Egon Loeser, the protagonist of Ned Beauman’s second novel, is a set designer obsessed with spectacular feats of stagecraft, the kind that make onstage characters disappear before their audience’s eyes. As such, it’s wholly apposite that the novel which revolves around him works largely through a classic bait-and-switch.
We spend the majority of its three-hundred-plus pages in the company of one of the most feckless individuals in recent fiction, an agonised egomaniac who is a loser by nature as well as by name. In early 1930s Berlin, Egon barely notices the Wehrmacht gearing into action around him – he’s suffering too much from his own blue balls to heed the greater suffering inflicted by the blackshirts. Instead, he spends the decade chasing the beautiful socialite Adele Hitler all the way to Los Angeles from the hip abandoned corset factories of the German capital. ‘Loeser’s attitude was that if a place was abandoned it was probably abandoned for a reason’, writes Beauman in a sentence suggesting that the retro-conversion racket of modern-day Shoreditch isn’t even itself original. And Adele’s unfortunate name is only one of the many historical allusions that Loeser doesn’t spot.
Which is part of the point: he’s too embedded in his own present circumstances to think about what they’ll mean in the future, which is why he feels no qualms about throwing away a half-read letter from a Jewish friend who is verbally abused on a streetcar, and doesn’t baulk at a missive from a friend who has joined the SS out of a penchant for being surrounded by men in gleaming uniforms. Loeser’s reactions aren’t ours, but the novel asks: if you were there at the time, could you guarantee you’d have been paying any more attention?
Of course, Loeser himself wasn’t there at the time either. Throughout The Teleportation Accident, Beauman smuggles in questions of fiction and reality that are, for the most part, too compellingly funny to come off as smugly post-modern. The clearest of these is Loeser’s American landlord, Gorge, who suffers from ‘ontological agnosia’ – a disease which makes him unable to distinguish between objects and representations of those objects.
Spilling ginger ale on a map of Los Angeles sketched on a napkin, the afflicted party screams ‘Flesh of Christ! … Newspapers! Ambulance! Thousands drowned!’; later, he attempts to shoot the stuffed and mounted head of a bear he has previously dispatched in Montana some years earlier. There are subtle suggestions that humanity is already on the path to a world where everything is a copy of a copy of a copy. Not that Loeser particularly notices, of course; or would care if he did.
Part of this novel’s appeal is that it never tries too hard to render its main character appealing. We see personal and political history unfolding through Loeser, a filter which is at best blurry and at worst actively begrimed. He allows Beauman to make observations which are frequently startling in their lewdness, while often stunning in the fluent beauty of the prose in which they are expressed. And perhaps it’s exactly by diverting the reader’s attention from what’s ‘really happening’ – the rise of fascism, the human cost of war – that this darkly funny romp through early twentieth-century history allows the horrors massing on the horizon to truly make their presence felt.