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Boxer, Beetle by Ned Beauman

Boxer, Beetle (edition 2011)

by Ned Beauman

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Title:Boxer, Beetle
Authors:Ned Beauman
Info:Sceptre (2011), Paperback, 272 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:nazis, eugenics, WTF, grim, evil entomologist, insects, fascism, racism, antisemitism

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Boxer, Beetle: A Novel by Ned Beauman (Author)

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Shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award in 2010.

By Keith Miller
The Telegraph
18 Aug 2010

The three main characters in Boxer Beetle all have what one might call issues. Kevin, alias Fishy, suffers from a rare condition that makes him smell like week-old seafood; he’s also a stealthy collector of Nazi memorabilia. Philip Erskine is a fascist, eugenicist and repressed homosexual, who in the mid-Thirties becomes fascinated by Seth “Sinner” Roach, a gay, sadistic, alcoholic flyweight from Poland by way of the East End of London, on the principle that the latter, small but nearly perfectly formed, is the proverbial flower in a dungheap.

Certain intrigues involving a Welsh hitman and – it seems – a millionaire property developer who shares Kevin’s taste in collectables, compel his interest in the story of the other two, both by now dead.

It transpires that Seth wasn’t the only specimen to find a home in Erskine’s laboratory; the real star of the book is the eponymous beetle, bred from a specimen found by Erskine on a field trip and named, thanks to the swastika on its back as well as a certain, let’s say, unscrupulousness, after Adolf Hitler.

This is a fairly busy book. My favourite part is the middle: an energetic parody of a country house murder mystery. It’s fun partly because its singular focus allows a smooth narrative flow for a while; but mostly because it’s just very funny.

As well as evoking Agatha Christie and Evelyn Waugh, it also slyly attacks the contemporary English upper-middlebrow heritage novel, through the insupportable Millicent, a dead ringer for Ian McEwan’s Briony Tallis (“Mr Erskine, I have just seen your friend Mr Morton brutally sodomising your dear mother!”)

The rest is ambitious and energetic, but seems, as critics used to say, narratively overdetermined. Against this one should sound a quiet note of praise. When Beauman gives himself space he shows a brave kindness towards some blisteringly unpromising characters.

I liked his description of Seth’s first drink in some time as “an intense relief, as when someone tells you at the last moment that you do not have to do something that you have been dreading”; and I loved the tentative relationship between Erskine and Seth and how love, hate, violence, domination and a funny kind of domesticity all swirl unpredictably around in it for a little while, before we’re back to the rough urban poetry, the bugs and the big ideas.

The Guardian
Scarlett Thomas
13 August 2010

Kevin Broom, also known as "Fishy", suffers from trimethylaminuria: a rare condition that means he smells of rotting fish. He doesn't get out much, except to run sinister, after-hours errands for wealthy property developer Grublock who, like Kevin, collects Nazi memorabilia. (The Nazi memorabilia message boards are "brisk with shared endeavour and healthy competition", which is more appealing to Kevin than the "depressing" trimethylaminuria support groups.)

The novel begins with Grublock sending Kevin to check up on a private investigator. Kevin finds him dead. He also finds a note written to a man called Dr Erskine from Adolf Hitler thanking him for his "kind tribute". Grublock has mentioned a boxer called Seth Roach, though Kevin has no idea how he might be connected. When Grublock is killed, Kevin must try to find out.

What follows is a gripping and clever story, as Kevin reconstructs the events that led to the letter from Hitler, and uncovers the tragically doomed love affair between the eugenics-obsessed entomologist Dr Erskine (he provides the beetles) and the Jewish boxer Seth Roach. Along the way we meet rabbis, small-time gangsters, town planners and, memorably, another entomologist who carries bedbugs around in a glass vial, "which every night he tipped out onto his hairy thigh so they could feed on his blood". There is a brief history of invented languages, a discussion about dissonant music and its relationship to capitalism, and an analysis of what is wrong with new towns (among other things, there are too many roundabouts).

While the frame narrative occasionally strays too far into postmodern whimsy, as the mostly cheerful Kevin is driven around handcuffed to a dashboard by a Welsh hitman ("When I am in a stressful situation, I often like to ask myself: what would Batman do in my place?"), the 1930s are wonderfully evoked, and the historical sections of the novel are taut, thematically rich and extremely well written. One chapter begins: "The morning light peeked in through the windows of the mortuary, pasty and trembling like the sort of ghoulish little boy who would rather see a dead girl than a naked one." Elsewhere, the "tepid April rain fell on London with all the sincerity of a hired sales gimmick for umbrellas". A girl's character and appearance is summed up with this: "She had so many freckles that Erskine wondered if she might have stolen some from other children."

The "well-made" realist novel has been thoroughly picked over lately, and many commentators have wondered why writers persist with, as Coetzee puts it, "its plot and its characters and its settings". Some have said the realist novel is dead, or just boring. But the best kind of realism is not the literary equivalent of a new town with too many roundabouts, and signposts that don't allow you to get lost. Great realist fiction has always been about messing with reality – exposing it, heightening it, exploring it, smashing it up a bit, turning it inside out and shaking it to get a better look at it. It doesn't always have to be "realistic", but it does need to be compassionate, and to acknowledge that, because we are all flawed, no one is a villain. It's relatively easy to write a clever essay, or a piece of fiction that rejects plot, character and setting. But it takes a real skill to make a tragic hero out of the five-foot, nine-toed, alcoholic Seth Roach, for whom sex is an extension of boxing and "posh cunts" are there to exploit and beat up.

