Saturday, August 4, 2012

Boxer Beetle Booker

This week, while daily commuting to London and back, I’ve been getting some reading done. Shakespeare, Sewall’s biography of Dickinson, and - at last - some non-required reading.

Ned Beauman’s addition to this year’s Man-Booker Longlist for The Teleportation Accident reminded me of my long intention to read his first book, Boxer Beetle, written at the disgustingly unripe age of 24. I have had my suspicions that Beauman is – with this tremendous head-start – going to go very far indeed, perhaps as another Amis. But those Beauman shows the same precocity, his realization is rather different.

Boxer Beetle is at heart a ripping piece of genre fiction – a mixture of mystery and smut. It has the enjoyable pace of a cheap yarn. This is not to degrade it: Beauman has attempted to marry a vividly fluid prose with a bright and curious mind which is evidently drawn to the tawdry.

The novel is the story of a modern-day Nazi-memorabilia collector who is pulled into a mystery involving a gay Jewish boxer, a plummy entomologist-eugenicist, and a ring of 1930 fascists. This is a woefully inadequate summary, and much like the one given on the back of the book, but to say much more will spoil the ride. It’s a collision of disciplines - twentieth-century history, genetics, fascist politics, Judaism, atonal music, and constructed linguistics – which brashly shows the fruitfulness and range of the author’s mind. There is the inevitable postmodern cameo from the author’s own namesake, an online presence named ‘nbeauman’ who briefly appears and bows out.

I’ve learned to judge a book’s verve from its first sentence – a trick I’ve learned from my friend K, who’s memorized the first lines of all her favourite books. Beauman’s is a keeper: ‘In idle moments I sometimes like to close my eyes and imagine Joseph Goebbel’s forty-third birthday party’. Narrated by an odorifous young man named Kevin, the novel prances along, veering between the modern-day and the inter-war past, with regular digressions, as befits the habit of talented young male writers with the hots for Lawrence Sterne.

However, Beauman gives away his youth and inexperience – or perhaps his own taste – by writing two-dimensional characters which are not unlike their genre-bound counterparts: the rich fat hoarder; the mysterious ‘Welshman’ with a gruff voice and a gun; the priggish English gentlemen (who is all too afraid of admitting his own homosexual leanings); and young women who prance and strike others smartly with their umbrellas. The sexual encounters are written with the gaudy tastelessness of Romance fiction, and there is altogether too much shouting, yelping, screeching, screaming which carries the novel from the antic to the hysteric and hyperbolic.

That being said Boxer Beetle is a success, especially for a first novel. It was difficult to put it down between Tube rides. I’d recommend watching Beauman’s productions carefully from now on.