Friday, 3 September 2010

'It's hard to imagine Batman in a Little Chef'

Boxer Beetle 
by Ned Beauman

I so nearly didn't read this book. A proof had been sat on the shelf for several months by the time I came across an article on The Bookseller about Twitter. I'm sorry I seem to be mentioning Twitter a lot recently but everybody else does at the moment so it's hard to resist, and it's become an increasingly important mode of communication for me. Anyway, you'll notice at the bottom of that article about whether authors should have a presence on sites like Twitter, a quote from Ned Beauman who is dead against it.

“My main objection is that it’s simply beneath the dignity of a published novelist. There needs to be some sort of exclusion zone around an author’s mental processes otherwise it undermines the autonomy of their work.

It is such a ludicrously pompous thing to utter that I was ready to discard his debut and move onto something else until some fellow Twitterers (what dramatic irony) who'd read Boxer, Beetle, declared it to be too good to miss on those grounds. The second part of what Beauman had to say offered another possibility.

“If I am ever obliged to reopen my Twitter account for promotional reasons, I will update it by sending typewritten tweets by second class post to someone at my publisher who will then update it on my behalf.”

Perhaps he was joking. After reading his debut it's certainly possible filled as it is with outrageous characters, wicked humour and more energy than a film from Brukheimer. It's entertaining in a way that only a book about a Nazi memorabilia collector and nine-toed gay Jewish boxer could be.

The Nazi memorabilia collector is Kevin who as well as having a hobby of questionable morality also suffers from a unique, or at least rare physical trait. He suffers from trimethylaminuria, whereby he exudes the unappealing aroma of rotting fish in his sweat, urine and saliva.

Along with trimethylaminuria I also have asthma, eczema, cystic acne, mild irritable bowel syndrome and half a dozen other absurd non-terminal diseases. I have come to see my body as a sort of Faulknerian idiot man-child which I must drag along groaning behind me wherever I go.

Where he goes is often at the bidding of dodgy property developer, and fellow enthusiast, Grublock. When one errand leads to Kevin (or Fishy as Grublock affectionately names him) discovering the body of one of Grublock's men and a letter in the freezer seemingly written by Hitler himself we know we are at the beginning of an adventure. Beauman's narrative flicks back from the present day to the 1930's where we meet more unpleasant characters. Seth 'Sinner' Roach is the titular pugilist, his potential as a fighter restricted by his attitude and heavy drinking. He meets Philip Erskine who aims to be a eugenicist as well as a Fascist and has designs on Sinner too. He has been using the fast breeding cycles of beetles to advance his theories of eugenics and his discovery of a unique beetle on a trip to Poland has created perhaps the ultimate project for him to advance himself within the Fascist cause too. In Sinner he sees a human subject who could aid his work.

'For the last four years I've been busy with the study of insects. there is very little I don't know about beetles. But I've had enough of beetles now. I want to study human beings. And you are the human being I have wished to study, ever since I first learnt of your unusual physiology.'
'You mean I'm a short-arse?'

So begins the verbal sparring and a kind of Faustian pact that grants Erskine Sinner's body after death, but the two of them have a long way to go before that happens. There's more murder and intrigue, sodomy, invented languages, experimental music, and beetles of course. The plot is convoluted in the right way, there's plenty of it and it flows past nicely but the main recommendation is the verve of the writing. Beauman knows a good phrase when he writes one and his soft spot for simile provides some crackers. Sometimes you can hear them like the 'butcher's-counter slap of fist on face.' Sometimes you can see them like the man who emerges 'wet and blinking like someone who hadn't quite saved his dog from drowning in a river.' Sometimes they're witty - 'he tumbled backwards over the ropes and crashed into the gamblers like a bad idea into a hungry nation' and sometimes they're just brilliant: try not to appreciate the 'man whose laughter could have torn the stitches out of a straitjacket.'

I was reminded of Michael Chabon who has a similar penchant for period and genre and the same knack for creating characters that remain just the believable side of grotesque. Beauman seems to be writing another novel set in the 1930's next, it'll be interesting to see it he can keep it as fresh and punchy as this debut. He clearly has no interest in making likeable characters (or indeed making himself likeable judging by that Twitter comment/joke) and this book isn't going to suit the squeamish but there is something perversely enjoyable about following the varied cast here and something hopeful about the book's moral expression of the importance of letting nature take its course.


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