Madness Is Better Than Defeat by Ned Beauman: Falling into the River
That I ever encountered the existence of this text, chose to purchase it, read it, and am now reviewing it is a matter of great coincidence, or perhaps, pre-ordained design. I couple weeks ago, I was browsing Granta’s website and stumbled on the name Ned Beauman. The name would have faded into the mass of writers and texts and out of my awareness, had it not been so approximate to that of my paternal grandfather, Ned Beaman. I sent Beauman an email on a whim, giving him a brief if gruesome account of my memory of my grandfather. In his response, Beauman informed me that my own name was strongly approximate to that of his grandmother, Katharine Beauman. Desire to understand this bizarre symmetry compelled me to purchase Beauman’s latest book.
As a result, my entry into Madness Is Better Than Defeat felt like less of an autonomous decision and more like Calvinist destiny. Before I had opened the book, the symmetry of this Beaman/Beauman ordeal had given me the sensation that I was less of an independent operator and more that I had been written into existence or was living a life which was not my own. A fitting context for a novel which questions individual agency.
Madness Is Better Than Defeat is the story of a decades-long stand-off at an ancient Honduran temple between a group of New Yorkers who intends to disassemble the thing and ship it to a wealthy businessman and a group of Hollywood showbiz types who aim to create a film after reassembling what the New Yorkers disassembled. Beauman cites the production of Warner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now as influences on the plot of the novel. The circumstances of the occupation of the temple quickly become a meaningless history as the novel focuses on a CIA investigation into a conspiracy involving the temple and its Western residents. The novel is written as the memoir of a journalist-cum-CIA agent who maintains both a first-person and omniscient perspective, and functions as an unreliable narrator. Omniscience is explained by a number of experiences with psychedelic fungus--an explanation I find to be a bit sloppy.
Nonetheless, the narratorial perspective allows for Beauman to play with the relationship between observation and participation. A recurring theme in Madness Is Better Than Defeat is the breaking of the fourth wall which allows a viewer to objectively observe without interacting with the object they observe and thus affecting the outcome of observation. When a physical fourth shatters in the novel, the narrative simultaneously becomes a metafiction and steps into magical realism. One character reads the preceding text that the narrator has written as a memoir and describes the narrator as “secretly addicted to ornamentation”.
[Many critics have already touched on Beauman’s ornamental and show-offy writing style, and he does often appear as if he is trying to demonstrate how clever he is. Beauman is entirely aware of this, as he alleges on his blog that his grandiose vocabulary usage is for the sake of precision. Show-off or not, I don’t find it particularly interesting to pursue the matter further.]
When the narrator loses his observational distance and becomes an interacting party in the events at the temple, so too does Beauman in his authorship. So too do I in my criticism. What results is a kind of variation on John Barth’s story “Menelaiad”, contained in Lost in the Funhouse, in which Menelaus tells the reader what he told Telemachus Helen of Troy what he told what he told Proteus what he told Eidothea. Similarly, a Jarvis Whelt, one of the characters who obtains psychedelic omniscience in the text of Madness Is Better Than Defeat, tells a parable of the text’s structure to his foil: A man writes a novel about a man who wrote a diary about a man who made a movie about a man who wrote a story about a man who took an expedition down a river, and they all fall in before reaching the end of their pursuit. And here I am, writing about this once again, commenting on that I am writing about writing about the chain of narratives. There is a paradox which exists in such chain constructions--while these iterations of narrative allow us to acquaint ourselves with existential origins and explanations, in each iteration, the self is increasingly alienated, disappearing into causality.
This alienation from self is not necessarily a descent into insanity. The proverbial river does not necessarily flow with souls gone mad from artistic pursuit as much as the title suggests a thematic focus on madness. Definitions of sanity and in fact, sanity itself, in the novel’s world as in ours, are ephemeral and difficult to pin down. Sanity and insanity move in waves depending on context, time, and convention. Context, time, and convention also move in waves. These are concepts dictated by each other. They are tautological. Questions of truthful reality and sanity become irrelevant--at the end of the day, this is a universe where people are inescapably subject to a greater order, regardless of perception. The river is more of a river Styx through which notions of selfhood and autonomy are carried away.
This greater order which governs the physical structure of the temple and temporal structure of events, drawn out as a staircase with a cliff-like drop, is alleged to be orchestrated the Pozkito gods. The Pozkito gods themselves struggle with the relationship between creation, observation and participation. These are gods which do not quite set the universe into order, but which barter with fruit companies in pursuit of their interests. They are as human as a Carnegie, as godly as a Rockefeller. These gods create their own destruction in allowing the structure of their creation to be analyzed and disassembled, such that it is difficult to pinpoint if man is created in God’s image or if God is created in man’s image. To paraphrase Baudrillard, we humans create deities to begin with by imposing the notion of structure on the world. The structure ascribed to the temple and the text is an icon meant to capture the order of a god that never existed prior to the structure. Such is the internal conflict of the narrator, who struggles to grapple with reality, attempting to remain rational as the web of events becomes increasingly convoluted and absurd.
I am often annoyed by the prevalence allusions and comparisons to Borges these days (if everyone is compared to Borges, is any comparison to Borges valid?), but I admit the text does take on a similar existential plot as the short story “Circular Ruins”. In the story, a mystic aims to perfectly dream up a human being, struggling to entirely capture a human. Upon his achievement, he realizes that he himself is the dream of another mystic. Madness Is Better Than Defeat and “Circular Ruins” are parallel in their incorporation of geometric structure in setting and in plot, as well as focus on causality. Yet where “Circular Ruins” forms a cycle of creation and existence, somewhat sapphic in form, Madness Is Better Than Defeat proposes a phallus, extending ever outward. The effect is to push the reader to question the causality by which they arrived at the text, to break the reader’s own fourth wall. Yet the reader’s fourth wall is easily reconstructed when the book is closed and the temple, the river, no longer pulls anyone in. The reader returns to their own understanding of reality. Some may return to their own questions and pursuits of explaining the world. These readers attempt to understand who they are and why they are, where their origins my lie and if they are original. Many seek to capture themselves in art. There they find their own rivers, in which they may see their reflection but which never reveals objective truth. These are the rivers which pull them under.