Monday 29 August 2011

Book Review | Boxer, Beetle by Ned Beauman

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This is a novel for people with breeding.

Only people with the right genes and the wrong impulses will find its marriage of bold ideas and deplorable characters irresistible. It is a novel that engages the mind while satisfying those that crave the thrill of a chase.

There are riots and sex. There is love and murder. There is Darwinism and Fascism, nightclubs, invented languages and the dangerous bravado of youth. And there are lots of beetles.

It is clever. It is distinctive. It is entertaining.

We hope you are too.


Eugenics, fascism, entomology and murder most horrid meet in this bravura debut from journalist Ned Beauman, which has - as I understand it - reduced a gaggle of British critics to fits of intellectual and artistic jealousy.

Boxer, Beetle is disgusting in various ways. In its tripartite narrative about a rare genus of coleoptera whose wings, when unfurled, make a Swastika; in its three primary characters - namely a devotee of Nazi memorabilia (but not Nazis), a closeted fascist, and a disabused brute; and last but not least in its inimitable wit and wisdom, Boxer, Beetle quite sickens, particularly coming as it does from a first-time novelist still somewhere in his twenties.

His twenties!

Boxer, Beetle, then, is an routinely unpleasant affair, but if your heart and your head and your gut go the distance, then you will see it is too a daring and oft-intoxicating concoction of fact and fiction, invention and political incorrectness, wonder and horror, and of course boxer... and beetle.

We come to that lattermost and least likely twosome by way of one Kevin Broom - "Fishy" to his "friends" - whose contemporaneous narrative functions as a loose frame for the others. Kevin is a collector, but as he explains:

Among collectors, I am a worm - and particularly so in comparison to Stuart, my best friend. [...] He could afford almost anything: the only child of a hedge fund maestro, he supplemented his inheritance with a considerable legal settlement after an accident with an office coffee machine left him paralysed from the waist down. I often wonder whether I'd give up the use of my own legs in exchange for, say, the gold fountain pen with which Adolf Hitler and Rudolf Hess wrote Mein Kampf, and I'm fairly sure that I would. (pp.4-5)

In lieu of such a happy accident, Kevin does odd jobs for another enthusiast of all things Third Reich in the hopes that Grublock might deign to donate a few items his way for his troubles. The plot thickens when during a hunt for a needle in a stack of haystacks Kevin stumbles upon a body, and with it a note from Hitler, circa the mid-1930s, thanking one Philip Erskine for his "kind tribute" (p.9) to the party and to the then-Reichschancellor in particular. What follows is a fictionalised account of his Kevin's subsequent investigations into the specifics of this unholy offering, beginning with how the first clue to this murder mystery came to be in a dead man's chest freezer.

Our boxer is Seth Roach, or Sinner, a bisexual Jew in the midst of establishing for himself a toehold in the fighting community... or not. Sinner is a deeply self-destructive young man, you see, prone to explosions of extreme physical and sexual violence and with a genetic inheritance - a small stature nevertheless in possession of incredible strength and endurance - which seems as much a curse on Sinner as a credit to his dubious DNA.

Speaking of genes, our beetle is arrived at by way of the aforementioned Philip Erskine, a proponent of eugenics based in large part on the German collector Oscar Scheibel who applies his fascist science in theory on Sinner, and in practice on a species of eyeless beetle Erskine discovers in a Polish cave, from which he breeds "a strain in which every undesirable quality is eradicated and yet every desirable quality is amplified. No compromises, no sacrifices. Do you begin to understand now?" (p.116) 

Boxer, Beetle is as morally repugnant in the abstract as it is at times physically and spiritually repellent, so it stands as a steadfast testament indeed to the cunning of Beauman's craft that one comes - to a certain extent - to care about all three of his vivacious first novel's principle protagonists, whatever their horrible foibles. The mystery, meanwhile, though it meanders here and there, and pauses on occasion to indulge in itself - admittedly not my favourite aspect of the thing - proves quite compelling in the end, and neatly circular.

Some books are so clever you feel stupid reading them, and there were moments of Boxer, Beetle when I suffered exactly that syndrome. They were, thankfully, few and far between, and outnumbered in all but the last act by other moments - of beauty and insight, clarity and hilarity even in the face of the unspeakable, the unknowable - which more than made up for them. For instance:

...a city is just whatever happens to accrete around the intersection of a million secrets: a fox in your garden is a stolen kiss is a pirate radio station is a dead detective is a Welsh Ariosophist with a gun is an ounce of skunk with your greasy chips is the collection of Nazi memorabilia that my employer, Horace Grublock, keeps upstairs in his penthouse flat. (p.43)

Such phrases sound out like strains of sweet music, and these, I think, will remain with me rather longer than my memories of the cloying diatribes and meaningless metafictions which slightly mar the entire. Boxer, Beetle is thus an energetic if imperfect text about inheritance - whether genetic or physical or spiritual - and the preservation of ideas, objects, identities, and so on. Beauman's first novel is by turns fascinating, impassioned, irreverent, and utterly, utterly ugly. But the question on everyone's lips should be: has it a heart, besides all that? And beauty too?

And I should say so, yes. Yes it does.


Boxer, Beetle
by Ned Beauman

UK Publication: March 2011, Sceptre
US Publication: September 2011, Bloomsbury USA

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