Ned Beauman: The Teleportation Accident
When I first saw the title of this book, I assumed it was science fiction. I was partially right. It might best be described as a pastiche of science fiction, US noir, particularly 1930s noir, conspiracy theories and spy fiction. However, if we were to be more reductionist, we could summarise the theme as that old favourite – what is reality? Where is the boundary between reality and non-reality and what you see is all too often not what you get, the plot as that old English favourite – will loser boy win the heart and hand of beautiful girl? while the teleportation accident is merely the MacGuffin.
The novel opens in 1933 Berlin. The hero/loser boy is even called Loser. Actually, he is called Egon Loeser (Loeser does not mean loser in German but, as Beauman is writing for an English-speaking audience this does not matter). Loeser is a set designer in the theatre. The production he is working on when the novel opens is a play about Lavicini the greatest stage designer of the seventeenth century and perhaps the second ever professional set designer, after Torelli. Lavicini was a Venetian but was working in Paris at the Théâtre des Encornets (= Theatre of Squids). He had devised a teleportation device to be used during a play – The Lizard Prince, a play that would be attended not only by the greats of Parisian society but by Louis XIV himself. The device had been kept a secret and had not been tested by anyone except Lavicini. When it was first used during the play, scenery flew about rapidly and with barely a sound. But then something went wrong. The south-east corner of the stage collapsed, twenty five people in private boxes as well as one ballerina and Lavicini himself were killed but the King and the rest of the audience escaped virtually unharmed. The theatre and the device were destroyed. Loeser and colleagues are producing a play about this and Loeser has designed a teleportation device. Sadly, it is as disaster-prone as Lavicini’s. Fortunately, it does not kill anyone but does injure the unfortunate actor trying it out.
Outside the theatre, Loeser seems to have two interests – cocaine and women. He is somewhat luckier with the former than the later. He was currently in love with A. Hitler. No, not that A. Hitler but Adele Hitler (no relation). When she moves to Los Angeles later in the book, she will change her name to Hister, for obvious reasons. Adele had a reputation of sleeping with anyone interesting (and her definition of interesting was very broad) but Loeser, sadly for him, did not fall into that category. Indeed, at a party he attends that evening he learns that she is planning to sleep with Bertolt Brecht, who is expected to be there. As for the cocaine, he manages to get some from Rupert Rackenham, an English writer.
After he fails with Adele, he learns that she has gone to Paris, so Loeser heads for Paris, where he meets Scramsfield, a failed US writer, who makes his living by preying on tourists, telling them that he can introduce them to anyone they want in Paris – Joyce, Hemingway, Diaghilev (who died in 1929). He promises to help Loeser find Adele. He fails at that but Loeser learns that she has gone to Los Angeles and this is where the novel really starts.
Loeser spends much of the rest of the novel in Los Angeles (as does Adele) where he meets the inventor of a teleportation device; Stent Mutton, the only US writer he likes, and Stent’s wife; Wallace Blimk (sic), a second-hand bookseller; the fabulously wealthy Wilbur Gorge, who is descended from Lavicini’s employer and nemesis, who may or may not own a copy of the very rare soft-core pornographic Midnight at the Nursing Academy Loeser covets and who suffers from worsening agnosia, as well as various of his former acquaintances from Berlin. As the story ends in Los Angeles in 19310 (sic), things get complicated.
It is a wonderfully inventive novel, jumping around all over the place, full of wit and clever jokes and with a plot that seems to get more and more complicated, while switching from the realistic to the bizarre and back again. It may well be the only novel set in 1930s Berlin and Hollywood where the Nazis and Hollywood play only a very minor role. It is certainly different. Whether it is great art is another matter altogether.
First published 2012 by Sceptre