previous volumes for BookTrib and the Small Press Book Review.) Starting with a zinger of a first line is one strategy for making a short-short story stand out, and there are certainly some excellent opening sentences here. Symbols and similes are also crucial to conveying shorthand meaning. Two stand-outs are “States of Matter,” Tara Laskowski’s deliciously creepy story of revenge aided by a gravedigger; and Matthew Baker’s “The President’s Doubles,” in which an island nation becomes so protective of its imperiled leader that he ends up a prisoner. They’ve saved the best for last in this collection, though: the late Brian Doyle’s “My Devils,” in which an Irish-American boy learns how to interpret the adult world by deciphering what people say versus what they mean. It’s remarkable how concisely a coming of age and loss of blind faith are conveyed. Although there are fewer overall highlights than in the first volume, this is an excellent snapshot of contemporary super-short story writing, recommended for story lovers and newbies alike. (See my full review for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)
The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God and Other Stories by Etgar Keret
How can you not want to read a book with that title? Unfortunately, “The Story about a Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God” is the first story and probably the best, so it’s all a slight downhill journey from there. That story stars a bus driver who’s weighing justice versus mercy in his response to one lovelorn passenger, and retribution is a recurring element in the remainder of the book. Most stories are just three to five pages long. Important characters include an angel who can’t fly, visitors from the mouth of Hell in Uzbekistan, and an Israeli ex-military type with the ironic surname of Goodman who’s hired to assassinate a Texas minister for $30,000. You can never predict what decisions people will make, Keret seems to be emphasizing, or how they’ll choose to justify themselves; “Everything in life is just luck.”
Aside from the title story, I particularly liked “Pipes,” in which the narrator makes himself a giant pipe through which to escape to Heaven, a place for misfits who’ve never found a way to be happy on Earth. Twisted biblical allusions like this are rife, including “Plague of the Firstborn.” A few stories have a folktale-like ambiance. It felt like there were too many first-person narrators, though, and too many repeating plots: “Good Intentions” takes up the same contract killing theme as “Goodman,” while both “Katzenstein” and “Jetlag” involve ejection from a plane. I read everything bar the 86-page novella Kneller’s Happy Campers; after so much flash fiction I wasn’t prepared to change pace so dramatically. So I’ve marked this as unfinished even though I read 110 pages in total. (Read in translation from the Hebrew.)
Honeydew by Edith Pearlman
I don’t know what it is with me lately, but I seem to lack staying power with story collections. I read the first 40% of Pearlman’s most recent book on my Kindle and then just felt no need to continue. You could consider that a virtue of story collections: you can read as much or as little at a time as you want and pick and choose what bits interest you, in a way that you can’t with novels. Or you could say an author must be doing something wrong if a reader doesn’t long to keep turning the pages.
At any rate, I enjoyed Pearlman’s stories well enough. They all apparently take place in suburban Boston and many consider unlikely romances. My favorite was “Castle 4,” set in an old hospital. Zephyr, an anesthetist, falls in love with a cancer patient, while a Filipino widower who works as a security guard forms a tender relationship with the gift shop lady who sells his disabled daughter’s wood carvings. I also liked “Tenderfoot,” in which a pedicurist helps an art historian see that his heart is just as hard as his feet and that may be why he has an estranged wife. “Blessed Harry” amused me because the setup is a bogus e-mail requesting that a Latin teacher come speak at King’s College London (where I used to work). Two stories in a row (four in total, I’m told) center around Rennie’s antique shop – a little too Mitford quaint for me.
Favorite lines: “Happiness lengthens time. Every day seemed as long as a novel. Every night a double feature. Every week a lifetime, a muted lifetime, a lifetime in which sadness, always wedged under her breast like a doorstop, lost some of its bite.” (from “Stone”)
Even though I didn’t finish either of these books, I’d gladly try something else by the authors. Can you recommend something to me?
Currently reading: After enjoying Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break so much, I picked up one of his short story collections (along with Keret’s) from Book-Cycle in Exeter earlier this month. So far I’ve read the first two stories in The Great Profundo, one about a struggling artist and a lonely widow who connect over an Emily Dickinson passage, and another about a cardinal whose father confesses he lost his faith years ago.
