Ned Beauman by J.W. McCormack

Read, rave, and research.

Karl Nicholason 1

Karl Nicholason. From Developmental Psychology Today, 1971. Courtesy of the artist.

Poor Ned Beauman. At twenty-nine years old, with two acclaimed and technically astonishing novels behind him and his third, Glow, just out in the US in hardcover, this Cambridge-educated winner of multiple prizes, whose work combines philosophical fascination with actual entertainment, must shoulder the most complimentary curse in all of blurb-ese: inexorable comparison to Thomas Ruggles Pynchon. It isn’t specifically that Beauman is somehow unworthy of the Pynchonesque pedigree—both write the kind of associative, pop-culture-infused novels fetishized by kid-geniuses and highly-educated drug users—but that, while Pynchon is supposed to have once declared “Every weirdo in the world is on my wavelength,” Beauman seems set to a more universal frequency. It’s hard for me to imagine anyone quibbling with his first novel, Boxer, Beetle (Sceptre, 2010), in which a contemporary frame story about a fish-smelling collector of Nazi memorabilia is intercut with a cat-and-mouse game between a gay pugilist and a devious entomologist in the ‘30s. And what kind of monster, I wonder, wouldn’t fall in love with his second novel, The Teleportation Accident, a historical slapstick about a sexually-frustrated theatre director who flees Weimar Berlin for LA only to become entwined in a Chandleresque scheme involving tycoons, mad scientists, and H. P. Lovecraft?

If you somehow remain unenthralled by these descriptions, it must be because I’ve left something out. The sharp, always-believably digressive dialogue that can turn from discussing Pascal to the finer traits of John Carpenter’s The Thing to pillow talk on a dime? The nuanced description of places, things (and, in the case of Glow, Burmese food) wryly tailored to engage every sense? The recurrence of obscure afflictions and arcana as obsessively curated as a YouTube-binge or Wiki-hole? Anyway, Beauman’s principal resemblance to Pynchon—he’s expressed equal appreciation for J. G. Ballard and William Gibson—is simply a baffled faith in how the mystic connectivity of chance events propel life and inform the vast conspiracy known as history. Forget about quirk, high style and weirdness in general; Beauman’s work quite literally makes sense in a world where very little else does. And they are, much as I hate to succumb to that same blurb-ese, the books I wanted to read before I could spell.

Glow, at least in terms of copy,is a departure. It’s set against the modern—well, 2010—backdrop of rave culture. It features arguably more sex and violence than its predecessors. Its heroes aren’t artists or historians, but petty criminals on the dole in South-East London. Beauman has even described it as a thriller. Its highly medicated hero is Raf (signature affliction: non-24-hour wake/sleep syndrome), a dog-walker who, early in the novel, encounters a powerful new drug, a mysterious burgeoning in the urban fox population, and a pirate radio station. The last two were seemingly predicted by a passage in Boxer, Beetle that speaks both to Beauman’s obsessive interconnectivity and should be taken as a clue that there’s considerably more going on in Glow than recreational synapse-modification: “a fox in your garden is a stolen kiss is a pirate radio station is a dead detective.” As my paranoia levels were spiralling out of control after Glow, this was the first thing on my mind when I interviewed Beauman ahead of its US release. His answer to this, and to my following questions, were genial, smart, and attuned to information and how we process it: Beaumanesque.

J. W. McCormack With Glow, you’ve written your pirate radio station novel and—leaving aside how freaky it is that you anticipated your third book in your first—it feels like a fitting simile for the invisible ripples running through each of your books. Is this the kind of thing you can do on purpose? Or does it just come out of writing in the novel form, where you generally have to somehow justify the coincidences that comprise the plot?

