Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Teleportation Accident, by Ned Beauman

Sceptre, 2012
357  pp

[rumor has it that this book will be published in the US by Bloomsbury USA, February, 2013.]

The Teleportation Accident came out of the imagination of author Ned Beauman, whose first book, Boxer, Beetle (embarrassingly still sitting unread on a shelf in my British reading room),  was shortlisted for the 2011 Desmond Elliott Prize, as well as the 2010 Guardian First Book Award.  He is also currently working on a third novel, which, if it is as good and as well written as Teleportation Accident, should show up on some awards list somewhere in the future. It's definitely going on my "favorites of the year" shelf. 

How to describe this book is a really tough undertaking.  The novel  literally transports the reader through space and time in cutting bursts of movement, through a dizzying slew of ideas and a wide range of topics, all with the central proposition of the Teleportation Device.   It may sound a little like anarchy, but for the most part it's all really quite carefully controlled by the author's ability to take these ideas and his characters and bring them together in artfully-constructed, cleverly-crafted chapters that take on their own momentum as the book speeds toward its four (!!) separate endings.  I took copious notes here and now, in reviewing them, I'm actually able to see just how truly clever this author is.  I really can't say why without giving away much of the show, but trust me on this one.

Even providing a synopsis of this novel  is challenging.  The book opens in 1931 in Weimar Berlin, and begins by introducing its main character Egon Loeser as he's at work at the Little Allien Theater on a project called "Lavicini." He is a stage set designer, and his current work involves building a Teleportation Device for the play that will recreate the one built by the play's namesake, Adriano Lavicini, in the 17th century at a Paris theater. A terrible accident happened with Lavicini's original Teleportation Device, destroying a theater and killing several people in the aftermath, an event that Loeser becomes determined to understand. Loeser also believes that "politics is pigshit," and manages to remain staunchly apolitical despite what's going on all around him.  As an example, one night he passes by a university where a book burning is going on, and he thinks its an act of performance art  and joins in.  Loeser  fears "being at the bottom," achieving nothing and having only scorn for  those who "could make peace with failure."  He has a great disdain for all things American, except for a writer whose work he discovered by accident on a train to Cologne, Stent Mutton.  In fact, Loeser "yearned" to be Stent Mutton's unnamed narrator  -- who

 "seemed to find everyone and everything in the world pretty tiresome, and although he rarely bothered to dodge the women who threw themselves at him, the only true passion to which he was ever aroused was his ferocious loathing for the rich and those deferential to the rich."
 But most of all, Loeser liked the fact that Mutton's character "always, always, always knew what do. No dithering, no procrastination, no self-consciousness: just action."  

Since the breakup with his girlfriend Marlene, he hasn't had sex, relying instead on his Parisian photo album called Midnight At the Nursing Academy.  At a party one night, where Berthold Brecht is supposed to make an appearance, Egon sees a beautiful young woman, who turns out to be a former poetry pupil of his, Adele Hitler ("no relation").  Ultimately, and ironically, this particular Hitler will drive Egon out of Germany, as he realizes that he has to have sex with her, believing that if he could just be with her once, "then everything would be all right." She becomes his obsession, sleeping with everyone but him, but within a few years she disappears from Berlin. The rest of the novel follows Loeser as he follows Adele's trail to Paris then makes his way to Los Angeles, paralleling in a bizarre sort of way the flight from Nazi Germany by other intellectuals, whom Heinrich Mann once called  "the best of Germany."   In Beauman's hands, however, the émigré experience becomes anything but typical.  Throughout his travels, Loeser becomes unwittingly involved with an American con artist in Paris, Communist spies, a ghost (or not) who leaves him little gifts,  a rich man who made his fortune in car wax who also suffers from a bizarre condition, a truly mad scientist and other delights.  Add in a few unsolved murders and a connection between HP Lovecraft and the US State Department, and you end up with a rich, funny and definitely unforgettable reading experience. And at the center of it all is the Teleportation Device, which Loeser seems to encounter in some form everywhere he goes.

Part of the beauty of this novel is that Mr. Beauman does not confine himself to any  genre, taking aim at the conventions of literary realism and historical fiction while combining elements of both with sci-fi and horror throughout the book to come out with something very different -- a book that, as reviewer Simon Hammond says in August's issue of Literary Review (one of the online periodicals I subscribe to),  manages to "keep all the plates spinning, as the story dashes between years and continents with a large supporting cast."  While it's easy to dislike Loeser for being so blind, unfeeling and selfish,   you can't help but laugh at the stupid predicaments he finds himself in.  This book is absolutely hysterical, sadly, even when it probably shouldn't be.  But the real delight  here is really in how the author brings it all together -- although, of course, not in any sort of conventional way. With the Teleportation Device always taking center stage, many recurring ideas, people, themes and events crop up cunningly throughout each and every shift in time and place and continue on well into the future. The downside, from the casual reader perspective, is that there are just so many  literary and philosophical references, probably many I didn't get,  so once again, I have to leave the deeper meanings and the book's literary pedigree to the many readers much more so inclined than myself and to  the professional reviewers.  But having said that, I loved this novel and highly, highly recommend it. 

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