Upcoming: I have collections by Andrea Barrett, T.C. Boyle, Tessa Hadley and Alice Munro on the shelf. I also have far too many languishing on my Kindle, including For a Little While by Rick Bass, Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins, We Come to Our Senses by Odie Lindsey, Music in Wartime by Rebecca Makkai and 99 Stories of God by Joy Williams. The ones I’m most likely to get to fairly soon, I think, are Difficult Women by Roxane Gay and The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield.
Are you a short story fan? Read any good ones recently?
Madness Is Better than Defeat by Ned Beauman
I’ve been a Ned Beauman fan ever since I read his debut, Boxer, Beetle, in 2011. Born in 1985, the Londoner is now the author of four novels and was named one of Granta’s 20 best British novelists under the age of 40. His books are madcap and complex; three out of four have historical settings (all broadly in the World War II era), but this is definitely not historical fiction as we know it. If I tell you that some common elements in his work are Nazis, pharmaceuticals and gay sex, and that his first two books reminded me most of Nick Harkaway, you’ll get some idea of the niche he’s working in.
Madness Is Better than Defeat takes its title from a line in Orson Welles’s never-filmed screenplay of Heart of Darkness. We open in 1959 with Zonulet, a 43-year-old alcoholic CIA officer, writing a tell-all memoir about what happened when two parties set out to find a Mayan temple in Honduras in 1938. Sadistic business magnate Elias Coehorn, Sr. sent his feckless son, Elias Jr., to dismantle the temple and bring it back to New York City, while Arnold Spindler, chairman of Kingdom Pictures, tasked Jervis Whelt with directing a movie on location at the temple: Hearts in Darkness, a comedy about a spoiled society boy who’s sent on an archaeological dig to a Mayan temple and opens a nightclub when he gets there.
The scene is set for a clash of cultures: the New York faction bent on destruction versus the Los Angeles crew intent on creation. They’re joined by Joan Burlingame, a stuffy Cambridge anthropologist, and Leland Trimble, a gossip journalist who was formerly Zonulet’s colleague at the New York Evening Mirror. To start with the screwball plot is uncannily similar to that of Hearts in Darkness itself, and it seems the stalemate between the two groups will be mined purely for comic potential. But as the years pass and the deadlock continues, this becomes more of a psychological study of a community in isolation, rather like The Lord of the Flies or T.C. Boyle’s The Terranauts.
Alliances are formed and broken based on blackmail over the characters’ past and present indiscretions; routines and workarounds are developed (though an attempt to recreate Bloody Marys and Eggs Benedict fails); soon a whole new generation is being raised with little knowledge of what’s happened outside this jungle for more than a decade; all they have to go on is false information about the outcome of World War II conveyed by an ex-Nazi.
They spoke in American accents and they had all been taught a sort of eschatology in which they would one day return with their parents to Hollywood or New York. But they belonged to the rainforest and to the temple. And the geometry of the latter … was so primal to them that any talk of disassembly or reassembly struck them as abstract, almost paradoxical.
One of the hardest things to believe about the story line – so you’ll simply have to suspend your disbelief – is that no one was overly concerned when these two groups failed to reappear after assignments that were meant to last only a matter of weeks. Not until Zonulet gets to Honduras in 1956 to learn more about a secret CIA guerrilla training camp in the area is there sustained interest in what became of these exiled Americans, and it’s another two years before their jungle idyll comes to an explosive end.
What we have here is a twist on the Mummy’s Curse trope, with the temple causing many to lose their minds or their lives. I wish the novel could have retained its initial screwball charm without going quite so dark and strange, but that’s Beauman for you. I also thought that this was a good 100–150 pages too long, with many more secondary characters, subplots and asides than necessary. Ironically, even after nearly 500 pages, its conclusion left me wondering about some loose ends. But the writing is consistently amusing, particularly the voices captured in letters or diaries and the wacky metaphors:
- “The sky in the west was mixing an Old-Fashioned”
- “All her blood had thickened in her head like the last of the catsup”
- “They were so slathered in mulch that their two bodies together might have been some octopod newly burped from a mudpot.”
- “To describe the truck as temperamental would have been condescending; rather, I had the impression it had been earnestly wrestling with a deep crisis of personal faith about the very principle of internal combustion as a motive power.”
If you’re new to Ned Beauman, I’d suggest starting with The Teleportation Accident, my favorite of his novels. From there you could move on to Boxer, Beetle or Glow; this one can wait until you’re a confirmed admirer.
Madness Is Better than Defeat is published in the UK today, August 24th, by Sceptre and will be available in the USA in February. With thanks to Ruby Mitchell for the free review copy.