Monday, September 10, 2012

Reading Notes: The Teleportation Accident

The eleventh book on the longlist in my reading program was Ned Beauman's The Teleportation Accident. It's taken me over a week to read it, longer than several of the others, but this is not a comment on the readability of this text, it's just been a very hectic week. And in that week, this funny, clever, weird book has been a little gem of relaxation and fun for me.

The core premise of Beauman's book - if it could be said to have one - seems to me to be somewhere between "History is something that happens in the background while people are living their lives" and "Personal catastrophes, no matter how slight they appear to others, are always more painful and immediate than grand societal tragedies." Neither of these are novel propositions, but what Beauman has done here is rise to the challenge of expressing them via a pretty unlikeable main character and a really unappealing cast of suppotrting characters.

Egon Loeser (for which read Loser) is a German set designer in Berlin at the start of the novel, which opens in 1931. Most people, when they read that a book is set in 1930s Berlin, might assume that it is, perhaps, about the rise of the Third Reich, or that this is at least a critical part of its backdrop. This book, however, is not even tangentially about Adolf Hitler, Nazism and the horrors of genocide. It is about Loeser's obsession with, in this order: sex; himself; a seventeenth century set designer called Lavicini and his invention, The Teleporation Device; and a beautiful girl called Adele Hitler (no relation), who mostly interests him because she won't sleep with him.

The book follows Loeser as he follows Adele first to Paris, then to Los Angeles. Loeser is oblivious to any broader themes that might be playing out in his country, city or adopted residences; the scene where he casually joins in a book burning, relieving some of his frustration, and then strolls away, totally unconcerned with what's just happened, is almost sickeningly flat in its emotional timbre. Later, in Los Angeles, Loeser won't open letters from his Jewish friend in Berlin, who's documenting the rampant rise of anti-semitism, because he finds them boring. In New York years later, in a dreamlike sequence in which he's interrogated by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (Joe McCarthy's mob), he's uninterested in the Communist activities of his German-exile friends in LA, and not at all keen to save them. Yes, he is pretty contemptible, our chief protoganist.

But while he is venal, shallow and careless, he's not evil; Loeser is, to quote Doulgas Adams (appropriately, as this book verges on Adams-esque at times), "just this guy, you know?" He's a self concerned, unaware, emotionally backward, intelligent, pampered drifter. He doesn't mean to do ill but doesn't really care enough about anything to avoid it. In fact, Loeser only really cares about getting laid (which he doesn't manage at all for most of the 7 year period of the core novel, only breaking his drought at the very end), preferably by Adele, who he has come to see as his personal saviour in some weird kind of way.

What carries this book along is its humour (it's consistently funny, although not to a snort-tea-out-of-your-nose level), its wonderful cast of characters (not one of whom, with the possible exception of the millionaire eccentric Gorge, is even vaguely sympathetic) and its interweaving of subplots. The running gag of the Lavicini's teleportation device is managed slickly (I particularly delighted in Loeser's insistence, when asked to produce a Christmas play for the University, that his pet theme be worked in, resulting in a pageant called The Christmas Teleportation Accident). Any book that can make you accept a character who can't distinguish images of things from the things themselves, a serial kiling boffin, an impotent American con man in Paris, a terminally bored heiress, an author of hardboiled noir who looks like a furniture salesman and a stone cold Fifth Columnist composer as "just a bunch of people you might know" is doing something very, very right.

Overall, I liked this a lot. If the ending hadn't been so weak (it is a shocker of a final chapter), I'd even say I liked it enormously. If you're looking for something to relax with, I'd recommend it.

Overall verdict for the shortlist?
Yes, definitely.

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