He’d probably agree with Edward Gibbon’s assessment of history as ‘little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind’ but Ned Beauman’s instinct as to why we do what we do is a lot more basic. We’re motivated by sex: whether we’re having it or – as is more often the case in Beauman’s world – not having it.
And he might have a point. Take for example Ernst Hanfstaengl who described his former buddy, a certain Adolf Hitler, as “a man who was neither fish, flesh nor fowl, neither fully homosexual nor fully heterosexual… I had formed the firm conviction that he was impotent, the repressed, masturbating type.” A committed Freudian might call that motive enough.
Beauman’s Booker-nominated The Teleportation Accident starts off in Berlin during the Fuhrer’s rise to power and takes the hapless set designer Egon Loeser as its anti-hero. Desperate, self-obsessed and apolitical (Hitler “whoever he is, will never make one bit of difference to my life”), his only preoccupations are the renowned 17th century Venetian designer Andre Lancivini and his theatrical marvel, the ‘Extraordinary Mechanism for the almost instantaneous Transportation of Persons from Place to Place’, coupled with the stasis of his sex life and the disappearance of his one true love Adele Hitler (no relation) to Paris.
This transportation mechanism, which Loeser tries to recreate, allows actors to simultaneously disappear and reappear in various positions and different guises on the stage and, in a similarly spectacular fashion, characters and ideas weave in and out of the novel. Keep your wits about you: part of the pleasure lies in the continual threat that this intricate web might unravel. Indeed, when it’s put to the test in 1679, the mechanism fatally implodes. But smoke, unexplained presences and alleged green tentacles suggest malignant supernatural forces.
Driven by desire, Loeser follows Hitler (the girl) from Paris to LA. Romance and realism morph to sci-fi when the concept of teleportation suddenly starts to have real-life consequences. US scientists compete to invent something that could herald the end of all conventional transport, precipitate the overhaul of urban planning – one of Beauman’s pet topics – and be key to winning the war.
Teleportation is more than just a plot device or an excuse for a generic mash-up: the idea of being in several places questions our progressive view of history. In a heavy-handed manifesto for Beauman’s project, Loeser explains:
‘Compare the Berlin of Weimar to whatever city would turn out to be the most fashionable in 2012, and you would find the same empty people going to the same empty parties and making the same empty comments about the same empty efforts … Nothing ever changed. That was equivalence.’
It’s a chance for Beauman to play all sorts of historical mind games and crack some good jokes. The new expressionist bohos are all high on ‘a black market horse tranquilliser called ketamine’ that makes ‘Wagner sound really good.’ The potential anachronism begs for a Wiki-search (and sadly Andre Lancivini wasn’t a real person): coined in 1965, the drug was actually derived from PCP – otherwise known as angel dust – which had been around since 1926. Plus ça change … seems to be the gist.
The true teleportation is perhaps between this book and Beauman’s debut: the extravagant tone, themes and style transfer seamlessly to what – though more intricately plotted – isn’t much of a development. Its climax lacks the visual horror of Boxer, Beetle’s final blow. And the first line of the book is a test in itself, a provocative pastiche of Beauman’s intense, allusive tongue-in-cheek style:
‘When you knock a bowl of sugar on your host’s carpet, it is a parody of the avalanche that killed his mother and father, just as the duck’s beak that your new girlfriends lips form when she attempts a seductive pout is a quotation of the quacking noise your last girlfriend made during sex.’
That particular point is extended till it fills half the page. Compared to the realism prevalent among other young novelists, Beauman’s cheek is refreshing. But the problem with the avant-guard is that often no one dares rein them in.
There’s an ongoing joke that Colonel Gorge, Loeser’s wealthy benefactor, can’t tell pictures from reality. It’s a clever meta-literary set-up, which doubles as slapstick worthy of Wodehouse. The problem is after the umpteenth joke involving Gorge trying to gobble a picture of a pickle or wrestle photos of gorillas, it wears thin. Understatement is not Beauman’s forte. He needs to find another way of expending all that energy.
The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman is published by Sceptre (£16.99)
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.