In this comic thriller that begins in 1938 and extends through the mid- 20th century, a corrupt CIA agent uncovers mystery and intrigue at a Honduras temple over which two rival groups have been fighting: filmmakers who want to use it as a backdrop for a screwball comedy and explorers who want to move the temple to New York.
I have to confess that as the pages of Madness Is Better Than Defeat furled on toward 400, I wasn’t always entirely sure what was happening (I was never sure why it was happening), but it’s all so weirdly delightful that I kept racing along after him ... This is a novel that never takes a breath, that works for our attention like a stand-up comic in front of a firing squad ... I spent far too long flipping back and forth trying to figure out who was who and where we were before I just gave up and let the river of Beauman’s genius sweep me along.
In telling this complex story, has Beauman found an equally deft way of bringing pulp tropes to the present day without stumbling, or are we dealing with a complex structure around a potentially retrograde plot? The short answer: yes, mostly ... the sense of excess here can occasionally feel overwhelming, and several of the characters’ arcs come to an abrupt or mysterious end ... For all that it doesn’t always click, this novel’s blend of narrative deftness and classical riffs makes for a remarkably spry read ... And while the complexity of the plot ends up becoming part of the plot, it at times feels like this version of Madness Is Better Than Defeat is a truncated version of another version of it that’s closer to 600 pages in length.
Some novels...are a kind of intellectual indulgence for the author and those in the know. Ned Beauman’s new novel is one such inside joke—likely to be amusing to those who get it, exasperating to those who don’t ... Beauman’s command of the language is first-rate, and the breadth of his ideas vindicates his philosophy degree from Cambridge. But...Beauman’s cavalier attitude toward death makes him unserious. His characters are but shadows of Beauman’s thoughts.