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Boxer, Beetle by Ned Beauman

Boxer, Beetle (edition 2011)

by Ned Beauman

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2593744,125 (3.51)21
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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Nazis! Nazi memorabilia collectors! Boxers! Boxing promoters! Insects! Entomologists! Sufferers of trimethylaminuria! People who have to work with and smell them!The ecosystem of Ned Beauman's Boxer, Beetle is complicated and repulsive, but wound up not being quite as compelling as other reviewers have made it sound.

The novel intertwines two narratives and two timelines in the now-classic format of a historical narrative being chased down by a modern explorer. In the 21st century, we have a young man named Fishy (so named for his unfortunate, genetically-determined body chemistry and the odors it produces), who conducts internet auctions of historical artifacts at his day job, and has a special sideline in the Nazi memorabilia trade for a hobby, and whose latest mysterious pursuit (alongside a nasty gun-toting freelancer who is killing his way to a new find) leads him to start exploring the story of a British entomologist, fascist and eugenics enthusiast and the diminutive Jewish boxer whom the entomologist manipulates into becoming the subject of some, err, special research in 1936.

Trimethylaminuria is neither played up for laughs (something I was kind of expecting-with-a-cringe from the novel's earliest pages) nor presented as a subject for our compassion or pity (though in real life lots of sufferers wind up committing suicide as a result of the social isolation it tends to impose, the Gordon Crisps of the world aside) as it stands in, in the modern timeline, for all of the things about humanity eugenicists want to eliminate (in 1936, of course, they're much more blatant and reprehensible about it). For Fishy it's just a fact in his life, albeit one that has dealt him out of the reproductive sweepstakes far more effectively than anything the eugenicists of yesteryear would have dared to dream of. He's got bigger concerns as the novel unfolds, like surviving and escaping from his weird captor. Or so it would seem as the novel gets going, but then Fishy and the gunman disappear except for quick and pointless interludes. Fishy's disorder winds up being kind of a punchline for the novel, but otherwise, there really isn't much point to his being in it. Which is a shame.

Meanwhile, Philip Erskine's story (1936) is a study in multiform ickiness, not because he specializes in carrion-eating/carnivorous insects, but because of his and his family's matter-of-fact fascism and anti-semetism and, while we're at it, classism. For Erskine is a character straight out of Michel Houellebecq, that French novelist I so love to hate and hate to love. Amid all of his other passions and pretenses are little observations like this one, made while he tries to address the difficult problem of how to masturbate when sharing a cabin and a bed with a professional colleague: "Why couldn't one just go to the doctor every month to have one's semen, this irrational fluid, syringed off like the pus from a boil."

This long before he is shown regarding a semen sample demanded from his boxer specimen as "ootheca", a term usually reserved for the egg case of members of that insect family that contains mantises and cockroaches, thus demonstrating just how human he thinks Seth Roach isn't (and lest one think Roach is by any stretch of the imagination a sympathetic figure or victim, he's just biding his time until he can go out again and get rip-roaring drunk and beat the crap out of whatever "toff" is foolish enough to take him home. There's rough sex, and there's what Roach does. Yikes.).

So, like Arslan before it in my reading this year, this is a fairly repellent and ugly book, but this time unredeemed by beautiful prose. Beauman takes great, gleeful pleasure in giving us a close look at some of the greatest ugliness humanity has ever produced, and at the people who allowed it to flourish largely because they were happy to admire it from a distance. Erskine, for instance, is, in addition to all the other icky things he is, such a fan of Adolf Hitler's that he goes so far as to breed a stronger, nastier, more belligerent strain of an eyeless beetle he originally discovered in a cave in the Poland the Fuhrer is soon to invade, all so that there might be an insect worthy of being named after his hero.

And then there's the boxer, all four foot eleven of him, nine-toed Seth Roach, descended from immigrants chased away by pogroms from the environs of the cave where Erskine found his breeding stock, the kind of gay man who embraces the idea that his preferences are considered perversions and who not only lets himself get roped into being Erskine's study subject, but into coming along to a fateful conference that is supposed to be about artificial languages (think Esperanto, only weirder and more fiddly) but winds up being something rather more vile.

