Madness Is Better Than Defeat: A novel
“. . . reminiscent of any of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker series, with more than a maddening touch of Werner Herzog.”
“‘In 1938, Kingdom Pictures started production on a movie called Hearts in Darkness. They assembled a cast and crew. It was to be shot on location at a Mayan temple in Honduras. The movie was never finished and none of those people ever came back from the rain forest. Around the same time, an expedition left from New York for the same destination. They never came back either. The heir of one of the richest men in American lead that expedition which disappeared in the wilderness and not a word has ever been published in an American newspaper.’”
That is the succinct summary of the plot as given to Zonulet, the narrator of most of the novel, by Vansaska, a colleague. Zonulet is a former crime reporter for the New York Evening Mirror, now a disgraced CIA agent, currently under investigation for unspecified transgressions. In some spots told from another character’s point, of view, he appears only briefly, while he’s the omniscient narrator for the majority of it.
Weaving through the explanation of how he came to be in his own particular trouble, Zonulet also explains how the various characters are unknown and knowingly interrelated, how he came to know them, and how each was on those disastrous expeditions to a mysterious two-sided pyramid in the rain forest.
Twenty years passes while a government agency keeps the temple’s secret that the arrival of the two expeditions threatened to reveal. Before the fate of those missing is discovered, there is conspiracy and murder, paranoia and horror, and a slow infusion of black humor to leaven the mix.
As Zonulet later opines, “‘The temple brought us nothing but madness. Why didn’t we try to escape? Maybe madness was what we wanted. We’d been hankering for it all our lives and the temple gave it to us and we loved it for that.’”
Madness does indeed lurk in the jungle for all who went there, and the CIA agent, the movie stars, and anyone else within the temple’s purview are tragically and permanently affected.
“‘The rest of us had fled outward through the layers of adaptation and aboutness, telling a story about a story about a story, thinking it would keep us safe from the pull of the river. These people had gone in the opposite direction. They had barricaded themselves inside the original story, bricking up the Fourth Wall along with all the doors and all the windows.’”
Madness Is Better than Defeat is a difficult novel to read and an even more difficult one to review. Not because it is uninteresting or dull or even because of its length, but due to its complexity.
With its convolutions, diversions, and tangents, as well as its use of seemingly manufactured but in reality actual words and lengthy diatribes of description, this novel is reminiscent of any of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker series, with more than a maddening touch of Werner Herzog. It is a work more to be taken on faith in and knowledge of the author’s ability than by recommendation.
The intrigues, sexual high jinx, and machinations of the characters will fascinate, amuse, and, on occasion, appall, as the threads are finally drawn together. Every word must be read—no skimming, please!—else the reader may not retain grasp of the sinuous, and oft-times tenuous, plot weaving its way to that final scene.
If Madness Is Better than Defeat, this novel emerges victorious.