Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Review: The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman

I find it amusing that The Teleportation Accident nestled on this year's Booker longlist with Hilary Mantel's Bring Up The Bodies. Mantel, of course, eventually won the prize with an unashamedly Tudor novel, emphasising the importance of historical fictions in the current 'zeitgeist' – especially those which make a claim to fidelity and accuracy. I'm thinking here not just of Mantel, but everything from the ludicrous Downton Abbey to the glorious Mad Men, from Phillipa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl (historical romance endorsed by my own mother) to the Assassin's Creed video game series. And this is not even to mention the various retro-isms that periodically wash over pop music and high street fashion. History is in.

Beauman's second novel is itself a historical one, of a sort. The plot flits around interwar Berlin, Paris and Los Angeles, and demonstrates a dizzying amount of research and detail. But research and detail do not make a convincing history. The Teleportation Accident is not trying to recreate history: it is trying to demolish it.

The novel concerns itself with the impossibilities of historical fiction. Partly this decision is logical, epistemological even: stories are not really the best way to preserve, to archive, to recreate. A historical novel is just as much an accurate representation of the past as a theme park.

I suspect that Beauman also has an aesthetic agenda here, a disregard for the current vogue for historical realism, and for realism in general. And I tend to agree with him: I find something very kitsch, and very dissatisfying in the Downton-type of history. It's a stage dressing, not an insight. Characters in this kind of historical fiction still think like 21st century people, however they think.

Beauman's characters, of course, think like 21st century people, to they extent that they think at all. They are, to a great extent, surfaces, archetypes, bits from other novels. Beauman's recreation of history is far more reliant on novels from history than history itself. He produces the kind of historical novel you get if you try and conceive of history through literature: shifting, parodic, genre-aware, and, above all, fun as hell.

People in Downton Abbey doing their thing, whatever that is.
This use of other writers' works as props (in both sense of the word) has its downside, though. It's really the only major criticism I can offer of the novel, which is otherwise fantastic. Beauman is especially good at plotting, by which I mean not crafting rip-roaring adventures, but something rather more technical. He is great at reintroducing and recombining all of the plot elements (scenes, objects, minor characters, books; MacGuffins generally) in ingenious ways. It gives what could seem messy and overstuffed an air of economy and purpose. The tightness with which he writes is hugely admirable, joyously ecstatic, and completely self-aware, a remark about the falsity of narrative tightness.

But back to my criticism, which is, unfortunately, nagging and banal. Beauman's hyper-inter-textuality (sorry) leaves him a little stranded, a little identity-less. Reviewers seem to be incapable of writing about The Teleportation Accident without referring to who they think Beauman's influences are, coming up with a vast array of authors who have been studied, cribbed and alluded to. And Ned himself, author of The Teleportation Accident, is left, to use a grotesque cliché, without a voice of his own. I'm not really sure what this means; I think it's something to do with tone. I am convinced that great literature, the really good stuff, marks itself as unique, as the product of this particular author, this particular style, when you read it. I am being prescriptive and limited of course, but, I like to think, not completely wrong. Beauman isn't quite there yet, hasn't yet found a way to forge a vast collage of writers and sentences and styles and facts and details and history and life into a cohesive artwork. Undoubtedly, not having done so is the point, and it's terribly and grossly New-Critic-y of me to suggest otherwise. And it is. But I don't think the two are irreconcilable; a cohesive collage, a themed scrapyard, if you will, is an achievable goal. 

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