Ned Beauman interviewed by Susan Tomaselli.
3:AM: Debut novels are usually tiresome coming-of-age stories. Yours is a little different, telling the story of a foul-mouthed Jewish boxer and an uptight eugenicist who’s trying to impress the Fuhrer with his sinister Anophthalmus hitleri beetle. It’s a novel of ideas: eugenics, urban planning, Fascism, experimental music and artificial language. The themes remind me a little of your Epitaphs, but where did the germ of Boxer, Beetle come from? Was the title always Boxer, Beetle?
Ned Beauman: Actually I bet if you did a statistical survey, you’d find the assumption that most debut novelists write about coming-of-age is a bit out of date now, especially outside the US – so I don’t feel that brave. I mean, I can’t imagine anything more tedious than a novel about my own life up to this point – it never even occurred to me. “Chapter one: my struggle to complete Grand Theft Auto before the end of the easter holidays without losing my pub job”?
In this case the germ came from many hours spent on the “Did you know…” section on Wikipedia, but the real theme didn’t come into focus until I saw a news story about how Sutton Council was intending to modify some steps in a park in Rosehill to make them more difficult for teenagers to sit on. The analogy I like to draw is with the rave era. Putting on drug-fuelled parties in disused warehouses was illegal, of course. But because the government didn’t crack down on it in time, Britain developed the finest dance music scene in the world, and it’s now an enduring part of our legitimate creative economy. If you stifle deviant behaviours early on – whether it’s bored teenagers sitting on steps, or the 1930s gay nightclubs where some of the novel is set – you block off mutations in society that may in retrospect come to seem not just acceptable but indispensable.
The title was originally Boxer; Beetle, but I decided that becoming (probably) the first novelist ever to use a fussy semi-colon in the title of a book was not an accolade I particularly coveted.
3:AM: The blurb for Boxer, Beetle begins: “This is a novel for people with breeding. Only people with the right genes and the wrong impulses will find its marriage of bold ideas and deplorable characters irresistible.” You’re pretty well-bred, aren’t you? Seth Roach, one of the most memorable characters in Boxer, Beetle is from low life. “To Erskine, the urban poor seemed not much different from the rural poor, and he understood neither. Why must they be so ugly and sore-ridden, he wondered? Why must they scream at their own children? Why must they urinate in the street?…Had Marx really spent all that time in London? Surely he must have realised that, if these withered grey creatures tried to rise up, the result would be unpleasant but barely perceptible, like a gust of smoke from a grate in the street.” As the Paris Review asked Graham Greene, have you ever had any experience of low life? How much are your characters drawn from life?
NB: I have had no experience whatsoever of the low life, or at least no more than any other Londoner who’s lived in deprived boroughs for a few years. I’ve also never been alive in the 1930s, or had a gun pointed at me, or set foot in a Chelsea penthouse, but I hope it all just about holds up. I think my characters are probably drawn less from my own friends and foes than a lot of authors’ are: I couldn’t identify a model, or even an amalgam of models, for any of them, unless you count dead historical figures. The reportorial model of fiction doesn’t interest me very much. Graham Greene himself, funnily enough, is one of the only great modern writers I can think of who had enough proper adventures that he could almost just have transcribed them and called it a day, but of course he did a lot more than that. At 25, I haven’t had much experience of life, but that’s only one small part of art. I mean, you wouldn’t complain that a composer or a sculptor hadn’t had much experience of life.
3:AM: Boxer, Beetle is loaded with literary references: Erskine’s dream is an inversion of Kafka, Kevin Broom describes his trimethylaminuria infected body as a “Faulknerian idiot man-child”, there’s a nod to Paul Auster when “nbeauman” appears on an on-line forum. Are any of these writers influences?
NB: None of them are conscious influences but I love all of them so I’m sure they’ve had some effect. They’re more like uncles than fathers. I more often look to writers like Dickens, Waugh, Nabokov, Pynchon, Gibson, Chabon. And 90s Vertigo comics.