Ned Beauman I tend to think in similes a lot. For me, a good simile reveals something about the terms on both sides of the equation. I enjoy what Daniel Dennett calls “substrate-neutral algorithms”—structures and processes that have some sort of commonality across totally different contexts. But I think the dense networks of similes in my books are consequences of two rather more trivial features of my writing process. The first feature is that I‘ve always nursed an ambition to write radiant Nabokovean-Updikean lyrical prose, but I don‘t have any natural aptitude for either close observation or fleet poetry. So for years I‘ve forced myself to exercise the simile part of my brain in the hope that in the long run it would brighten my writing, and I pushed it harder than ever in Glow (too hard, some would undoubtedly say). The second feature is that I throw such a lot into my text, which means coincidences are inevitable. I think of it as relating to the birthday paradox. If you put twenty-three people in a room, there‘s a 50% chance that two of them will have the same birthday. In much the same way, if I put twenty-three miscellaneous concepts and references into a scene of a novel, there‘s a 100% chance that two of them will find themselves knitted together in one of my strained similes.

JWM You do seem to cover an awful lot of material in your books—which aren’t, in terms of page count, giant postmodern tomes or anything. Are you conscious of getting a lot done on the page?

NB There is a strategic element, which goes back to my first point about the birthday paradox. It‘s a way to build something intricate without any blueprints. If you wind up a sufficient number of characters and subplots at the beginning, then inevitably at least a few will collide in interesting ways by the end, and your readers will have forgotten about the ones that didn‘t go anywhere. It‘s like medieval people who used to have lots of children because they knew most of them would die.

JWM I never guessed, for example, that The Teleportation Accident  was going to end 17,295 years in the future with a race of half-fish battling killer eels in the ruins of Venice.

NB I didn‘t come up with that final epilogue to The Teleportation Accident until I was almost on top of it, but once I‘d written it, I felt as if I‘d been foreshadowing it all along. To quote Roberta Wohlstetter on Pearl Harbor: “It is much easier after the event to sort the relevant from the irrelevant signals. After the event, of course, a signal is always crystal clear … But before the event it is obscure and pregnant with conflicting meanings.”

JWM The treatment of drugs and rave culture in Glow is notable for being much more about brain chemistry and manufacture than highness for its own sake, junkie desperation, or even the whole hippie transcendence thing. Outside of, I’ve never seen so much science applied to recreational drug use. Why do you think drugs usually make for such bad writing? Shouldn’t there be a natural agreement between what the novelist/reader is looking for and someone interested in rearranging their serotonin levels (or whatever), transcending space-time, “feeling the music” and whatnot?

NB Almost any completely internal experience is boring if described in detail: dreams, hallucinations, near-death experiences, even the majority of our emotions. They just don‘t have any stakes. Characters in all of my books have taken drugs, but I made a rule for myself from the beginning that I would never attempt to describe a satisfying drug experience. I‘m more interested in what we can learn about ourselves from observing, like scientists, what drugs do to people. Historically, one of the very first arguments against the idea of the immortal soul as the seat of the intellect was that we behave so differently after we put fermented sugars in our mortal bodies. And any novel psychoactive coming out of a factory in China has the potential to unpick something about the mind that we once held to be above science. Furthermore, because drug culture changes so fast, and because it‘s by necessity so esoteric in its conduct, it generates new social conventions constantly. By tracking them in their unstable forms, maybe we‘ll raise a few interesting questions about the much older conventions we take for granted. Just one example is another ancient philosophical thought experiment, the lotus eaters. If we could just take drugs all day and be happier than we are now, why don‘t we do that? Or perhaps we do, when we take anti-depressants? What‘s the difference between lotus flowers and zoloft and ecstasy and bourbon and virtual reality and romantic love? One of the neuroscientists I talked to when I was writing the book argued quite forcefully that the difference we perceive between “crack addicts” and “classical music aficionados” is in large part socially constructed.

JWM To further tax the reader/raver analogy, you refer to the latter as “pleasure hobbyists.” Is there a continuum between pleasure and gesturing toward complex systems or multiplicities of meaning? 

