Boxer, Beetle, By Ned Beauman
A dazzling debut novel of ideas traces eugenics from the East End of the 1930s to a geek's bedroom
Sunday 29 August 2010
Eugenics as a social policy reached its acme within the salons of Mayfair and the Modernist corridors of Berlin's Kroll Opera House from 1933. For obvious reasons, its popularity collapsed post-war, but the rise of Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts exposed a deterministic underbelly to British intellectual life. It stretched from the findings of Darwin's cousin Francis Galton, who argued that humanity's avoidance of natural selection was causing a "reversion towards mediocrity", to Dachau, and beyond.
For a 25-year-old first-time novelist to take on this topic is impressive. To weave in the intrinsic two-facedness and bureaucratic baggage of eugenics' evangelists is brave; to tackle the subject of the homogenisation of mankind through allegorical vignettes on architecture, language and atonal music is surprising; to do it all in an entertaining way fosters intense feelings of jealousy.
Boxer, Beetle jumps between two narratives. In the present day, Kevin, a collector of Nazi memorabilia, spends his time in internet chat rooms, partly because of a rare medical condition which causes him to honk like rotten fish. In the first few pages, he discovers a murder; the chase is on to find out who did it and why. But the bulk of the book follows 1930s East End boxer Seth "Sinner" Roach and eugenicist Philip Erskine. The former is enraged at the world because he is a freak of nature; the latter is a controlling and repressed gay man. Asides include a blackmail sub-plot, a mini-essay on a fictional language, even a passage on how Batman is perfectly adapted to the gargoyles of Gotham's architecture. Here is a writer who clearly feeds off ideas, conspiracy theories, bizarre spiritual cults. The enjoyment he takes in retelling them is exhilarating.
Boxer, Beetle could have been over-written, but isn't. Simple sentences are liveried by their philosophical overtones, allowing the occasional gem or breathless flourish: "A fox in your garden is a stolen kiss is a pirate radio station is a dead detective..." reads the conclusion to one chapter. Elsewhere, Beauman talks of London feeling like a "whispered conversation between street lights", before striding forth into the next intellectual blitzkrieg: Kafka, Freud, Nietzsche; even making the occasional joke.
Minor nitpicks: Beauman's authorial voice blankets all his characters in the same, educated, articulate patter. I'm not quite sure why some of the characters are there – for example, Sinner's mysterious sister, Anna. Then there is the pervasive unlikeability of Beauman's protagonists (the exception being Erskine's sister, Evelyn). Another criticism is that the eugenicist simply steps out of the narrative at the end. Kingsley Amis famously hurled London Fields across the room when he discovered that his son had written himself into the novel; Beauman writing himself in, albeit as a minor character, is cloying.
That said, this is a fine debut: clever, inventive, intelligently structured, genre-spanning, as magpie-like in its references as any graphic novel, and above all, an enjoyable, high-octane read through a fascinating period in history.
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