I never expected to enjoy a work of fiction published in 2012 and, horror of horrors, long-listed for the Booker prize – and yet, here we are. Ned Beauman rehabilitates himself after the disappointing ending that spoiled his otherwise near-brilliant first novel, Boxer, Beetle, by dispensing with plot resolution altogether: instead of resolving, he dissolves. It jars at first, but on closer inspection works rather beautifully.
The book follows Egon Loeser, first a theatre set designer in 1931 Berlin, through an unlikely odyssey which takes him to Paris and then Los Angeles in pursuit of his former pupil, the deliriously fuckable Adele Hitler (no relation). Egon has foolishly missed a very narrow window of opportunity when Adele was his for the asking, and so he becomes obsessed with getting another chance. Adele remains out of reach as, year by year, his sexual deprivation mounts to monumental proportions, all the while gathering tangential subplots which range from surrealist to bizarre.
Loeser (for which read ‘loser’, obviously) and his journey have a lot in common with characters from Barth and Pynchon, except that Beauman has a much lighter touch: being British, he does not have to do the American thing and prove his intellectual credentials by using longer words and more convoluted syntax than strictly necessary. That said, the scope of his research for the book is impressive, and his writing, full of extravagant similes that only rarely misfire, owes more to another American, Raymond Chandler (There was enough ice in her voice for a serviceable daiquiri – a definite wink here). The effect is almost always amusing, sometimes dazzling.
An unlikely subject that’s obviously important (Beauman brings it across from his debut novel) is city planning and (this time) public transport. It boils down, of course, to where the hell this civilization is going, and strangely enough (for a man who writes for The Guardian) Beauman is pessimistic on that account. In an epilogue (there are four of them), the much older Loeser sums up, in reference to his book on Nazi death transports: If you leave an Enlightenment running for long enough, eventually, one way or another, it will become preoccupied with the moving around of large numbers of people. It is a curious echo of Aickman or at least Priestley. The implication is that there is not that much difference between rush hour subway and the Belsen trains. If this seems a far-fetched conclusion, the book is nothing if not far-fetched: events behind the scenes are stage managed by Roosevelt’s sinister Secretary of State Cordell Hull who never appears in person but is known to take H. P. Lovecraft for a chronicler of facts. I wonder if Hull’s obsession with Lovecraft can have any basis in reality or if – much more likely – this reflects the author’s symbolical perception of that scoundrelly figure. Beauman is presumably Jewish, and both his novels are highly oblique treatments of the Holocaust, among other things.
The already numerous readers’ reviews, while mostly raving or strongly positive, often seem to run down to a sort of bafflement as to what the book is actually about. To the extent that such a multi-faceted novel could be ‘about’ any one thing, I would say it was about the chthonic forces lurking just outside the Euclidean plane and breaking through every so often in one form or another. In one of the L.A.-set chapters, Professor Bailey’s youthful experiences form what seems to be the most intrusive and irrelevant subplot in the book, introduced jarringly out of the blue. I choose to see this rough handling as an intentional shift into borderline otherness. Curiously, Bailey’s father, who delivers him into the void, reminded me of Aickman’s father in The Attempted Rescue. Bailey’s insane credo – There is a void in things – is as close to defining the subject of the novel as Beauman can explicitly take us.