Sunday, November 20, 2011

Boxer, Beetle, Madness

Ned Beauman's debut novel Boxer Beetle is one of the strangest books I've read in awhile - almost impossible to classify, explain, or handsell to anyone. Regardless, here's my short little pitch:

Kevin is a dealer in Nazi memorabilia - he's not a collector, personally, but he has found a niche in the online market that he's happy to exploit. He doesn't leave his London apartment much, however, due to his acute trimethylaminuria, which leaves him constantly reeking of rotten fish. However, following instructions from his biggest client, Kevin forces himself out into the world against his better judgements and stumbles onto a murder scene & a mysterious 1936 letter from Adolf Hitler to a Dr. Philip Erskine that sets the whole bizarre mystery in motion.

It turns out that Philip Erskine was a fascist British entomologist with a disturbing human eugenics agenda who managed to breed a nearly indestructible beetle in honor of the Führer. Erskine's story - told in alternating chapters with Kevin's - is distinctly intertwined with that of the 5-foot tall, nine-toed, Jewish, homosexual boxer, Seth "Sinner" Roach. Still with me? 

Despite his diminutive stature, Sinner is a phenomenal pugilist and a bizarre physical specimen. When Erskine stumbles upon him in 1934, he is well on his way to a shot at a championship bout - only to be derailed by a horribly bad attitude towards everyone around him and a love for only a bottle of gin. The relationship between these two vastly different men is hardly that - a "relationship" - but more an infatuation on the part of Erskine and a raging hatred by Sinner that causes their lives to intersect in bizarre ways over the course of several months in 1934. Which ultimately, eventually, strangely reveals the tale of how Hitler wrote a letter to Philip Erskine.
Kevin's side of the story - while his gag-inducing affliction is fantastic - felt a bit as if it were forced in between the pages of the rest of the book. (His is a detective story, of a sort, and it read a bit false & amateurish to my eyes.) The 1930's vein is filled with enough bizarreness to carry the load - beetles with natural swastika markings on their wings, drunk, gay, midget boxers, fascist entomologists, invented languages, dissonant music composers, and some truly wonderful turns of phrase. Plus, Beauman can be funny as hell - take his opening sentences:
In idle moments I sometimes like to close my eyes and imagine Joseph Goebbels' forty-third birthday party. I like to think that even in the busy autumn of 1940, Hitler might have found time to organize a surprise party for his close friend...
To me, Boxer Beetle is but a glimpse - an early shot across the bow - of what Ned Beauman is capable of. While it may not be for everyone - what with all the Nazis and homoeroticism - there is an undeniable skill at work here and he has created a weird little world that exists just beyond the fringes of what we think we know about history and the people who populate our world. Keep your eyes on this dude.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Quitting's Alright By Me

I've started thinking that it's okay to quit on a book that I don't particularly enjoy. I used to think that I needed to power through, thinking & hoping that there was something of inherent value within that I was so far missing. This isn't a new topic here on the Catapult - I wrote this in 2007:
In 2003, I stopped reading Lawrence Norfolk's 574 page The Pope's Rhinoceros on page 549. I really actually tell myself that I'll finish it some day. One day my life will come full circle, back to "aught three", and I will be inextricably drawn back to the soothing tones of Lawrence Norfolk and his rhino. No one else believes me though...
"Don't you love me anymore, Seth?"
Hell, I don't even believe me. I haven't touched that book since I wrote that 4 years ago - and I hadn't made an honest attempt to read any of it for at least 3 years before that. So why the guilt? Who cares? Norfolk got paid & has moved on to other things (whatever they are), so why do I think of every book-quit as a failure on my part?
I do often feel almost guilty for quitting on a book. It's ridiculous. How could I possibly be letting the author down in any way? I really so badly wanted to love The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk, but I only lasted halfway. I'm sorry, Orhan! With John Sayles' Moment in the Sun I fell just short of halfway (albeit 400+ pages.) Mr. Sayles, your bonecrushing handshake tells me that you would smash me to bits if you found out! I even felt a little bad for only reading 126 pages of the ARC of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo while on a plane in 2008 - that is until that whole thing blew up and every soccer mom in America started telling me that I HAD to read it. Now I'm glad I quit. Besides, Stieg's dead anyway. Off the hook, there.

There are certainly books in recent years that I should have quit on, but didn't. Franzen's Freedom, Point Omega by Don Delillo, Summertime by Coetzee, to name a few. All penned by respected, "literary" authors that I, as a bookseller & a self-respecting reader, felt I needed to read to have a broader scope of the world of contemporary literature. Bullshit. I hated all three of them, let's be honest.

I bring this up because I have experienced a rash of books fitting into the "unfinishable" category of late. Or, maybe they're just books that I've stumbled along in, never gaining traction & needed to put aside. Just in the last month or so, I've read 200 pages of Neil Stephenson's Reamde, a good chunk of Amitav Ghosh's River of Smoke, and 144 pages of the mystery novel, Utu by Caryl Férey. And now, 127 pages of 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami - one of my personally most-anticipated books of the year. I'm just bored to tears by it - despite all the critical praise being heaped upon it. (I actually doubt very much that the folks at Amazon who voted 1Q84 the #2 book of 2011 actually plodded their way through the whole thing.)
  
Yet bookmarks still reside in each of those books, as if I will return to their unwelcoming prose on some rare rainy, Southern Cali day. Maybe I'd be better off saving them for a snow day. Either way, after writing this all out, I feel like I've come through some sort of tunnel of light or enchanted forest, where on the other side I get to read whatever the hell I want.