Paul Di Filippo reviews Madness Is Better Than Defeat by Ned Beauman

When I reviewed Ned Beauman’s first two novels–Boxer, Beetle and The Teleportation Accident–I concluded by citing “his endless fecundity of invention and specificity. No setting is unburnished, no individual, even walk-ons, left undistinguished. Second, and more amazing, is his patterning ability — a skill so important to an author yet one of those writerly talents hard to quantify and rarely cited in reviews.” Coming to his third book, Glow, I concluded:This is not a book where flashy technique trumps humanism, humor, genuine speculation, or engagement with the real world. Beauman has plenty to say on a lot of Big Topics, as well as educing eternal human behaviors — it’s just that he delivers his pronouncements and observations in what amounts to one of those wooden sculptures — a ball, a box — whose three-dimensional jigsaw components must be slid this way and that, sometimes nonintuitively, to disassemble the unit.

Thus thrilled and enamored, news of his fourth novel was met in these quarters with high excitement. I am happy to report that all anticipations were honored, in spades. This book surpasses even its predecessors in gonzo inventions, vibrant, zesty, slaphappy prose, and some rather poignant observations on our improbable, doomed civilization.We start out in the year 1959 with a bit of a frame tale. Our first-person teller is an ex-reporter, ex-CIA guy named Zonulet. In rambling, obscurantist fashion he lets us know that he had a mystical, weird-ass experience in a lost Mayan temple that completely upended his life and got him canned from the spooks. Now he is searching through a vast government warehouse (cue the closing scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark here) for proof of his sanity and truthfulness. (Partway through the novel, he will get a young female intern as a helper, Frieda: “twenty years old and so molten with youth under that prim gingham dress that she’s almost painful to look at, like an ingot just pulled from the furnace…”) And even later on, an old journalist comrade, Meredith Vansaska, will resurface to help. But meanwhile, Zonulet is going to recount everything that led up to his life-changing epiphany, even stuff he did not personally witness, but only reconstructed.

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