3:AM: Kevin Broom suffers the Dickensian-sounding trimethylaminuria, a condition that causes his sweat, urine and saliva to smell of rotting fish. Why curse him with that?
NB: Firstly, genetic defects are one of the main themes of the book so it felt right for the narrator to have one himself. I love rare, implausible medical conditions! Secondly, although I wanted the frame story to have detective novel elements, I wanted the narrator to be the opposite of the typical noir private eye – as anxious and unglamorous as possible. And thirdly, the book is in some respects about being a teenage boy, and trimethylaminuria is an apt metaphor for at least one side of the adolescent experience. A lot of people assume I made it up, but it’s real.
3:AM: There’s some wonderful portraits of the City. One of my favourites:
“It was a cold night, and as I drove over to a block of flats near the canal London felt like a whispered conversation between street lights. I wanted to listen to the radio (there’s a pirate station I like called Myth FM) but I could find nothing on my crippled car system but shreds of white noise. The London air must be heavy with static, I always think, the eletromagnetism rising from cars and microwave ovens and telephone wires – another dead residue of the city, like rust and dust and soot – I have no doubt the rats and pigeons and cockroaches have learned to navigate by it.”
In New York Seth Roach feels like “an ant crawling over a cinema screen”, there’s a conversation about cleaning up the Lower East Side, and, of course, Erskine builds Roachmorton, a new town back in England. Is this something that interests you, urban planning and the City? Don’t you recommend The Death and Life of Great American Cities as a guide to writing good fiction?
NB: Some reviewers have described the book as if I’m using town planning as a metaphor to make a point about eugenics, but I’m not sure why anyone in 2010 would want to write a novel arguing against eugenics. It would be like writing a novel arguing against DDT or scold’s bridles. Actually, I’m trying to use eugenics as a metaphor to make a point about town planning. I read a lot about urbanism while I was writing the book: Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities is wonderful, but also, for instance, Mike Davis’ City of Quartz, Lynsey Hanley‘s Estates, and Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, from which I got the character of Balfour Pearl (based quite closely on Robert Moses). I think it’s a neglected theme in contemporary literature, considering how much it affects us all – it tends only to be borderline-SF writers like Ballard or Gibson or Miéville who convincingly address it. I’ve never even had an idea for a novel that didn’t have something to do with the nature of cities. What I’d like to do soon is write a book that’s set in a version of London I can actually recognise – I haven’t read one of those for a long time, if ever.
3:AM: One of my favourite characters has to be would-be atonal “dodecacophonist” musician Evelyn Erskine. She’s into body music, serial music, needs the “noise and the grime and the maze” of the City to write and goes on to score Hammer horror films “before ending up at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop where she did things with synthesisers that apparently no one has been able to replicate since.” If, as Evelyn says, “dissonance is the sound of life in the twentieth century,” what would the soundtrack to Boxer, Beetle be?
NB: Evelyn Erskine in her later career is a combination of Elisabeth Lutyens and Delia Derbyshire, so lots of music by them. Some 1930s jazz, obviously. And then the contemporary London sections were trying to capture a bit of Burial.
3:AM: I was describing the plot and characters of Boxer, Beetle to a friend who said it would make a graphic novel which – Batman and Hellboy winks aside – I happen to agree with. You used to write on graphic novels when you were a journalist, is that something you’ve considered, turning your novel into four colours?
NB: I would totally love to. But I want to write for Marvel or DC – I want to be able to play with Batman or Iron Man or the Fantastic Four – and breaking into American superhero comics makes breaking into UK literary fiction look like a trifle. That said, if I ever meet an artist I’d like to work with, I would definitely consider writing some sort of original graphic novel. I think adapting Boxer, Beetle itself would be pointless.
3:AM: The key events in Boxer, Beetle centre around the dinner party at Claramore in 1936. Despite hosting a Futurist and a Blackshirt, it’s a rather dull affair. If you were to host a dinner party, which figures, historical or otherwise, would you invite?
NB: I think I’d just keep it to me, Björk, and John D. Rockefeller.
