Madness is better than defeat

Ned Beauman

Book - 2018

"A wild, astonishing novel (by arguably England's most accomplished young writer) about Manhattan and Hollywood in the 1930s, Mayan gods, and a CIA operation gone terribly wrong--and the Booker short-listed Ned Beauman's magnum opus thus far. In 1938, two rival expeditions descend on an ancient temple recently discovered in the jungles of Honduras, one intending to shoot a screwball comedy on location there, the other to disassemble the temple and ship it back to New York. A seemingly endless stalemate ensues, and twenty years later a rogue CIA agent sets out to exploit it for his own ends, unaware that the temple is a locus of conspiracies grander than anyone could ever have guessed. Shot through with insanity, conspiracy, i...ngenuity, and adventure, showcasing Beauman's anarchic humor, spectacular imagination, and riveting prose, Madness Is Better Than Defeat teases, absorbs, entertains, and dazzles in equal measure"--

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Action and adventure fiction
Humorous fiction
New York : Alfred A. Knopf 2018.
Main Author
Ned Beauman (author)
First United States edition
Item Description
"This is Borzoi Book."
"Originally published in Great Britain by Sceptre, an imprint of Hodder & Stoughton, a Hachette UK company, London, in 2017."
Physical Description
399 pages ; 25 cm
Contents unavailable.
Review by New York Times Review

THE RECOVERING: Intoxication and Its Aftermath, by Leslie Jamison. (Back Bay/Little, Brown, $18.99.) Jamison, adding to a large group of addiction memoirs, maps her own recovery while considering the relationship between creativity and substance abuse. The emotional firepower of the book comes in its second half, after she has embraced sobriety; our critic, Dwight Garner, called this section "close to magnificent, and genuinely moving." LOVE AND RUIN, by Paula McLain. (Ballantine, $17.) McLain's latest novel, about the marriage between the journalist Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway, takes up the question that vexed (and probably doomed) their relationship: Why must a woman choose between her career and what her husband wants her to be? McLain drew on primary sources to develop her fiery protagonist. A WORLD WITHOUT 'WHOM': The Essential Guide to Language in the BuzzFeed Age, by Emmy J. Favilla. (Bloomsbury, $18.) The BuzzFeed copy chief discusses her plan to codify language in a digital era, balancing a need for logic with flexibility to account for how people actually talk. Along with a look at the rules she devised, the book offers a guide to the quandaries we face as the way we communicate online reshapes language itself. MADNESS IS BETTER THAN DEFEAT, by Ned Beauman. (Vintage, $17.) Emboldened by "fungal clairvoyance" after inhaling mold in an old temple, a C.I.A. agent tells the story of a fateful meeting in the Honduran jungle in 1938. The novel's twists and turns touch on everything from colonialism to conspiracy theories. Our reviewer, Helene Stapinski, called the story "a kitchen-sink sendup of spy novels, 1930s Hollywood and screwball newspaper comedies, with a pinch of Pynchon thrown in for fun." ENLIGHTENMENT NOW: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, by Steven Pinker. (Penguin, $18.) Pinker sets out to persuade pessimists - people disturbed by today's threats like climate change and the rise of authoritarian populism across the globe - of one thing: that life has never been better, both in the West and in developing countries. The Harvard psychologist marshals an impressive array of data to back up his claim. ETERNAL LIFE, by Dara Horn. (Norton, $15.95.) When readers meet Rachel, she's a suburban great-grandmother in the 21st century. But that life is only the latest in a string of reincarnations, the consequences of a promise she made in Roman-occupied Jerusalem some 2,000 years earlier. Horn's elegant novel explores how Rachel's immortality impedes her ability to be fully, truly alive.

