The Teleportation Accident (2012) by Ned Beauman
First of all, I really want to mention that whoever wrote the blurb for this book should win an award just for that. A historical novel that doesn't know what year it is; a noir novel that turns all the lights on; a romance novel that arrives drunk to dinner; a science fiction novel that can't remember what 'isotope' means; a stunningly inventive, exceptionally funny, dangerously unsteady and (largely) coherent novel about sex, violence, space, time, and how the best way to deal with history is to ignore it. See? That paragraph makes The Teleportation Accident sound like the best book EVER.
It isn't quite as good as all that, and it isn't as good as Ned Beauman's brilliant debut - Boxer, Beetle - either, but it's still a pretty great read. Starting in 1930s Germany, the story takes in Berlin, Paris and Los Angeles across a span of thirty years as it follows Egon Loeser, a dissatisfied young man who flits around the world because of his twin obsessions with a 17th-century set designer, Lavincini - the creator of an infamously disastrous 'teleportation device', about whom Loeser is attempting to write a play - and a beautiful girl, Adele Hitler ('no relation'). The Teleportation Accident is full of the same farcical humour, grotesque characters and surfeit of coincidences that characterised Boxer, Beetle, and again, I was reminded very strongly of Jonathan Coe's signature style, albeit coupled with a historical setting. I loved the fragmented, surreal narrative style used for the section of the story focusing on Bailey, and wished I could have read more of this. The characters didn't engage me as much as those in Beauman's debut, however, and nor did I find the book anywhere near as funny. It's possibly cleverer, though: it is indeed a story about 'how the best way to deal with history is to ignore it', and this element of the plot is handled beautifully, with the historical events one might expect to take centre stage remaining firmly in the background, and seen mainly through the filter of Loeser's selfishness.
My main quibble was - well, my first main quibble was that after the first chapter, I really hated Loeser. I hated him so much, in fact, that it took me a couple of days to even pick the book up again. My antipathy towards him lessened slightly as the story went on, but that was partly because midway through the story - round about the point he stopped reading the letter from Blumstein - I realised you weren't supposed to like him anyway (as if his name practically being 'loser' wasn't enough of a giveaway). After that revelation, my remaining main quibble was that I didn't really understand why Beauman had chosen to focus so much of the narrative on Loeser's preoccupation with Adele and his sexual frustration. Why was Loeser so obsessed with Adele? Okay, she was beautiful, but he travelled the world for years after his brief meeting with her, so surely he'd have found other women to lust after/fall in love with/obsess over? And if he was so desperate to have sex, surely it's impossible that he wouldn't have been able to find anyone whatsoever to sleep with in all those years, in all those different social circles in all those different cities?! Wouldn't he just have gone to a prostitute - since we already know that he's done this before at the start of the book, I don't see why he would have any moral objection to the idea later in life... It all seemed quite flimsy and contrived, and when the whole situation turned out to have little actual relevance to anything else, I felt a litle bit confused. I also didn't really 'get' the final chapter, I'm afraid.
I've noted previously that when you have very high expectations for a new book by an author who has impressed you in the past, it's often inevitable that it will disappoint you (even if only a little). This was one of my most-anticipated books of the year, and I have to admit that it wasn't quite the tour de force I was hoping for. The Teleportation Accident is fantastically written, entertaining and (for the most part) engaging, and the plot is incredibly well-woven together. However, the characters are universally hard to like and, although the plot fizzes with energy and ideas, there's just nothing to really care about (at points I wished the story wouldn't 'ignore history' quite so much, even though I did fully understand what the author was doing, and the significance of this).
As this review goes to press (!), The Teleportation Accident has just been longlisted for the 2012 Booker Prize. It's great to see such a young and relatively 'new' author being recognised, but I just wish this had happened for Boxer, Beetle!