Can we be superficial for a moment? This cover is amazing. I love it so much. I’ve had a hunt through the paperback to try to work out who designed it, and failed, but kudos to him or her.
I read Ned Beauman’s first novel (Boxer, Beetle) shortly before meeting him at a Sceptre party – thanks Sceptre for sending me this one too! – and was very pleasantly surprised. I don’t think there is any way in which I could have been sold a book about boxing, beetles, and Nazis which would have made me think I might like it – but it was brilliant, energetically and stylishly written, and utterly captivating. I was even lucky enough to interview him about it. So, when The Teleportation Accident (2012) came out and got longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, I was naturally rather keen to read it… and lax enough that I’ve only just finished it. Writing about a novel that’s a couple of years ago can feel more dated than writing about one from a hundred years ago, so I hope you will forgive the indulgence.
The Teleportation Accident is one of those novels which demands either a shortish review or an enormous one. I can simply enthuse about Beauman’s extraordinary imagination and scope, or I can begin to try and explain how that is manifested… and the latter would end up taking thousands of words. There is just so much in the novel; it’s a real tour de force. Boxer, Beetle showed that Beauman could meld together disparate and surreal elements into a coherent and entertaining narrative – The Teleportation Accident does more of the same.
Even the title itself refers to various layers. A 17th-century Parisian set designed, Adriano Lavicini, destroys a theatre and kills dozens after his teleportation device tears apart a theatre. A scientist in 1930s America tries to replicate the device. And the main character of the novel – a German called Egon Loeser, whose main preoccupation is how seldom he has sex – is fascinated with Lavicini.
Sound complicated? I haven’t even started on the people pretending to attach monkey glands to people’s necks for health reasons, the macabre serial killer, the man suffering from an extreme form of agnosia, the film director with a secret, and the curiously named (but very beautiful) Adele Hitler…
How does Beauman make it all work? I don’t know, but he does. After an opening few paragraphs which make a solid attempt at Kundera-esque postmodern semiotics, he settles down into a prose style which is equal parts verve and pizazz. I sometimes wondered (with both novels) if he folded up bits of paper with surreal things on them, pulled some out of a hat, and dared himself to write a novel joining them all up. Well, he wins the dare. Somehow the tone remains consistent throughout – I think it is that unchanging sense of style, as well as the very grounded, fairly carnal preoccupations of Loeser – which allow a mad box of novelistic tricks to succeed as a single entity.
It also helps that Beauman seems to be having a lot of fun (although I’m sure it was also a lot of hard work). Here’s a paragraph I jotted down – I’m not a fan of sci-fi, but I loved the way he wrote about teleportation:
The point is, you can’t just delete the subject in one place and create a copy in another. If you did that to a human being, all you’d be doing is murdering someone and replacing them with a clone a few minutes old. That way, no one who believed in a soul – like my parents, for instance – would ever be willing to set foot in a teleportation device. So instead you have to move the object itself, really move it. But it can’t move through the intervening space. It has to be in one place, and then, snap! Suddenly in another. It has to change its position all at once. Well, what’s position, anyway? It’s not a function of space. There’s no more such a thing as space than there’s such a thing as the ether. Space is just objects, and position is a function of those objects. So if you can – the Professor always warns me against the Pathetic Fallacy, but it’s so hard to avoid sometimes – if you can make an object forget its old position, and then persuade it of its new position, then that’s teleportation. But how do you do that?
Ultimately, teleportation is a hook to hang the novel on. I found I didn’t much care whether or not the machine (indeed, the various machines) actually worked. I wasn’t even hugely invested in what happened to Loeser – I was invested in the zany rollercoaster on which the novel took me. Even events which, in the hands of a less talented writer, would be sordid seemed to me simply surreal and part of the vivid, myriad pattern of The Teleportation Accident.
Although he is Nicola Beauman’s son, his novels could scarcely be more different from those published by Persephone – and yet I love both. I am ultimately very attracted to a novelist who has a vast imagination, and (crucially) knows how to control it and use it very wisely. Beauman is that novelist.