About The Author
Ned Beauman was born in 1985 in London. His debut novel, Boxer, Beetle, won the Writers' Guild Award for Best Fiction Book and the Goldberg Prize for Outstanding Debut Fiction. His second novel, The Teleportation Accident, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the Encore Award and a Somerset Maugham Award. His third novel, Glow, was published in 2014. He has been chosen by the Culture Show as one of the 12 best new British novelists and by Granta as one of the 20 best British novelists under 40. His work has been translated into more than 10 languages.
His new novel, Madness is Better than Defeat, opens in 1938 as two rival expeditions set off for a lost Mayan temple in the jungles of Honduras, one intending to shoot a screwball comedy on location there, the other intending to disassemble it and ship it back to New York. A seemingly endless stalemate ensues, and 20 years later, when a rogue CIA agent learns that both expeditions are still out in the wilderness, he embarks on a mission to exploit the temple as a geopolitical pawn. But the mission hurtles towards disaster when he discovers that the temple is the locus of grander conspiracies than anyone could have guessed.
Below, exclusively for Foyles, Simon Heafield talked to Ned about the connections between his new novel, Heart of Darkness and Orson Welles, how nothing you invent about the jungle is ever going to be more fanciful than the jungle actually is and whether or not he considers his book to be pessimistic.
Author photo © Alice Neale
Questions & Answers
Tell us how you discovered the Orson Welles quote from which the title of the book is drawn?
The title is from Welles' adaptation of Joseph Conrad's novella of 1899, Heart of Darkness, which Welles wrote in 1939 but never filmed. (Radio 4 broadcast an adaptation of the adaptation a few years ago.) It's a new addition to Kurtz's final monologue; Conrad's original is generally regarded as pretty decent, but Welles, of course, did not hesitate to give it a polish. I came across it in Jonathan Rosenbaum's book Discovering Orson Welles and I realised it worked for the novel on several different levels.
Firstly, you've got Heart of Darkness's furiously progenitive quality, always spawning new adaptations and permutations, including my book, in which they're shooting a film called Hearts in Darkness. Secondly, you've got a megalomaniac director, as in my book. Thirdly, you've got a film that would have been a masterpiece but was never made, as in my book. Fourthly, you've got Citizen Kane, which Welles made instead; the journalist character in my book is loosely based on the journalist in that film. Fourthly, you've got the late 1930s, when my book begins. And fifthly – most obviously – you've got the central emotional current of my book explicitly stated in five words.
The book is preoccupied with the idea of mysterious forces — sometimes malicious, sometimes playful — shaping people’s lives. Call it destiny, call it conspiracy. What is it that draws you to these ideas?
There was a feeling I got in my gut the first time I read the long section about Trystero in The Crying of Lot 49 that was unlike anything I'd ever experienced with a book, and I've been trying to recapture that feeling in my own work ever since. It's as simple as that.
The time in which the book is set could be characterised as a period of foolhardy endeavours, in a world where colonialism is giving way to globalisation and a certain Wild West spirit still applies. Were there any real events from this period which inspired episodes in the book?
Yes, the first is Fordlandia, Henry Ford's attempt to built a picket-fenced midwestern town in the middle of the Amazon jungle to facilitate rubber production for his tyres. The project was such a fiasco it was abandoned in 1934 after only six years. Originally, I wanted to write about Forlandia itself, but because Greg Grandin's non-fiction history of it had come out and it was such a glaringly obvious subject for a novel, I was too afraid that someone would beat me to it. Weirdly, nobody has.
The second is the construction of the Panama Canal between 1904 and 1913. The Canal Zone had a workforce of 30,000, and it was to all intents and purposes a micro-nation, with courthouses, post offices, a newspaper and an army. The regime of its overseer, George Washington Goethals, was described by one of the Zone's policemen as an 'enlightened despotism.... an Omnipotent, Omniscient, Omnipresent ruler... so consistently on the job that we never thought of him as being at home or eating or sleeping.' That reminded me of film directors like Coppola and Kubrick and Welles.
How did you come to have an omniscient narrator who was also a character in the story?
I also did this in my first novel, Boxer, Beetle. At the time, I wasn't conscious of having got the idea from anywhere in particular, but not long ago I happened to be looking at Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex and realised that I'd almost certainly picked it up from that book, which I read at university. Then, even more recently, I read Midnight's Children for the first time, and wondered if maybe Eugenides borrowed it from Rushdie.
The jungle is a real presence in the book. What drew you to that as the setting?
I had to set it in the jungle because that's where Fitzcarraldo and Apocalypse Now were made. But also, it gives you a lot of imaginative latitude, because nothing you invent about the jungle is ever going to be more fanciful than the jungle actually is. I drew a lot on a book called Tropical Nature: Life and Death in the Rain Forests of Central and South America by Adrian Forsyth and Ken Miyata; it's a non-fiction science book that functions as one of the most remarkable works of magic realism I've ever read.
It's possible to make a very pessimistic reading of this book, seeing in it a demonstration of the tragic and destructive intractability of humankind. But it's also very funny, and full of colour. Is it a pessimistic book?
Well, if you look at it analytically, the really deplorable things that happen in the book are mostly down to three causes:
1. as we know from game theory, two parties each acting in their own best interests will often fail to cooperate on the solution that would be best overall;
2. about one percent of the human population are psychopaths; and
3. American imperialism has run rampant over the past 120 years. Numbers 1. and 2. will probably be with us as a species until we achieve either armageddon or singularity, and in that sense the book is realistic rather than pessimistic. Number 3. is, of course, at a tremulous moment right now, but even if American state power should wane, we are hardly going to see the end of unsolicited interference by international capital. Overall, I can't imagine the book is going to make you feel any worse than reading the paper. And some of the characters get what could loosely be described as a happy ending.