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [January 27, 2019]

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof*** Copyright © 2018 Ned Beauman SPRINGFIELD, VIRGINIA--1959 The tribunal will not reconvene until I've had a chance to consider all the available evidence in my case. That is my right as an American and as an officer of the Central Intelligence Agency. If the testimony I've submitted is true, then the proof may be somewhere in that warehouse, and therefore I must be allowed to look for it. My persecutors pretend to regard this rule as an inconvenience, because without it they'd be permitted to empty the warehouse tomorrow to make more room for stolen Politburo cigar stubs or whatever else they want to archive out here in Virginia. But really it delights them. There's no easy way to take a measure of "all the available evidence in my case," but I estimate it at about three hundred million feet, an alchemical prodigy of urine and rock salt and Mayan armor, glossy bales decomposing into nitric frass. To pick through it all with proper care, building a chronology and a concordance, is the work of decades. And I don't have decades. This is how I know. During the failed Cuban War of Independence in 1868, a wealthy Spanish family called the Azpeteguias, who owned sugar plantations near the Valle de Viñales, were besieged inside their villa by their own farmers. They died of yellow fever, all sixteen of them, before they could be relieved by the army. It was decided to send the bodies to Havana for burial to ensure they wouldn't be desecrated by the locals. But the farmers ambushed the caravan in the hills, prying open the coffins and tipping the bodies into the dust. In 1953, when I was still working for the agency in Cuba, I did a significant favor for a friend of mine in Pinar del Río and afterward he gave me a bottle of rum that had been aged in a barrel made from staves of Azpeteguia coffin wood. I have about twelve ounces left. It's what's called a diagnostic liquor. According to folk medicine, the long aftertaste is the most volatile fraction of the rum escaping out of your mouth as tinted vapor after it's already washed through your guts. You taste yourself on it. There are some old bourbons with the same property. When I first opened it, back when I was in good health, Azpeteguia añejo was the most exquisite rum I'd ever sipped, but now I can taste poison at the end of every mouthful, a bile so rank and doomy your standard pre-vomit is like maple syrup in comparison. One of these days I'll have a doctor palpate my liver just to make it official, but I know perfectly well what he'll tell me. Between my stomach and my lungs sits a wedge of black gristle. Instead of a functioning organ I have only a ruin, a sinkhole, a blocked sewer. I'm forty-three years old. Alcoholism runs in the Zonulet family and it's going to kill me even younger than it killed my father. I will die long before I finish preparing my defense. Early on, I asked if I could have an assistant to help me hack through this jungle, but they said they wouldn't give security clearance to anyone but me. They've fucked me and they know it. Really, there is no need for the tribunal to reconvene, because a life sentence has already been handed down, in the most elegant possible fashion, with nothing so clattering or banal as a verdict spoken aloud. I am my own jailer, in the prison of my inalienable rights. They know I never wanted anything more to do with that temple, and now I'll be trapped for the remainder of my life among its ribbons of silver drool. From the very beginning I've given the same testimony. I did everything I could to prevent what happened in Honduras, but the forces arrayed against me were too powerful (and some of those same forces are now discreetly overseeing my prosecution). The censure I'm threatened with is not proportionate to the rules I may have bent or broken in pursuit of entirely valid aims, nor to my peripheral culpability in a sequence of events that for the most part were far beyond my control. I'm a fallible human being, and I regret the mistakes I made, but with a sound mind and a clear conscience I can avow that I was acting in the best interests of my country. I know dozens of guys back in Foggy Bottom who've done much, much worse and suffered nothing but commiserations on their bad luck. I spent a decade with CIA, and three years with the Office of Strategic Services before that, and what do I have to show for it? Just one friend, Winch McKellar, my only ally in the whole crew. He's back from Jakarta now, but he can't do anything to help. Sometimes I'm tempted to go to The Washington Post and tell them everything I know about Branch 9, and sometimes I'm tempted to burn the warehouse to the ground with myself inside, but what keeps me from either variety of self-immolation is that the proof I'm looking for, the proof that would vindicate the testimony I submitted to the tribunal, is somewhere on those shelves. In theory, I might find it tomorrow. That is, at least, mathematically possible. In any case, if I do die before I hit the jackpot, I want it to be there in the warehouse. They'll wonder where the smell is coming from until they notice my body draped across a steel roof truss like a pair of sneakers tossed over a telephone line. No one will be able to figure out how I got up there and they'll have to fish me down with a crane. So every night I stay there until ten or eleven o'clock at night with my flatbed editor and my notebooks. Then I peel off my gloves, say goodbye to the guard, and stop at the