Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Ned Beauman

Ned Beauman was born in London and currently lives in New York. His debut novel Boxer, Beetle was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and the Desmond Elliott Prize upon its initial UK release last year, and has recently been praised by the New York Times as "funny, raw and stylish."

Recently I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
As early groundwork for a future project, I've been reading far-fetched novels about isolated communities. I started with García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. For a book so replete with sex and death, it feels remarkably folksy and twee, and you often find yourself wishing García Márquez would stop giving you his pedantic commentary on events and just hand over the binoculars so that you could see Macondo for yourself. In general, though, I can't disagree with all the critics (and also my dad) who found One Hundred Years of Solitude so exciting when it first arrived in English in 1970.

The next book I read, however, really does need to be deleted from the canon. It's bizarre that the most prestigious award in British science fiction should be named after a guy who simply could not write – at least on the evidence of The City and the Stars, sometimes regarded as Arthur C. Clarke's best work. Here we have childish prose, banal philosophy, and enough discarded plotlines and forgotten characters to fill a small refugee camp. I'd go so far as to speculate that this inept novel may even have played a small part in holding back the wider acceptance of the genre: over the years there must have been quite a few readers of literary fiction who longed to expand their horizons but picked up The City and the Stars and and instead had all their prejudices confirmed.

Brian Aldiss' Non-Stop was published not longer after The City and the Stars and it covers a lot of the same ground, but it's infinitely more vivid and mature. His protagonist Roy Complain is a young thug belonging to a tribe who practise a decayed psychoanalytic religion. Venturing from his home, Complain discovers that the world he knows is really a huge colony ship that has been flying through interstellar space for hundreds of years. Aldiss' images of canteens and swimming pools overgrown by vegetation anticipate his friend JG Ballard by at least a few years.

A far more unexpected resonance was to be found in Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy, where I just couldn't stop seeing Samuel Beckett. The two authors were writing at the same time, and I certainly won't attempt to prove a direction of influence, nor identify a common ancestor. But both in their settings – grim, shabby, stagnant, ahistorical – and in their dialogue – repetitive, purposeless, tetchy, absurd – the similarity is irresistible. I was pleased to discover that the actor Jonathan Rhys-Meyers read Beckett in preparation for playing Steerpike in the 2000 BBC adaptation of Gormenghast.

The next book of this kind that I'll read is William Golding's Lord of the Flies, which somehow I managed to avoid studying as a teenager. If anyone has any further suggestions, I'd love to hear them.
Visit Ned Beauman's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue