I have just read a book called Boxer Beetle. I suppose this is an unusual choice as I don’t particularly like beetles or boxing.
But the book is written by a chap called Ned Beauman and, while I can hardly call him a close friend, or even really a friend, he did once punt a friend and me along the backs when I was visiting her at Cambridge.
Ned is slightly younger than me, and probably slightly cooler as well. What I remember most about him from that singular boating encounter was that he had painted his fingernails black, was surprisingly good at punting and had quite a few eccentric anecdotes to add to the conversation.
So I was intrigued when this book arrived in the bookshop. How fantastic, I thought, how wonderful that he’s got himself published. I was also pleased to come across some good reviews of Boxer Beetle, like this one in the Guardian.
I decided that buying a copy and reading it was the least I could do.
Now some people, when I told them I was reading a first novel by someone younger than me, said things along the lines of ‘How sickening, how galling, aren’t you jealous?’
I wish that I could say, with all honesty, no. But of course I’m jealous. Of course I feel somewhat sickened by the idea that someone has already made it, when I haven’t (yet). And when I first picked up the book, my excitement was tinged with a horrid feeling of dread. But I’m pleased to say that as soon as I began to read it, all jealousy evaporated. Here is the first line:
In idle moments I sometimes like to close my eyes and imagine Joseph Goebbels’ forth-third birthday party.
It’s a great opening line. It’s unusual. It’s funny. It’s quite strange. It’s intriguing. But it’s also something that I would never have written. I have never imagined any of Goebbels’ birthday parties and I don’t think I’d ever dream up a character who would.
This line made me realise straight away that Boxer Beetle might be fantastic and imaginative and funny but it is completely different from what I’ve written and from anything that I might write in the future. (Not that my writing isn’t fantastic, imaginative and funny.) If it were about the 7/7 bombings, or about a young artist travelling around India, or had parallels with E.M. Forster, then, well, then I might have ripped it up in desperation/misery/fury, but I will never write a book about boxing, beetles, or Goebbels. So I was able to switch of the competitive part of me (which mostly surfaces when playing tennis) and thoroughly enjoy reading the book.
And I did enjoy it. It is funny. It is peculiar. It is pacey. It is clever. It is rammed full of meticulously researched digressions. I particularly liked the unexpectedly detailed descriptions, which are casually dropped in and utterly transform the scene.
There was something so submissive and exhausted about the place, thought Erskine, like a thin farmer munching on grass because his own fat cattle have bullied him out of his hot dinner again.
Ned’s imagination really shines throughout the book. I kept thinking that it would be extraordinary to see the world in the similes that he throws in again and again.
The other real achievement is the ambitious architecture of the book – different characters and their plot lines are woven together with real skill. Ned begins with the story of ‘Fishy’, who smells unbearably strongly of fish, is a collector of Nazi memorabilia and spends his time either on Internet chat rooms or doing odd jobs for a dodgy property developer. Then there is ‘Sinner’, aka Seth Roach, an East End Jewish boxer in the 1930s. And finally there is Philip Erskine – a rich young man of the 1930s, who is interested in eugenics and particularly interested in the case of Sinner because of his unbelievable strength despite being small and Jewish and having a right foot with only four toes.
And somehow Ned manages to bring them all together in a narrative that spans over a hundred years (there is a brief chapter about the end of the nineteenth century) and it isn’t confused at all.
On the few occasions in the book when I felt something grate, it was generally a precocity, an arrogance, a pretension, which could be quite annoying. For instance, when Fishy is on the internet chat rooms, he gets a response to a question from someone with the screenname ‘nbeauman’. Ha ha, not. Paul Auster did it twenty years ago. And it wasn’t even all that clever then. It’s a sort of – oh look, this is so witty and post-modern – but actually it just feels unnecessary and a bit smug.
But that grating brings to mind something I came across at university. At Oxford, and I expect at most other universities, a much greater proportion of Firsts are awarded to boys than to girls. And the powers that be thought this was probably because boys have a habit of being so much more arrogant than girls, especially in writing. Perhaps Boxer Beetle does have an underlying arrogance, but that probably comes across as confidence most of the time, which usually gets very well rewarded indeed. Just think of Martin Amis, for instance.
I conclude that if I am to make it in the book world, I shall have to grow a pair. Watch out.