3:AM: You’re working on your second novel, The Teleportation Accident, which I believe is also set in the 1930s. What is it about this era that appeals to you? Are you, or will you, read contemporaneous authors, Patrick Hamilton, for example? How are you researching this novel and what is it about?
NB: The Teleportation Accident is about an Expressionist set designer who
travels from Berlin to Los Angeles via Paris, tracing the route of Brecht, Adorno, Mann, Schoenberg and so many others. I think part of the reason I’ve returned to the 1930s is that it was the last time you could sincerely hold an extreme political position like communism or fascism, and still feel intellectually respectable and get invited to dinner. Which makes it a useful background for a novel of ideas. (And also there seems to be some part of me that is weirdly preoccupied with Hitler. Oh god.) That said, I’ve spent so many years now immersed in that period that I will be happy if I never see another photo of a bobbed haircut in my life. My third novel will definitely be set in contemporary London! Still, I do love 1920s/30s fiction – Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Waugh, Greene, Isherwood, Faulkner and so on.
3:AM: You caused a bit of a fuss on your comments about Twitter: “My main objection is that it’s simply beneath the dignity of a published novelist. There needs to be some sort of exclusion zone around an author’s mental processes otherwise it undermines the autonomy of their work.” In Boxer, Beetle William Erskine is obsessed with machines, technology and automation, i.e. modernity. Do you not think that Twitter, like Kevin skimming Wiki pages, is a part of modern reading? And you told the Guardian that “paring away plot, character, humour, lyricism, humanity is more often boring than it is bold…at the moment a lot of British readers seem to be falling for this idea that the most interesting fiction has to involve rather dated Modernist self-flagellation.” Is this what’s wrong with today’s novel?
NB: I think Twitter is certainly a part of modern reading, in the same way that the comment section underneath that YouTube video of the dog doing the merengue is part of modern reading, but that doesn’t mean I have any wish to involve myself. I made those Twitter comments as a pretty blatant bid for attention, but I never expected people would be quite so easy to bait – the level of indignation was hilarious, and good for sales I’m told, so thank you to everyone who obediently took part in my very minor publicity stunt. Although that’s not to say that I didn’t mean what I asserted in that article. I would explain here about how perhaps I was half-serious, but I know that Twitter can’t really interpret “half-serious” in the same way that, say, bees can’t watch television, so I won’t bother.
I was exaggerating in the Guardian. There’s no one particular thing that’s wrong with today’s novel. What does worry me is the feebleness of this year’s debate about the place of Modernism in contemporary fiction – there are some very articulate, tenacious people on one side, and some very mild, apologetic people on the other, and not much satisfying argument in between. Perhaps, to start with, we could all agree to stop throwing around words like “middlebrow”, “Victorian”, “kitsch”, “corporate publishing” and “liberal humanist” as if they had any real meaning in this context beyond pure scorn. I, for instance, would call myself a “liberal humanist”, but from what I’ve been able to gather, this must mean that I’ve never read Beckett, I’m squeamish about violence, I supported the war in Iraq, and if I read a pseudo-experimental novel and find it too arid and portentous to endure, then it’s definitely my own fault. Well, thanks for letting me know.
To be clear, I quite agree that we shouldn’t mothball the “challenges of Modernism”. But we shouldn’t give them more than their due, either. Every decade and every literary movement since the novel began has posed us, like an examination paper, a set of fascinating, insoluble problems, and those of the inter-war avant-garde are just one set among many. Yes, they’re more disconcerting and influential than most, but they’re not conclusive or definitive or supreme. If you’re preoccupied with the challenges of the 1930s, then you may well be ignoring the challenges of the 1850s or the 1960s. Which is fine: all it means is that you’ve picked the combination of questions that happens to interest you. But if other writers decide to pick a different combination, it’s not your place to condescend to them for it. Their exam is just as hard as yours.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Susan Tomaselli is a contributing editor to 3:AM Magazine and lives in Dublin.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, September 23rd, 2010.