Friday, 25 January 2013

Book Review | The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman

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When you haven't had sex in a long time, it feels like the worst thing that could ever happen to anyone.

If you're living in Germany in the 1930s, it probably isn't.

But that's no consolation to Egon Loeser, whose carnal misfortunes will push him from the experimental theatres of Berlin to the absinthe bars of Paris to the physics laboratories of Los Angeles, trying all the while to solve two mysteries: whether it was really a deal with Satan that claimed the life of his hero, the great Renaissance stage designer Adriano Lavicini; and why a handsome, clever, charming, modest guy like him can't, just once in a while, get himself laid.

From the author of the acclaimed Boxer, Beetle comes a historical novel that doesn't know what year it is; a noir novel that turns all the lights on; a romance novel that arrives drunk to dinner; a science fiction novel that can't remember what 'isotope' means; a stunningly inventive, exceptionally funny, dangerously unsteady and (largely) coherent novel about sex, violence, space, time, and how the best way to deal with history is to ignore it.


If Nick Harkaway hadn't already doubled down on his dazzling debut with this year's extraordinary Angelmaker, I wouldn't hesitate to declare The Teleportation Accident the spiritual successor to The Gone-Away World. It's incredibly intelligent, fantastically distracted, and I'd go so far as to say aggressively diverse. You won't read a more memorable novel about sex, obsession and the sticky stuff of science fiction this year, if ever.

Plus, it has funny... and in such tumultuous abundance!
"When you knock a bowl of sugar on to your host's carpet, it is a parody of the avalanche that killed his mother and father, just as the duck's beak that you new girlfriend's lips form when she attempts a seductive pout is a quotation of the quacking noise your last girlfriend made during sex. When the telephone rings in the night because a stranger has given a wrong extension to the operator, it is a homage to the inadvertent substitution of telegrams that terminated your adulterous cousin's marriage, just as the resonant alcove between the counterpoised struts of your new girlfriend's clavicle is a rebuttal to the apparent beauty of your last girlfriend's fleshier decolletage. Or this is how it seemed to Egon Loeser, anyway, because the two subjects most hostile to his sense of a man's life as an essentially steady, comprehensible and Newtonian-mechanical undertaking were accidents and women. And it sometimes seemed seemed as if the only way to prevent that dread pair from toppling him all the way over into derangement was to treat them not as prodigies but rather as texts to be studied. Hence the principle: accidents, like women, allude. These allusions are no less witty or astute for being unconscious; indeed they are more so, which is one reason why it's probably a mistake to construct them so deliberately. The other reason is that everyone might conclude you're a total prick." (p.3)
So begins The Teleportation Accident: lewd, shrewd and unconscionably crude. And so it continues, until it concludes with a final chapter as batty as it is brilliant. In the interim, between the offing and the ultimate ending - for there are in fact four finales - a veritable cavalcade of crazy. Crazy, I should say, in a good way — like our tortured twit of a narrator.

Egon Loeser is a sex-starved set designer based, at the outset, in Berlin in the 1930s, however The Teleportation Accident chronicles more than a decade in his ill-fitting shoes, taking in Paris, France and the New World of the United States in addition to time served in Germany. What compels Loeser to travel so widely is, of course, the object of his abject affections. Early on, he falls for Adele Hitler (no relation), basically because he's optimistic enough to think he has a chance with her. "For eyes as dizzying as Adele's to exist in the same body as a banal urge to get stoked over a desk by an unwashed playwright was a paradox as imponderable as the indivisibility of the Trinity," (p.50) he muses at one point, with not a hint of hope, so when she suddenly exits their shared social circle, Loeser resolves to follow the love of his life to the ends of the earth, if need be.

Well, need be indeed. But to be blunt, the upheaval isn't such a massive sacrifice. Loeser hates all his friends anyway — not to mention the unmentionable, that "by early 1933, even the most heedless and egotistical Berliner - so, ever Loeser - couldn't help but notice that something nasty was going on. At parties now, optimism had given way to dread, and yells to whispers — the really good times were never coming back, and to think what might come next was just too horrible. [...] German history was at a turning point," (p.47) and in Loeser's lizard-brain, any excuse to circumvent such a buzzkill is brilliant. If he can catch up with Adele as well, then so much the better.

