The problem with reading a lot of books is that they can all start to seem the same. I had no such problem with Ned Beauman’s debut, Boxer, Beetle, which sets itself apart with a wink from the get-go. In the very first line, we’re treated to one of our narrators, a Nazi memorabilia collector and smelly recluse named Kevin, merrily reconstructing Goebbels’ forty-third birthday party in his mind.
The book that follows is a mad dash through obscure intellectual theories and beetles named after Hitler and an usually strong, beautiful Jewish boxer with one missing toe. This story is positively crammed full of strange facts and repulsive characters. Rather than becoming distracting, these details are the life and soul of the party (the quintessential “bizarre dinner party” kind of party, with a hodge-podge of quirky guests and no shortage of mysterious deaths).
Despite the dark themes and dark characters, this book never loses that initial wink. “This is a novel for people with breeding” the blurb boldly proclaims. It’s also a novel for people with a sense of humour, and maybe an internet connection – Beauman happily credits Wikipedia as the source of many of his weirder plot points.
If you’d like a chance to win a signed copy of Boxer, Beetle, leave a comment with a fascinating Wikipedia article you’ve stumbled across lately. Take a look below at my interview with Ned for some ideas on where to get started, like Cthulhu Sex, feral badgers, and a “List of People Who Have Disappeared Mysteriously.”
Did you ever pretend to be any fictional characters when you were a kid? How about now?
All I can remember from my childhood is Bucky O’Hare. These days, for guidance, I look to Bruce Wayne, Tony Stark, Don Draper, Scott Pilgrim and Ghostface Killah. Although most of the time I feel more like the narrator from The Good Soldier.
Which author makes you jealous?
The quality that tends to make me most jealous in other writers is imagination. So, this year so far: David Foster Wallace, China Miéville, David Mitchell, Pynchon, Borges.
Come across any choice Wikipedia articles lately?
As always, yes.
Are you a disciplined get-down-to-work kind of writer, or more of a procrastinating artist?
There are feral badgers with more discipline than me. It’s awful. That said, my writing often relies on ideas that I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t procrastinated for so long.
What distracts you from writing?
The internet and hangovers.
What’s the worst thing you’ve ever written?
When I was at university I was eager to publish some short stories and I found a list of print magazines that accepted unsolicited submissions and paid per word. There were not many of these, but one was a magazine called Cthulhu Sex, which only took stories that included “sex, tentacles, or, if possible, both”. I thought this was an irresistible challenge, and I love HP Lovecraft, so I started a horror story set at a girls’ boarding school. But stuff like that is trickier to crank out than you might think! In the end, I abandoned it half way through, and sadly Cthulhu Sex went bust in 2007.
ABOUT BOXER, BEETLE
If this book had a soundtrack, what would be on it?
A lot of 1930s jazz, which I don’t know much about. I think Kevin probably has really good taste in metal and hard techno.
You’ve packed Boxer, Beetle full of little references. And, presumably, some inside jokes (like “nbeauman” making an online appearance). Did you include any other details that have some personal meaning?
So many! I mean, even “nbeauman” itself is a pretty crude allusion to The New York Trilogy. Also, from just the first few chapters: Myth FM, Kevin’s favourite pirate radio station, is a big plot element in an unpublished novel I wrote before Boxer, Beetle called The Martyr Street Theatre Company, and indeed that whole passage is an attempt to evoke Burial’s second album. Erskine does his research at the London Library because that’s where I did my own research for the novel. The stuff about the Thule Society and the Holy Spear of Destiny is partly a nod to Mike Mignola’s Hellboy comics. And the paragraph about Galton’s rabbit experiment is, for me, key to the whole book, although I don’t really expect anyone to notice that.
Is it fair to say you enjoy writing unlikeable characters?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot, because I honestly had no idea when I was working on Boxer, Beetle that so many readers would pick it out as a characteristic quality of my writing. One response might be as follows. If you think about the romantic relationships among your outer circle of acquaintances, the really loving, tactile couple comprising two really grotesque, obnoxious people is always the most fascinating – that’s the couple you can’t stop looking at, eavesdropping on, gossiping about after the party etc. And it can be the same in fiction. Still, there are a few noble souls in my book!
Every character here seems to have an obsession – Nazi memorabilia, beetles, artificial languages. What’s yours?
The London night bus network. I’ll never forget you, 78.
Is there anything happening today that you think someone in the future will point to (or write about in a book) and say, “Can you believe they used to do this in the 00s?!”
A gloomy answer: that at least a million people a year die in traffic accidents (with lots more maimed or crippled) and we just put up with it as if it were a law of the universe. I think if somebody invented something today where the sales pitch was “This will become the number one cause of death among teenagers, but at least you won’t have to take grimy old public transport to work any more!” we wouldn’t be rushing to rebuild our cities around it. Also, Twitter.
Can you provide a photo relevant to your work?
Do you have any writer’s pets?