Back to the Past: An Interview with Ned Beauman

by Charlotte Geater

Ned Beauman is a British novelist who lives in New York. He is 28. He’s had two novels published by Sceptre - Boxer, Beetle and The Teleportation Accident - and his third book, Glow, will be published in 2014. He was named one of Granta's Best Young British Novelists of 2013. His first two novels play with the conventions of historical fiction and jump between different time periods, but both are partly set in a 1930s German diaspora, and are concerned with the rise of Nazism. Charlotte Geater spoke to him about totalising systems and sympathetic characters in fiction.

At the end of The Teleportation Accident, were you ever tempted not to write the chapter showing us Loeser's eventual future, and let his story finish without the sense of the lesson learned?

It's true that for most of the time I was writing the book, I was assuming that Loeser would never come to terms with history, because nothing could be more boring to me than a character who 'develops' in exactly the way the reader anticipates – as if we all end our lives as mature, well-rounded moral beings. But then when I did come to write about Achleitner visiting Loeser in the 1960s, the Loeser I found there was a Loeser who couldn't ignore his own failures any longer. Still, I made sure to undermine that as much as possible: firstly because Loeser's revelation comes far too late for it to achieve anything (except perhaps to fill his old age with self-loathing); secondly because we have a sense by the end of the chapter that Loeser may be about to dishonour himself yet again, just as if he were still 25; and thirdly, because of the chapter that comes afterwards. I don't want to spoil any more of the last section for anyone who hasn't read the book yet, but in the progression between those two chapters at the end, I was trying to express the struggle I feel personally as a writer between my bourgeois realist literary fiction side and my pulp side. The fact that the conventionally 'poignant' chapter is not permitted to conclude the book is supposed to indicate which side will always win out.

One of the running threads in Boxer, Beetle seems to be the in-built failure of any totalising system, from artificial languages through eugenics to 1960s town planning. Isn’t well-plotted narrative fiction such a system?

The reason that totalising systems tend to fail is that human beings are unpredictable and communities of human beings are exponentially unpredictable. But fictional characters aren't unpredictable in the same way, because they're under your control – even in my answer above, where I give the impression that Loeser surprised me, we all know that's basically just a twee writers' conceit. The shape of the analogy here depends on what we mean by failure. A state can fail in the sense that all its technologies of control are functioning smoothly but at the cost of throttling the joy out of its population, which is like when your plot is so deterministic that your characters turn into androids. But I try to avoid this by leaving a lot of room in my plots. A state can also fail in the sense that its technologies of control are so overcomplicated that they start to fall apart, which is like when you get to the last few chapters of your book and you realise that there's no way to make everything in your plot work out properly. But this is not something I ever have trouble with. I find that plots, in some sense, 'want' to work – there's a sort of law of narrative physics which means that everything will line up neatly in the end.

Because of the final ending of The Teleportation Accident and its relation to the book’s title, is this novel a shaggy dog story?

I've seen that phrase used quite often in relation to the book, and I was certainly aware when I was writing it that it wasn't ruthlessly coherent. But at the same time, almost everything is there for a reason. Most of it is about turning the screws on Loeser, because it's his weird life experiences as well as his personality that make him behave the way he does. Or it's about bouncing other frequencies of light off Loeser's predicament by showing some parallel ways that men can find themselves sent into different forms of exile by the women in their lives. Or, in the case of the final chapter, it's about explaining exactly where that chapter's unfortunate subject ends up at the end of the story, because in most cases I can't bring myself to let my characters just wander off into the twilight. One of my models for the book was Pynchon's V, and after reading V I don't think anyone would find The Teleportation Accident especially scattered.

By writing about characters who are morally dubious and unlikable, are you challenging readers to study our own consciences? Do you think about the politics of a book as a whole when writing?

Mostly I was just so bored of people saying they would have liked my first book more if the characters hadn't been so unsympathetic that in this case I decided to make my protagonist a borderline-paedophile borderline-Holocaust denier. These people who want sympathetic characters in their fiction – do they think of themselves as sympathetic characters too? In other words, do they believe that if a novel was written with complete access to their inner lives, a reader would finish that novel feeling nothing but warmth and fondness for them? I mean, maybe most people do think of themselves in those terms, and so it would be totally unfair for me to call them narcissists. I have no idea. But in that case, for instance, when they're repelled by Loeser's disregard for the human torment going on across the Atlantic, they can presumably look at their own lives and find no black marks whatsoever with regard to conflict minerals, sweatshop labour, factory farms, carbon emissions and so forth? (Not to get too Occupy about it.) I'm not sure this book has any politics, in the sense that I was never trying to make some sort of argument about how we are all like Loeser most of the time. On the contrary, the fact that we are all like Loeser most of the time seems to me so obvious that it's simply part of the background against which all the other arguments are made.

If the idea that we are all like Loeser forms part of the background of the rest of the novel’s arguments, and as his final revelation is undermined by its circumstances, is there not a worry that this can make everything seem hopeless? Is this why it’s important to have a plot that works well, independently of the character’s own moral arc?

It's only if you have a pretty childish and oversanitised view of human nature to begin with that a vision of people as selfish and imperfect is really going to shake the foundations of your moral universe. Again, I never thought of myself as making some sort of radical point about that in my novels, because it was my assumption that as grown-ups we all already accept that we're a long way from angels, and yet that doesn't make us feel hopeless. In any case, I don't think it's a writer's job to peddle hope to his or her readers. It's not necessary. By definition, if you have the opportunity to sit around reading literary fiction, your life can't be too hellish. Unless you're in a maximum security prison or a cancer ward. In which case, yeah, maybe you'll want something a bit more inspirational than my book.

The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman is published by Sceptre. Richard O'Brien, a poet and broadcaster based in London, also helped with this interview.

Image copyright Lea Golda Holterman.