‘The Teleportation Accident’ stimulates the brain, tickles the funny bone
the teleportation accident by Ned Beauman (357 pages, $25)
Endlessly witty and furiously inventive, Ned Beauman’s second novel might well fly away on the wings of its hilariously intricate plot were it not for the characters’ firm attachment to the earthly delights of drink, dope and general debauch. The Teleportation Accident, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize when it was published in England last year, consolidates the 27-year-old Beauman’s stature as a formidably accomplished writer.
The Teleportation Device that set designer Egon Loeser tries out in a tiny Berlin theater one morning in 1931 pays tribute to Adriano Lavicini, a 17th-century stage designer whose Extraordinary Mechanism for the Almost Instantaneous Transport of Persons from Place to Place exploded at the Theatre des Encornets in Paris in 1679, killing 27 people and a cat.
Just wait until demented Professor Bailey, who is experimenting with a teleportation device at CalTech in 1938, tries to explain why Los Angeles is the perfect place to transform Lavicini’s theatrical creation into a working machine. “Here, location was a meaningless and arbitrary property,” the doctor muses. “All spatial coordinates were equivalent. And that was how teleportation would function.”
How did we get from Weimar Berlin to unreal L.A.? Loeser goes there in pursuit of Adele Hitler, a rich party girl who had sex with almost everyone in their social circle but left town before she got around to him. She’s changed her last name to Hister (“I got bored with people asking me if I was related”) and is now Professor Bailey’s love-struck assistant. Many other Berliners have relocated to Southern California, Loeser finds to his disgust when he arrives in 1935. “As long as Brecht doesn’t turn up, I won’t have to jump into the ocean,” he remarks glumly. The playwright’s perennial offstage presence is a running gag, as is Loeser’s snaillike progress over the course of 30 years in reading Alfred Doblin’s very long Berlin Alexanderplatz.
The self-absorbed Loeser is indifferent to the threatening political situation that drove his compatriots from Germany. His personal and artistic credo is Equivalence. His cynicism is buttressed by the opportunism of his fellow expatriates. The homosexual he snorted coke with in Berlin earns pocket money in L.A. by sleeping with wealthy women. The composer he revered turns out to be a blackmailing Soviet agent. Not that Loeser is a paragon of principle himself. He never bothers to finish reading an anguished letter chronicling the persecution of Jews in Berlin because he’s too busy cashing checks as a Jewish board member of the Cultural Solidarity Committee of California and spying on Bailey for an eccentric millionaire who’s convinced that “mass transit of any kind tends to promote authoritarian socialist leanings in its users.”
Beauman flaunts an almost indecently pleasurable way with words as he piles on outrageous developments, including a series of gruesome murders at CalTech and culminating in an apocalyptic final test of Bailey’s teleportation chamber. He even provides four endings, complementary rather than mutually exclusive.
Over-schematic plotting is about the only flaw in this dazzling entertainment. It’s rare for a book to stimulate the brain cells and the funny bone with equal gusto, but Beauman has a knack for embedding trenchant philosophical blasts in punch lines.