Almost everyone else in this novel is even less appealing – in theory – than Seth, but it is possible to identify with all of them and to care about what happens to them next. Because we are emotionally involved in the drama of the novel and its characters, we can more meaningfully engage with its thematic questions. What does it mean to feel you have to hold someone or something in contempt? What is true progress? What would it mean to breed a super-race of anything (beetles with swastikas on their wings, for example) and to stamp out any kind of mutation?

It's clear from this compelling debut that Beauman can perform the complicated paradoxical trick required of the best 21st-century realist novelists: to take an old and predictable structure and allow it to produce new and unpredictable connections.
  meadcl | Feb 3, 2015 |
Beauman's first novel is a great read. Lots of humour and a gripping story that never takes itself too seriously. Sort of like a Malcolm price detective time travelling novel with a bit of 19th century eugenics thrown in. Very satisfying. If you liked it then read his second. ( )
  polarbear123 | Aug 15, 2014 |
A massive exploration into eugenics, Boxer, Beetle is ambitious. The two main characters are self-loathing bastards, though their self-destruction manifests itself in different ways. It's a man's world, so the only woman who comes close to being a main character is somehow more well-adjusted (perhaps because she is straight and the men are not straight.) The narrator doesn't seem to be a main character to me, because the book is strangely more about the past than the present. And the story in both the past and the present takes many twists and turns.

What Beauman does well is the development of the neurotic male characters (Erskine and Broom) in the book. Their lives, their personal and social constraints, their worries, and their ambitions make them whole. What Beauman does too much of, for me, is the political blabber about the anti-Semitic, eugenics-centered arguments between politicians and intellectuals that go on and on and on for pages, where, yes, one would need to look up many events that happen or are referred to make sense of most of it. That's all fine; who doesn't like to work a little to learn some good history? (Uhm, some people don't, so this book is not recommended for those...) But somehow it was too much, too long, and at some point I found myself skimming through the anti-Semitic bullshit to get to the action or the personal developments. All of it reminded me of Rushdie's books where references to current affairs and historical events are a staple of every paragraph, but Beauman's prose does not flow as well or is not as captivating. There is also the added massive uncomfortable feeling of reading horrendously racist things being said that if you grew up in the West and are not a skinhead, you might find yourself cringing a lot. Of course, most of it is also hilarious. But not at all. But yes. But no. And it goes...

As for the beetles... As someone who designs biological experiments to test hypotheses on a daily basis, I am not sure what the question is that is being asked by the experiments with the beetles in the book. That selective breeding can improve select traits? But that's not what Erskine's genius (eugenics) idea, that's only what agriculture and farming has been doing for centuries. Can we breed better stuff by combining those that have select good traits? Sure, but nowhere in the book do we learn that Erskine has done such experiments. What seems to happen int he book is that there are some beetles and by feeding them different stuff and/or over time, Erskine allows them to become super beetles... Uhm, OK... (Perhaps all this is to ridicule the "science" of eugenics?)

In the end, I am glad I read this book and learned some stuff about fascism in Europe (Blackshirts, Battle of Cable Street, etc.) I am not sure if I would recommend to to anyone, other than those who really enjoy intellectual, historical, and rather uncomfortable subject matters.

( )
  bluepigeon | Dec 15, 2013 |
It's too short to give the material proper treatment. The framing device of Kevin in modern day is almost unimportant. ( )
  ptdilloway | Nov 21, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 33 (next | show all)
Monstrous misfits with ugly motives are beautifully rendered in a novel where Beauman’s scrupulous research is deftly threaded through serious themes in a laugh-out-loud-on-the-train history lesson.
It's clear from this compelling debut that Beauman can perform the complicated paradoxical trick required of the best 21st-century realist novelists: to take an old and predictable structure and allow it to produce new and unpredictable connections.
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In idle moments I sometimes like to close my eyes and imagine Joseph Goebbels’ forty-third birthday party.
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Book description
Kevin "Fishy" Broom has his nickname for a reason — a rare genetic condition that makes his sweat and other bodily excretions smell like rotting fish. Consequently, he rarely ventures out of the apartment where he deals online in Nazi memorabilia. But when he stumbles into a crime scene, he finds himself drawn into an investigation of a pair of small-time players in pre-WWII history. First, there's Philip Erskine, a fascist gentleman entomologist who dreams of breeding an indomitable beetle as a tribute to Hitler's glory, all the while aspiring to arguably more sinister projects in human eugenics. And then there's Sinner Roach, a nine-toed, runtish, brutish, homosexual Jewish boxer — a somewhat hideous specimen, but perfect, in his way, who becomes on object of obsession for Erskine, professionally and most definitely otherwise. What became of the boxer? What became of the beetle? And what will become of anyone who tries to find out?

First-time novelist Ned Beauman spins out a dazzling narrative across decades and continents, weaving his own manic fiction through the back alleys of history. A remarkably assured, wildly enjoyable debut.
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London, 1934. Philip Erskine, gentleman entomologist and Nazi sympathizer, is distracted from his beetle breeding by an interest in eugenics, and by one beguiling human specimen: Seth "Sinner" Roach, a Jewish, homosexual, nine-toed runt of a boxer. Seventy-five years later, a crime scene clue sets a hapless collector of wartime memorabilia on the trail of scientist and subject, leading toward a danger that my not have died with the Third Reich, after all.… (more)

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