Ned Beauman’s smart second novel delights, perhaps a little too zealously, in casting off the gravitas of the politically correct. “The Teleportation Accident” presents itself as a comedy about the failure of philosophical axioms, the superfluity of time, and the inadequacy of history in accounting for human experience. Yet its almost offensively extravagant presentation of these cerebral murmurings, from the over-saturation in cross-genre pastiches to the at-times gaudy excessiveness of its language, make it a limited success in realizing its ambitions.
When the first axiom of your existence is that “accidents, like women, allude,” you are free to proceed logically from there without questioning whether accidents or women are worth alluding to. This is the mindset of Egon Loeser, whose character, like his name—pronounced in German like the word “loser”—presents an anti-heroism as blatant as it gets. Loeser is the stage designer whose Teleportation Device breaks down on opening night, the pathetic sex-starved Berlin bohemian who crosses oceans for an unattainable vagina only to give it up when he finally has the chance, the American refugee too lazy to read through the letters of his Jewish friend who is being persecuted in Europe. Meantime, Loeser encounters an American scientist who is reinventing the Teleportation Device that his predecessor, one Lavicini of 1600s Venice, was presented in a disastrous theater show centuries ago. But Loeser, egoist-expiring-in-self-pity that he is, cannot help but ignore the making of history around him, turning his back on the Holocaust and the poisonous intrigues surrounding the Device.
Not only does Loeser fail us by making a holy mess of every opportunity he is given, but he also has no appreciation for the historical significance of what he’s going through. His Hitler is not Adolf, who he hardly thinks of at all, but Adele Hitler, a beautiful girl he wants desperately to sleep with. However, Beauman’s narrative is ironic not only in its presentation of Loeser’s political ignorance, but also in that it philosophically agrees with Loeser. The Teleportation Device, which scientists in warring countries are all scrambling to build, is a machine for transporting objects instantaneously to a different location: “A teleportation device would have to convince the object in the chamber that it wouldn’t matter if it were somewhere else.” As Loeser lives mostly outside of time, he is as if inside the Teleportation Device himself. Ultimately, Loeser recognizes the subjectivity of all experiences lived in time:
One is always wrong, he thought, always, always wrong, about every single thing; if some young cousin was ever stupid enough to ask him for his advice about life, that was all he would be able to tell them. The truth ran back and forth over your head at night but you never saw so much as the colour of its fur.
Thus, Beauman’s novel does not trivialize a notorious historical landmark like the Holocaust, but supercedes it in showing that our experiences of history are more subjective than we think; time breaks down and ceases to matter, so that the differences of space also disappear, and thus the concept of teleportation becomes possible. The novel quotes Lucretius, “There is void in all things,” to illustrate a void as wide as that of the Holocaust hanging over not only the Jews, but even the lonely German. Even without the Teleportation Device, Beauman’s characters struggle with the inevitable convergence of experiences from past into the present time and the sense of placelessness that the Teleportation Device represents.
In keeping with the novel’s critique of history as an artificial construction, a standout feature of the book is its architecturally complex plotting. The conventional chronological narration is enlivened by passages alternating past and present narratives that “allude” to each other in the close space of a shared page. The novel’s structural originality is especially visible in its “Zeitgeisterbahnhöfe” at the end, four separate scenes detailing the parallel final destinies of characters from each excerpt in the novel’s span of centuries. These four endings are a fitting end to a book that refuses to conclude itself in a chronologically tidy way and so links and complicates the fates of each character across time as more revelations are made from each perspective. When Beauman’s style is at its best, the witticisms hit smack center, managing to be both funny and poignant. However, he overshoots in some extended similes; for example, a minor character is described as “a tall gaunt man with small narrow eyes set deep in his skull like two old sisters trying to spy out of the windows of their house without being noticed themselves.” Similarly, the book’s many allusive nods to various literary greats—Rilke, Whitman, James, and Nietzsche all get their mention—fire up our neural pathways with the associations they conjure up, but the hurried delivery of these names borders on facetious.
On a larger scale, there’s something unpleasantly aggressive in the energy with which Beauman pushes this rule-breaking novel. In its promiscuity with literary genres—the novel has affairs with detective fiction, science fiction, and romance—it does not always manage to get itself out of the clichés picked up from these stereotype-mining trysts. Character originality is sacrificed on the altar of literary cleverness, as in the hard-boiled confession made to Loeser by one Dolores Mutton, a housewife-turned-spy trying to lay hands on the Teleportation Device:
"I don’t care what happens to me anymore. I don’t care if I get locked up for spying. I don’t even care if Drabsfarben shoots me and dumps my body in the ocean. But Stent can’t know. I love that man more than anything else in the world. I love that man so much it makes me grind my teeth at night. If he found out I’d been fooling him for our entire marriage... That’s why I can’t stop. If I stop doing what Drabsfarben says, he’ll make sure Stent finds out about everything I did."
Speeches like this noir parody are charming and clever, but unfortunately distract from rather than enhance our understanding of the book’s more serious side. The novel’s haunting final lines, a numb individual at the end of time repeating “I don’t know where I am,” dips into this side again. In such close encounters with the “void” that stands outside of human noise, the final revelation of this existentialist undertow is such that the novel dilates and speaks with the glow of understanding. But Beauman, in his flight of well-intentioned linguistic enthusiasm, has delivered too many genre mashups and over-the-top verbal stunts that are not integrated well enough into the heart of his novel to resonate beyond their surface charm. The intelligence of “The Teleportation Accident,” for all its glad existential moments of felicitous insight, still seems more a species of precocity than of wisdom.
—Staff writer Victoria Zhuang can be reached at