Friday, April 19, 2013

The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman

"The Teleportation Accident" is a long, ribald shaggy-dog story that is both about that simplest of stories - boy chases girl - and something a little more ambitious: the way that we experience the times we live in. The protagonist, a German set designer called Egon Loeser (the "loser" reference isn't a coincidence), it tired of Berlin in the early 30s, utterly oblivious to the rise of the Nazis and wondering whether he will ever get laid again. Meeting the unfortunately named Adele Hitler, he becomes infatuated, but too late, for she has already gone off with a British novelist, a comic version of Christopher Isherwood, who has already riled Loeser by fictionalising the story of a 17th century set designer, Adriano Lavicini, that Loeser was slowly turning into a a play. The Teleportation device of the title is either a wooden contraption for quickly moving characters across stage without the audience realising it, or an actual teleportation device. In many ways, this ambivalence is the novel's real strength, as the shaggy dog story sees the teleportation device appearing at different places in history - and therefore maybe it is real after all?

Not that Beauman particularly cares, for this is an apparatus for him, just as much as it is for Loeser/Lavicini in their plays. The "accident" sees Lavicini's device exploding on stage, killing a large number of the audience and devastating the theatre its in. Flash forward a few hundred years and is the same thing about to happen in in 1940s Los Angeles? The novel plays around with this "steampunk" apparatus at will, occasionally forgetting it entirely, but coming back to it towards the end. The novel's main structure is picaresque as Loeser, never at home wherever he sits, moves restlessly from late Weimar German, to pre-war France, to Los Angeles on the edge of war. The narrative style shifts as well. From the excellent first section which richly satirises Isherwood's Berlin novels; to a slightly leaden Paris episode where Loeser gets involved with an American con artist, that's like a cut price "A Moveable Feast", to a Chandler-esque Los Angeles, where he rocks up for the remainder of the book.

The problem is that as inventive as these are, what begin as enjoyable riffs become entangled in the shaggy dog plotting that never entirely convinces. Whereas the Berlin sequence has a real tension, as the young horny Loeser wilfully ignores the growing Nazi presence, the Paris sequence is just a comic turn, as Loeser helps an American con man sew "monkey gonads" onto unsuspecting rich women's necks, in the hope for longer lives. The American section, which takes up so much of the book, quickly becomes loose, somewhat nonsensical and paranoid, where a vast cast of characters - including quite a few displaced Berliners - role in and out of an overly complex story that sees Beauman losing his way somewhat. The riffs and the clever-clever juxtapositions from earlier in the novel are buried under pages of crass dialogue and over-exposition. By the time Loeser meets Adele again (she's sensibly changed her surname) both him and us have lost interest. Loeser's main interest now is recovering a dirty book that he lost on the way over; meeting his hero the novelist Stent Mutton; and somehow staging his Lavicini play at long last.

There's much to praise in the novel, but there's also so much slackness (and some woeful editing at times) as Beauman gets tied up in knots with the ridiculousness of his plot. The characters we meet in Los Angeles are all grotesques, and maybe this is the J.K.Rowling generation coming of age, but its as if he can't resist any half-hearted joke, or possible digression that comes along. The irony about the breakneck speed and confidence of his writing, is that it doesn't stop to realise how leaden it has become.

New characters come in and take over the narrative and the book feels like a series of long shorts hung together - a bit like Adam Robert's adolescent steampunk comedy "Swiftly" - by an almost random picaresque. Compare with the brilliant "The Sisters Brothers", and Beauman's book feels adolescent, rushed, and trying too hard to please. It's been well received, and for a certain type of reader wanting something that fills that previously unfilled need for something that's both Pynchon and Python, I guess I can see the appeal. Oddly enough, for all its pyrotechnics, the writing is somewhat old-fashioned. At times it comes across like one of the hoary seventies comedies by Guy Bellamy (or even Leslie Thomas' ribald The Virgin Soldiers) albeit with a baroque imagination which is all Beaumans. In the L.A. segment it hardly comes close to the brilliance of James Robert Baker's "Boy Wonder" and "Fuel Injected Dreams" though it attempts something of their wild brio.

The ending(s) when they eventually come, are a bit of relief, and rescue the novel somewhat from its own failings - offering several conclusions to the story that tie things up or make some kind of sense. There's enough in the book to make you think that Beauman is making some comments on our sense of history, the McGuffin that is the Teleportation device, offering an excuse for any numbers of fractures in the narrative, even as he tells the story somewhat straight. More a smorgasbord than a coherent meal, his appearance on Granta's Best of Young British novelist lists is perhaps more surprising because of riffiness of his prose, which disappointed me, than the fecundness of his imagination, which - one feels - employed in shorter doses will come up with much to recomment it in the future.

Joe Dunthorne liked it a lot more than I did, if you want to find an alternate view. 

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