A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
A serendipitous and scaly read of Ned Beauman’s The Teleportation Accident, and Terry Richard Bazes’ Lizard World
So, I read these novels one after the other on holiday, and finished them both with reluctance. Both are gripping and highly entertaining, and scaly. Lizard World involves considerable numbers of reptiles, and The Teleportation Accident has a couple of reptilian and molluscan guest appearances of significance. Beauman’s novel has been hyped madly in the UK, because it was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, but didn’t make it any further. Despite the blight of Booker approval, I amazed myself by actually buying Beauman’s book, because one reading from it on the radio convinced me that I wanted to read the rest (this never happens to me normally).
Some weeks before this, I had requested Bazes’ novel to review, because the sample chapters on his website (http://terryrichardbazes.com/) also persuaded me that I wanted to read the rest. His completely convincing pastiche of Restoration English first got me on his side; his capacity for persuasive, multi-period dialogue did the rest.
Both novels are second novels, moving freely in and out of the fantasy/time travel/historical fiction genres with excursions into postmodernism and a smidgen of horror. Both are about wanting what you can’t get, and then getting it anyway. Both involve reptilian aggressors (Bazes has a lot of these): lizards, alligators, crocodiles, and there’s even a Lovecraftian tentacle to keep the fantasists happy. Finally, both novels are narrated by loathsome male protagonists who are obsessive about the sex they are not getting. Frankly, they are so vile, no woman should be stupid enough to go near them, but perhaps this is the point.
Lizard World has four narrators, two in 21st century Florida, and two from the English 17th century. Lem, the redneck alligator wrangler, kidnaps and imprisons Smedlow the thieving dentist, so Lem’s uncle Earl, a multitasking vet, can have some fresh body parts for transplantation. Smedlow is marginally less vile than Lem. Because he struggles with being imprisoned in a crocodile enclosure, and attempts escape through the decaying and fetid swamp, we feel sympathy for him by the end of the novel, when truly awful things have happened to him, and more are on their way. Lem just starts out feeling hard-done-by, but ends up as an evil mastermind: his actions are so appalling, I was reading the novel with a rigid fascination. His noxious thoughts and increasingly competent criminal acts originate from no more than a sense of amoral entitlement.
Still in Lizard World, but in the late 17th century, we encounter Fludd, an aspiring surgeon and body-snatcher, who enters the service of the reclusive Earl of Griswold, whose very particular surgical requirements from his German doctor, Frobin, are becoming so demanding that Frobin needs an assistant. Since all this needs explanation, we then meet the Earl in a flashback to colonial Florida when he encounters a native tribe, whom he impresses with his guns, and by his gift of an irritating footman for their sacrificial rites. The Earl’s interest in the tribe’s albino crocodile god initiates the events that lead to his increasing need for surgery (new feet, new ears, fewer teeth, removal of unwanted scaly execrescences) throughout the centuries (since he does not seem to die), by the descendants of Fludd and the deformed daughter of Frobin who inherit Frobin’s skills to transplant anything into anything. And I really do mean anything.
Beauman’s novel, on the other hand, sticks to one main narrator, a self-absorbed 1930s German set designer from Berlin called Loeser, whose life is pathetically focused on his desire for sex with women who have no interest in him. Another annoying characteristic is his failure to notice really big and important things happening right under his nose: he barely registers increasingly uncomfortable political changes, even though he enjoys throwing books into the fire with the Nazi youth. We meet Loeser again in Paris, where he is briefly tangled up with a horrible American con artist who impersonates celebrity artists and writers to cadge money out of believing tourists. Loeser gets out of Europe and over to Los Angeles in time for the Second World War, which he ignores. Life in LA after the war gets increasingly complicated when he is mixed up with Soviet spies, city planners, and scientists at CalTech who are being paid to develop a time machine for the US government. We learn a lot about tramway planning (was this the result of a bet Beauman had with a friend?), but things get a lot more fun when Loeser goes to CalTech. Murders begin to happen that leave the victim’s body intact except for the heart. This is where the tentacles come in: to those in the know, there is void in things. There is a teleportation device, and it does work, but no-one ever finds out how or to when, except one time traveller, who absolutely gets the future that they deserve.
These novels don’t make me coo with delighted fuzzy pleasure, but they did grip my attention for several days of solid reading. They’re impressive. Even though they have nothing to do with each other, reading them one after the other pointed up their similarities and their strengths for me, which would not have happened with several months between. Bazes and Beauman have a magnificent capacity for invention and storytelling. These novels are packed and complex, and stimulating in an argumentative way. The loathsomeness of their protagonists explains their obsessive and misogynistic attitude to sex. But I got grumpy wth Beauman (a young writer) whom I felt like slapping: it’s such a waste to write women characters who are merely traitorous sex vessels on legs. Bizarrely, in the science-fiction sections, his women characters function as actively and articulately as the males, so why be so perfunctory in the rest of the novel? Bazes did much better on this: not once during Lizard World did my gender equality alarm get hackled.
Both authors have a robust attitude to body parts, their separation and use. Bazes’ matter-of-fact reportage of bodily functions and unlawful dismemberment is perfectly characteristic of the period: you try reading Gulliver’s Travels. But the novels’ horror comes from inside our own heads, rather than from gratuitous description, so although Wussy Fox will probably not like these books, I’d only put Beauman at 2/10 and Bazes at 4/10 on the gore scale.
These novels take the reader on consistently unexpected journeys in really scummy company. Read Beauman for a lolloping postmodernist romp by a consciously clever writer who knows a lot about German history. Read Bazes for a drawling, swampy, lowlife tour of a Florida you will wish to steer clear of, and a seriously clever pastiche of the vile Old Country in body-snatching times. Just be thankful that Lem isn’t driving, that Loeser isn’t whinging in the back seat, and that your brain is in your own body.
Terry Richard Bazes, Lizard World (2011) Livingston Press, paperback, ISBN 9 781604 890778 $22; Ned Beauman, The Teleportation Accident (2012) Sceptre, hardback, ISBN 9 780340 889427 €28
Kate podcasts weekly about books she really, really likes, on www.reallylikethisbook.com, and is now thinking about doing a series on tentacle fiction.