So off he trots...

...right into the sights of a serial killer! Oh, and a double agent. Also various would-be war criminals. And neither last nor least, a mad scientist who, with his lovely assistant, a certain Ms. Hister, purports to be testing a prototype of the titular teleportation device.

All this hearkens back to a centuries-old murder mystery that has fascinated Loeser for all his adult life, involving Lavicini, "the greatest stage designer of the seventeenth century," (p.4) whose own so-called Extraordinary Mechanism for the Almost Instantaneous Transport of Persons from Place to Place brought about a tragic loss of life and limb in the theater where it was demonstrated for the first - and the last - time.

Is history about to repeat itself, one wonders? Or can Loeser, unlikely as it sounds, somehow save the day?

There are some incredible characters flitting about the periphery of The Teleportation Accident, including not a few famous factual figures... you know, the sort of historical so-and-sos you might be inclined to read a book about. Yet here we have the bawdy biography of Egon Loeser, whose only real goal in life is to get laid, by hook or by crook. Truth be told, though, for this particular tale, his off-kilter angle is the perfect perspective.

Meanwhile, certain events occur beyond the bounds of the no man's land the narrative of Ned Beauman's new novel nestles in — not least, as in Boxer, Beetle, the holocaust. However, the closest we get to the war proper is via a shred of a letter from Loeser's former friend Blumstein, who attempts to tell our self-centered storyteller a little about what his country of origin has become since he abandoned it in search of Adele. Alas, our man, in his infinite wisdom, discards Blumstein's desperate message after a paragraph, thus preventing us from ever hearing the end of the anecdote.
"When Loeser heard the exiles whine, he sometimes thought to himself that he, too, had been dismissed from his vocation and forced out of his homeland. [But] his vocation was sex. His homeland was the female body. He felt just as lost as they did, but no one was ever sympathetic." (p.215) 
For a brief period, this is fairly frustrating, but ultimately, I think, the author's decision is fitting, because besides its distressing setting, The Teleportation Accident is not otherwise a novel concerned with matters poignant or profound. If anything it's a farce, with hints of science fiction, noir and romance; it's a comedy of egregious errors, above neither slapstick nor pratfalls, complete with a darkly sparkling sense of humour and enough wit to sustain Britain for the foreseeable future. To intertwine such a frivolous thing with the unspeakable horrors of war would be to belittle both — a potential pitfall Beauman is wise enough, just, to sidestep.

The Teleportation Accident is absurd, assuredly, but not entirely amoral, and while it might take some time to become comfortable with its masterfully meandering narrative, the investment is well worth making, because Ned Beauman's second novel easily eclipses his first: an excellent debut, but The Teleportation Accident, its own right, is twice the book Boxer, Beetle was. It's much more coherent, and markedly more accessible. A one-hit wonder, then, this author is not.

As established, The Teleportation Accident is far from profound, but be that as it may, it is profoundly funny, and on the sentence level, simply exhilarating. The sheer irreverence of Ned Beauman's sophomore outing renders it nearly meaningless, yet in the final summation, The Teleportation Accident is only as incidental as it is, equally, essential.


The Teleporation Accident

by Ned Beauman

UK Publication: July 2012, Sceptre
US Publication: February 2013, Bloomsbury

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  1. What is he doing with both hands?!?!

  2. Ned Beauman is a young author (born 1985) with a razor-sharp wit and a great gift for satire, and these features shine through in The Teleportation Accident, a tremendously entertaining and well-crafted novel spanning many hundreds of years. I'll not even attempt to describe the plot here (Beauman takes 357 pages to lay out a wonderfully inventive story which has multiple twists and turns), but will say that it is a work of enormous imagination and breathtaking complexity, in terms of the multiple cross-references and reappearances of characters and themes. But it's also a novel of simple and familiar motifs, such as the guy getting the girl, and with some truly believable characters. Very, very funny on occasions, and an excellent read.