Let’s be frank: the literary world has not exactly been clamoring for a post-postmodern noir-inflected sci-fi comedy. But now that it’s here, in the form of Ned Beauman’s pyrotechnic second novel, The Teleportation Accident, the real question is what to make of it.
Is this an impressive leap forward for an already celebrated author whose first novel, Boxer, Beetle (2010), won several awards and near-universal critical acclaim? Is it a high-wire act in 370 pages? Or is The Teleportation Accident a self-indulgent, if frequently hilarious, fictional construct that sometimes reads as if John Barth, Philip Roth (at his randiest) and the late Richard Brautigan were all shouting at the reader at once?
In short: Yes.
The central conceit of the book is, oddly enough, wholly traditional: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy tries to win girl back. In Beauman’s hands, however, that hoary trope is stretched, tweaked, twisted and filigreed into so many risky shapes that it’s easy to lose track of the fact that the author is not simply showing off. Or rather, he is showing off — but he’s showing off in the service of spinning an astonishingly intricate and ultimately satisfying yarn.
At the risk of not mentioning several critical characters and countless hairpin-turn plot developments, we can state that The Teleportation Accident, which begins in Weimar Germany and ends in McCarthy-era America, is about a young man (the boy) named Egon Loeser who meets a young woman (the girl) named Adele Hitler, no relation to that other A. Hitler; the boy falls in love with the girl; the boy, a superior-minded but not terribly accomplished New Expressionist theater set designer who spends much of his free time looking for cocaine to put up his nose, fails to boldly pursue the girl; shortly thereafter, the girl becomes a notorious and unapologetic tramp and the lover of innumerable Weimar-era literary notables and nonentities; the boy, willfully ignorant of the Nazi threat consuming his nation, follows Hitler (the girl, not the newly elected German chancellor) to the Paris of Joyce, Stein, Picasso and other Modernist bigwigs; while in Paris, the boy casts about for more cocaine and, in one memorable set piece, tries to dupe an American mother and daughter seeking a famous (quack) doctor’s youth elixir by gluing peeled lychee nuts to their necks in lieu of said quack’s experimental monkey-testicle implants; Hitler (the girl) leaves Paris for Los Angeles and, presumably, more and quite likely far richer lovers; the boy follows the girl to L.A.; the boy meets his favorite writer of hard-boiled dreck, Stent Mutton, who might or might not be in the process of being cuckolded by an asexual avant-garde composer, an acquaintance of the boy’s from Germany who …
Wait. Did we mention that Loeser is also in pursuit of a (presumably) pornographic book, Midnight at the Nursing Academy, that he turned to, for years, in the lonely hours of the night as a source of solace and relief before misplacing it somewhere between Berlin and Paris? Or that he spends quite a bit of time in the company of a charming fraud he met on the Left Bank who is trying to pass off an unreadable work of fiction, The Sorrowful Noble Ones, as a lost Fitzgerald novel? Or that the ghost of a Renaissance set designer, Adriano Lavicini, the inventor of the teleportation device that gives the book its title, floats above the action like a kind of nonsensical prime mover?
By the time Loeser lands in L.A., about halfway through the book, most readers will either be in, completely, for the full rollercoaster treatment, or will have long since bailed out. A very small percentage of readers might still feel noncommittal by the time Loeser meets Mutton and his man-eating wife, Dolores — but those are the same sort of folks who will sit through, say, the first 13 hours of Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz and then, shrugging, walk out before the end.
The saving grace in all of this — on top of Beauman’s quite evident, almost palpable enjoyment in constructing a fractal-like history of the mid-20th century — is the book’s frequently explosive humor. Countless authors through the centuries have mined the comedic gold of a male protagonist’s ceaseless and fruitless attempts to get laid, but the scale of Loeser’s ineptitude in this realm is not far from heroic. He gets so close, so many times — including a frantic porno-farcical encounter with the aforementioned American mother and daughter in Paris, both of whom are driven into a lascivious frenzy after ingesting copious amounts of champagne and barbiturates administered during the lychee-nut caper. But Loeser’s self-loathing, combined with an inability to interact with pretty much anyone without coming off as a self-righteous ass, effectively scuttle every opportunity put in his way.
In the end, though, at the very heart of the book’s appeal is Beauman’s gift for the preposterous, conveyed in language and imagery that brings to mind not contemporaries like George Saunders, or post-modern poets of excess like David Foster Wallace and Pynchon, but great — and now largely forgotten — American humorists of the last century like S.J. Perelman and Peter de Vries, as well as English writers like P.G. Wodehouse and Douglas Adams.
One blustery evening, for instance, Loeser spies “a hunchbacked balloon seller with two dozen red balloons … shifting his weight against the tug of the wind like a Zeppelin breeder out promenading a whole litter of excitable puppies.”
Loeser learns that Jean-Paul Sartre is attending a party in Berlin and dismisses the French existentialist with the funny-because-it’s-true observation that “he has a face like a four-year-old’s drawing of its father.”
Or consider the perfectly bumptious cover-copy for a how-to book Loeser encounters in 1935 L.A., written by someone named Clark Snable and bearing the enticing title, Dames! And How to Lay Them: “Tired of feeling like a cast-iron chump? Want to learn all the famous secrets of sexually romancing huge quantities of toasty eager dames with real class any night of the week even Monday like it was easy?”
It takes real talent to write a mini-parody that sounds that stupid.
The Teleportation Accident is a singular novel — singularly clever, singularly audacious, singularly strange — from a singular, and almost recklessly gifted, young writer. This is not fiction for everyone. But for those who stick with it, it’s a wild and wonderful ride.