I am a bit of a sucker for “first” novels. There is something about the unbridled sense of possibility that a “new” author brings to the reading experience: a new voice, a new pair of eyes to slide behind and view the world. There is no “sophomore slump” to consider, no depressing self-parodying nonsense that so many bloated and self-important literary masters sadly descend into after years of unabashed praise and excess. It is a sublime comfort to me to know that at this moment, there are thousands of angry young men and women pecking away at their laptops, pouring their rage and frustration and romance out onto the screen, one hard-earned word at a time. Out of these thousands, a few talented handful will produce something new and beautiful, and I, as a reader, will get to be a part of this creation a few years and months down the line. Just like that, I am forever changed in the tiniest of ways, as the lens of my perception is altered and widened ever so slightly. It is experiences like these that make wading through acres of interminable fluff and derivative nonsense worth the effort. When one finds a gem spun by a new voice, it’s like discovering a part of you that has been color blind, and the spectrum has suddenly been widened. So it was due to my “First Timer” fetish that I stumbled upon a corker of a debut novel entitled Boxer, Beetle by Ned Beauman. This is Beauman’s debut work (he was born in 1985, friends; pardon me while I bang my head against the wall) and has attracted quite a bit of attention among critics.The structure of Boxer, Beetle is common enough. It is essentially a mystery told from the first person perspective of Kevin “Fishy” Broom, a modern day private detective who gets sucked into the circumstances surrounding his employer’s murder. As Fishy unravels the mystery, the reader is treated to his discovery in the form of a flashback narrative involving a WWII era expert in eugenics named Philip Erskine and his muse- (both scientifically and romantically) a five-foot tall, nine toed East London boxer named Seth “Sinner” Roach.
Boxer, Beetle has been labeled a “politically incorrect” novel, which is simply a marketing gimmick that does the book and all of its moral complexities no justice. The modern day protagonist, Fishy, is a collector of Nazi memorabilia. Dr. Erskine is an unapologetic anti-Semite, and his pursuit of the practice of Eugenics is deeply rooted in both racism and classism so deeply ingrained in his character that he is barely aware of it. Seth “Sinner” Roach is a Jew who uncomfortably (at least to a twenty first century reader) embodies many of the unfortunate stereotypes perpetuated by the Fascists of his era. As the reader makes his way through the first quarter of the novel, there may be a certain amount of squirming as this ugliness begins to play itself out. It is at this point that Beauman begins to lay out a deeper and more complex study of what is exactly going on in these lives.
Dr. Erskine’s obsession with Eugenics, for example, is merely a manifestation of his own sense of self-loathing. His urge to “purify” the human race by selective breeding is merely an extension of his own sense of shame at his own perceived short-comings. Sinner, who is perceived as a genetic anomaly (he has nine toes, and despite being only five feet tall, is a viciously accomplished boxer) is a crude and foul-mouthed degenerate among a cast of “upper crust” socialites, and yet he is remarked upon by more than one character as being a creature of extraordinary beauty. He is also a homosexual, a fact which causes him no amount of confusion in self-recrimination. This is in direct contrast to Erskine, who’s fascination with Sinner (and desire to weed out ‘undesirable’ traits in the human condition) can be traced back to the very simple fact that he is himself gay, and deeply infatuated with Sinner. The modern day hero, “Fishy,” is called so because he suffers from a condition called trimethylaminuria, a condition that causes him to smell like rotten fish. The connection to his unfortunate genetic condition and Dr. Erskine’s obsession with genetic purity is interesting only in the sense that Fishy seems wholly at ease with who he is, as opposed to Erskine’s general cluelessness about his own motivations.
The murder-mystery plot that binds the whole novel together is interesting and well planned, but like all great stories, it only serves as a device of illumination. Through it, the author shines a light on the weirdest corners and back alleys of the human condition wherein desires and self-loathing push to and fro towards awful and ludicrous enterprises. It is then that we can really see what Fishy has known since the novel’s first few pages: “You can’t get a proper look at your own conscience because it only ever comes out to gash you with its beak and you just want to do whatever you can to push it away.”