But hey, sometimes, at least, Boxer, Beetle is funny, as when we come, midway through the book, to a description of Erskine's ancestral home, which his father had determined to modernize so thoroughly that it would still be modern in a hundred years. Rube Goldberg isn't in it. I could have maybe used more of this kind of thing for my tour through the slime -- especially in a novel that is promoted as "hilarious." Had I been looking for belly laughs instead of bugs, I might have been annoyed at the paucity of the former (as it was, I could have used more of the latter, but that's what Daniel Evan Weiss' debut was for. And Tyler Knox's for that matter). As it stands, well, this is the first novel of a young man of undoubted talent but who maybe bit off a bit much for his first project. His second, The Teleportation Accident, was long-listed for the Man Booker this year, and sounds interesting enough for me to give it another chance, but on the strength of the subject matter more than of his writing as I've seen it so far.

Anyway, it doesn't sound like it's quite as filthy. ( )
  KateSherrod | Aug 1, 2016 |
After the first chapter (the protagonist finds a private detective murdered and in possession of a very interesting letter relevant to the history of The Third Reich), I though this was going to be one of my reading highlights of the year. But no. The author, who is a brilliant writer, seems to think it is very entertaining to read about the homosexual tendencies of , well, just about everyone. Lame. If you think you'd like something written by someone who was trying to meld the styles of Jimmy Breslin and William Burroughs, it might be for you. It was supposedly funny. I chuckled maybe twice. ( )
  ndpmcIntosh | Mar 21, 2016 |
Rating: 4.25* of five

The Publisher Says: Kevin "Fishy" Broom has his nickname for a reason-a rare genetic condition that makes his sweat and other bodily excretions smell markedly like rotting fish. Consequently, he rarely ventures out of the London apartment where he deals online in Nazi memorabilia. But when Fishy stumbles upon a crime scene, he finds himself on the long-cold trail of a pair of small-time players in interwar British history. First, there's Philip Erskine, a fascist gentleman entomologist who dreams of breeding an indomitable beetle as tribute to Reich Chancellor Hitler's glory, all the while aspiring to arguably more sinister projects in human eugenics. And then there's Seth "Sinner" Roach, a homosexual Jewish boxer, nine-toed, runtish, brutish-but perfect in his way-who becomes an object of obsession for Erskine, professionally and most decidedly otherwise. What became of the boxer? What became of the beetle? And what will become of anyone who dares to unearth the answers?

First-time novelist Ned Beauman spins out a dazzling narrative across decades and continents, weaving his manic fiction through the back alleys of history. Boxer, Beetle is a remarkably assured, wildly enjoyable debut.

My Review: Pawn Stars meets Queer as Folk, directed by Leni Riefenstahl and produced by Russell T Davies.

I read this after I'd gulped down The Teleportation Accident. Whatever Ned Beauman writes, he leavens with amusing dialogue and mildly incredible situations. I've heard his work characterized as science fiction. I think of that as a compliment, yet I'm not sure that label fits. It feels to me more as though Beauman has Anglicized the South American Magical Realism, shining the black light and the strobe light simultaneously on real situations, recognizable people, and commonplace locations, thereby revealing the bloodstains, the slug tracks, and the frightened faces of bystanders to the events unfurling before us.

This strange tale of fascists obsessed with Jewish sex objects is made much more fun by the modern-day frame around it. The Nazi-memorabilia thread made the whole story come together, as there was no missing the echoes of the insanity of the 1930s in modern times.

But to me the 4ft11in Sinner Roach (a piece of word-play that only makes sense in the book's context) steals the book. A boxer who makes more money from the men he fucks than he'd ever dreamed possible, goes to New York to fight the biggest fight of his career. If he can stay sober, he'll be in the big time. Well...Sinner is aptly named, let's say. His antics in New York and London are worth the book's cost. But the modern-day outcast, Sinner's echo, good-guy hacker/thief Fishy is just as amusing as he races around London in Sinner's long-ago wake to make his own big-time score. Where the two paths converge is a very moving moment. Considering Beauman's apparent dislike of sentimentality, it's also unusual.

I can't help but complain about one thing: The Philip Erskine Malaise. As soon as he takes over the narrative, he leaches the fun and slows the pace from the narrative. His wishy-washy mealy-mouthed scaredy-cat snobbery made me cringe, roll my eyes, and snort impatiently. Hence the 3/4-star deduction from the rating. Because this started out as a 5-star read, and should have stayed one. Don't cheat yourself, though, get the book on your TBR hillock somewhere neat the top. ( )
  richardderus | Feb 27, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 37 (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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