diner on the way home for a hamburger that tastes like scorched oakum. Back at my apartment, I don't sleep much, so I'm never sure how to pass the time. But now I have a hobby. Tap tap tap tappety tap. This is going to be a tell-all. But the only person who's ever likely to read it is the junior from the Office of Security who, after my death, will be assigned to examine my papers and prepare a detailed report on their contents. Presumably, that whelp is going to wonder how I seem to know so much about what happened to people I've never met in places I've never been. A great deal of what's done at the agency is textual analysis of some kind--often, in its methods, verging on literary criticism or scriptural exegesis--and one of the guys who helped train us in OSS was the Yale ethnologist Newton Mathers. He spent years studying the oral traditions of the Amazon, which are of inconstant usefulness if you're looking for solid historical fact, and he taught us always to look for what he called "the stench of truth." A stench is a stench because it's too complex and microbial and surprising to be merely an odor. Created things have odors. Natural things have stenches. Since the whelp from the Office of Security will already have been told that before my death I submitted an absolutely cockamamie testimony to the tribunal, he may assume this memoir is just an elaboration of that fantasy. But if he judges that it's detailed and consistent and lifelike enough to exude the stench of truth, and he knows I didn't have some treasure chest of surveillance reports and wiretap transcripts to draw from, he'll be looking for an explanation. Is it really possible that, from only the data I had available to me in the warehouse, I inferred the rest of the universe? That, from just a few clues, I filled out the measureless crossword? In our first week with him, Old Man Mathers gave us Leibniz to read. "Let us suppose that someone jots down a quantity of points helter-skelter upon a sheet of paper," Leibniz writes in his Discourse on Metaphysics. "Now I say that it is possible to find a geometrical line, whose concept shall be uniform and constant, in accordance with a certain formula, which will pass through all of those points, and in the same order in which the hand jotted them down. When the formula is very complex, that which conforms to it passes for irregular. But God does nothing out of order." Even the jotting isn't truly helter-skelter. Everything happens for its own opaque reasons. Consequently, if you have enough of the points to deduce the formula that determines them, you can in turn deduce all the other points you don't already have. If it sounds like I'm stretching Leibniz a little far, recall that he goes even further himself. "When we consider carefully the connection of things," he writes, "we can say that from all time in a man's soul there are vestiges of everything that has happened to him and marks of everything that will happen to him and even traces of everything that happens in the universe." In other words, you can deduce every formula from just one point. Maybe it will take a few days' interrogation for that point to break, but it will spill its guts eventually. Yet that isn't how I did it. I didn't discover the formula. I didn't read the traces in one point or extrapolate from many, like a diligent intelligence analyst. I used a much cruder method, almost a cheat. I went to the aleph, the point from which all other points are visible. I crawled inside that temple in Honduras and I saw everything at once. If you asked the director of Hearts in Darkness, the most ill- starred movie in Hollywood history, he'd assure you that the gods talked to me in there. I maintain that the explanation is mycological. What the whelp will conclude, I don't know. He'll be my obituarist, my executor, and my grave robber all rolled into one, so perhaps in the long run his opinion is the only one that counts. When he sees the cinder block of typescript on my desk and realizes he's going to have to crawl through the whole thing, perhaps he'll feel the same way I did when the guard flipped on the halide lamps my first day at the warehouse: I cannot possibly get through all this. That would be fine by me. I'm past the point of cultivating a readership, which I had to do not only as a crime reporter with the New York Evening Mirror but also as a case officer of the CIA. I remember a supervisor of mine once rejected my account of a brawl I'd witnessed among some communists in Paris because it was "too Hemingway." The reference was a little out of date but along the right lines. The agency generates millions of pages of documents a year, much of that in the form of first-person narratives, and although the internal literature of the agency may never have had its Modernist or its Beat period, it's absurd to suppose that a bunch of neophiliac college-educated guys at their typewriters would be totally unaffected by what's going on out there at the publishing houses that in some cases they're secretly funding. I asked my supervisor what style I should write the report in, and he shouted back, "You don't write in any style at all, Zonulet, you just damned well put down what happened!" Obviously after that I couldn't write another word for about a month. This time, though, I don't have to worry about critics. So I won't agonize about where to begin. I'm going to begin twenty-one years ago, in 1938, on 49th Street in Manhattan, with a bet. Excerpted from Madness Is Better Than Defeat by Ned Beauman All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.