When Kevin “Fishy” Broom, a collector of Nazi memorabilia, stumbles upon a secret communique from Adolf Hitler to an English aristocrat named Erskine, he uncovers a mystery that has lain dormant in England for seventy years, involving home-grown fascism, rogue entomology, avant-garde piano composition, a century-spanning eugenics project, steam-powered architecture and a young Jewish boxer named Seth Roach.
While I didn’t like this book as much as I liked the author’s followup, The Teleportation Accident, it is only lesser in my estimation by a very small margin, probably because it’s so short and I wanted more. It recalls my buddy Pynchon, again, this time in a way that serves to counteract something that always bothers me in book marketing, even though I’m occasionally guilty of it myself.
You know when you read the cover copy for a book, or a blurb provided by someone who seems important, and it promises you multiples that never end up appearing in the actual text? This could be something to the effect of “in this book, you’ll find time-travelling dinosaurs, nanomachinetic amputees and symphony orchestras,” and then you find a singular time-travelling dinosaur, one amputee powered by nanomachines, and just the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, no other city’s. This book doesn’t do that, and I was extremely happy about it.
Erskine, the eugenics-theorising, gay-impulse denying, aristocratic entomologist whose prolonged misery throughout this book gave me so much joy, is not the only character in the novel who thinks about how to put eugenics into practice (shades of Eutopia, here), engages in gay sex, is a landed aristocrat or practices entomological research. The genius of both of Beauman’s books, the thing that reminds me of Pynchon this time around, is that we are invited into each of these subcultures and given multiple characters to compare and contrast in each. Erskine’s a member of an entomological society, for example, which battles other societies and has infighting between its own members. The world is fleshed out quickly but strongly with many different people who share the same interests, compulsions and traits, and characters are not just a collection of weird quirks that can be referred to by the marketing department. I loved that.
I also really enjoyed the character of Seth Roach. Again, on the surface, he could just be a collection of character traits: he’s a young boxer, he’s gay (or at least bisexual, maybe) in a time where this could be really dangerous, he’s got nine toes, he’s from the East End of London, etc. But, he’s also much more than that. He’s interested in leaving the gritty streets he lords over due to his relative celebrity and his strong physique. He tries to run away in New York City, as he strives to find something new, something he doesn’t even understand yet. He falls in with various groups throughout the book, but is never defined by any of them.
The book provides a rich tapestry of grotesque 1930s archetypes, and dares to plumb deeper than most would. There’s lots of fun tangents to be taken on, I especially enjoyed hearing about the pissing matches between various “universal languages” in development at the turn of the last century, and the history of Erskine’s crazy ancestral manor, which is powered by really strange machinery. The various strains of early-Thirties fascism all get the piss taken out of them to fun effect. If I had one complaint, it’s that the present-day stuff seems a little underdone next to the pre-War shenanigans, but even then that’s only minor compared to the enjoyment I got out of Boxer, Beetle.