Friday, January 4, 2013

Ned Beauman's BOXER, BEETLE #OneBookAtATime

Nazis! Nazi memorabilia collectors! Boxers! Boxing promoters! Insects! Entomologists! Sufferers of trimethylaminuria! People who have to work with and smell them!The ecosystem of Ned Beauman's Boxer, Beetle is complicated and repulsive, but wound up not being quite as compelling as other reviewers have made it sound.

The novel intertwines two narratives and two timelines in the now-classic format of a historical narrative being chased down by a modern explorer. In the 21st century, we have a young man named Fishy (so named for his unfortunate, genetically-determined body chemistry and the odors it produces), who conducts internet auctions of historical artifacts at his day job, and has a special sideline in the Nazi memorabilia trade for a hobby, and whose latest mysterious pursuit (alongside a nasty gun-toting freelancer who is killing his way to a new find) leads him to start exploring the story of a British entomologist, fascist and eugenics enthusiast and the diminutive Jewish boxer whom the entomologist manipulates into becoming the subject of some, err, special research in 1936.

Trimethylaminuria is neither played up for laughs (something I was kind of expecting-with-a-cringe from the novel's earliest pages) nor presented as a subject for our compassion or pity (though in real life lots of sufferers wind up committing suicide as a result of the social isolation it tends to impose, the Gordon Crisps of the world aside) as it stands in, in the modern timeline, for all of the things about humanity eugenicists want to eliminate (in 1936, of course, they're much more blatant and reprehensible about it). For Fishy it's just a fact in his life, albeit one that has dealt him out of the reproductive sweepstakes far more effectively than anything the eugenicists of yesteryear would have dared to dream of. He's got bigger concerns as the novel unfolds, like surviving and escaping from his weird captor. Or so it would seem as the novel gets going, but then Fishy and the gunman disappear except for quick and pointless interludes. Fishy's disorder winds up being kind of a punchline for the novel, but otherwise, there really isn't much point to his being in it. Which is a shame.

Meanwhile, Philip Erskine's story (1936) is a study in multiform ickiness, not because he specializes in  carrion-eating/carnivorous insects,  but because of his and his family's matter-of-fact fascism and anti-semetism and, while we're at it, classism. For Erskine is a character straight out of Michel Houellebecq, that French novelist I so love to hate and hate to love. Amid all of his other passions and pretenses are little observations like this one, made while he tries to address the difficult problem of how to masturbate when sharing a cabin and a bed with a professional colleague: "Why couldn't one just go to the doctor every month to have one's semen, this irrational fluid, syringed off like the pus from a boil."

This long before he is shown regarding a semen sample demanded from his boxer specimen as "ootheca", a term usually reserved for the egg case of members of that insect family that contains mantises and cockroaches, thus demonstrating just how human he thinks Seth Roach isn't (and lest one think Roach is by any stretch of the imagination a sympathetic figure or victim, he's just biding his time until he can go out again and get rip-roaring drunk and beat the crap out of whatever "toff" is foolish enough to take him home. There's rough sex, and there's what Roach does. Yikes.).

So, like Arslan before it in my reading this year, this is a fairly repellent and ugly book, but this time unredeemed by beautiful prose. Beauman takes great, gleeful pleasure in giving us a close look at some of the greatest ugliness humanity has ever produced, and at the people who allowed it to flourish largely because they were happy to admire it from a distance. Erskine, for instance, is, in addition to all the other icky things he is, such a fan of Adolf Hitler's that he goes so far as to breed a stronger, nastier, more belligerent strain of an eyeless beetle he originally discovered in a cave in the Poland the Fuhrer is soon to invade, all so that there might be an insect worthy of being named after his hero.

And then there's the boxer, all four foot eleven of him, nine-toed Seth Roach, descended from immigrants chased away by pogroms from the environs of the cave where Erskine found his breeding stock, the kind of gay man who embraces the idea that his preferences are considered perversions and who not only lets himself get roped into being Erskine's study subject, but into coming along to a fateful conference that is supposed to be about artificial languages (think Esperanto, only weirder and more fiddly) but winds up being something rather more vile.

But hey, sometimes, at least, Boxer, Beetle is funny, as when we come, midway through the book, to a description of Erskine's ancestral home, which his father had determined to modernize so thoroughly that it would still be modern in a hundred years. Rube Goldberg isn't in it. I could have maybe used more of this kind of thing for my tour through the slime -- especially in a novel that is promoted as "hilarious." Had I been looking for belly laughs instead of bugs, I might have been annoyed at the paucity of the former (as it was, I could have used more of the latter, but that's what Daniel Evan Weiss' debut was for. And Tyler Knox's for that matter). As it stands, well, this is the first novel of a young man of undoubted talent but who maybe bit off a bit much for his first project. His second, The Teleportation Accident, was long-listed for the Man Booker this year, and sounds interesting enough for me to give it another chance, but on the strength of the subject matter more than of his writing as I've seen it so far.

Anyway, it doesn't sound like it's quite as filthy.

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