NB Personally I find that a book doesn‘t hold my attention for very long if it‘s only operating on a surface level. This doesn‘t mean I‘m an especially deep reader. In fact, I‘m a very shallow and obtuse reader. I tend to miss 90% of subtextual content. But even just groping for that 10% and knowing that there‘s a lot more out there beyond my reach is often rewarding enough. I mean, it‘s quite an etiolated form of pleasure that we‘re talking about here. I quite often think about what Jeremy says in Peep Show when he tries good red wine: “That is fantastic … obviously it’s not really delicious like hot chocolate or Coke, but for wine …” Obviously fiction is not really pleasurable like sex or food, but for reading … Still, there is, once in a while, a kind of exhilaration to be had from intellectual engagement. I used to get that when I was studying philosophy. If the philosophy in the background of my books could produce at least a faint twinge of it in a reader, I‘d be delighted. And also quite surprised.

JWM Speaking of the pleasure principle: Is there a trick to enjoying parties?

NB A hip flask. You need to be able to regulate precisely how drunk you are at any given time without making trips to the drinks table at inconvenient times.

JWM Thanks. Anyway, your books would appear to require an enormous amount of research, but without compromising their spontaneity. On the other hand, I am intrigued by how “slapdash and under-researched” (your phrase) your neuroscience is in Glow. How far down the path of information do you feel you have to travel before you say, “That’s enough, I’m going on alone?”

NB The reason I do research is never for the sake of accuracy, it‘s always for the sake of material. I find stuff in my research that I could never have come up with on my own. Otherwise, I wouldn‘t bother. As long as my books feel plausible enough that they don‘t break the reader‘s immersion, I honestly don‘t care if the details are accurate. That said, it‘s always harder to keep track of a lie than to keep track of the truth. The real world is, at least, internally consistent. If you start with facts, instead of stipulating everything out of your imagination, you‘re less likely to find contradictions in your data down the line. 

JWM And then, of course, there’s the idea that the book world is miles behind the art world in terms of taking advantage of the sheer amount of text easily available. That there’s not an urgent need to develop anything “new,” since we can just recycle or mix-and-match.

NB I think you’re assuming that there’s an opposition between recycling and innovation—which I personally agree with, but, after all, Tom McCarthy, who is British literature‘s most vocal advocate for experimentalism in fiction, is also its most vocal advocate for the notion that all art is just remixing or curating or whatever you want to call it. I‘m more in sympathy with Simon Reynolds’s rejoinder that “these assertions tell us way more about our current horizons of thought and our cultural predicament than they do about the nature of creativity or the history of art.” To me, the suggestion that there‘s nothing new to say, nothing new to do, is, as philosophers like to put it, either tautologous or false, depending how you define your terms. That said, my own work doesn‘t prove anything in this respect. Glow is explicitly an attempt at melding Updike with Gibson, and even then it‘s probably the least collage-like of anything I‘ve published. I do sometimes feel like making in-jokes about canonical novels by dead white men, as I did constantly in my first two books, is just a very tiresome and uncool thing to be doing at this late stage. The problem is that I still love those novels and those in-jokes still make me laugh when I‘m alone at my desk. Perhaps if I tried to detach myself a little more from the library of precedents, it would set me free. But I‘m not sure. I don‘t think you can become an innovator by sheer force of will. Some people are born with genuinely distinctive points of view on the world. Bad writing happens when the rest of us try to fake them.

JWM Is it more that you learn about something like non-24-sleep/wake syndrome or The Court of Miracles and realize you have to write about it? Or do these things just tend to accrue as you write? 

NB Yes, accrue is the right word, because I think it works like the ball from Katamari Damacyrolling around until it‘s a mishmash the size of a planet. I do sometimes read about something and wish I could use it somewhere, but if I don‘t immediately recognize how it would fit into whatever I’m working on, then it just won’t stick. The exception is when I come across something so compelling that it might actually form the nucleus of a novel or short story, in which case it will go into a Google document, but even then it most likely doesn’t have a future. I promise I don‘t have a file of “assorted crap that I can jam into a chapter at any time if I feel like I’m losing momentum,” even though it may feel like that to some readers.

JWM Any theories or factoids you‘re currently trying to find a place for?

NB Dogs who can smell electricity.

The tumour paintings of Lam Qua.

UltraPure™ Herring Sperm DNA Solution.

JWM It must have been arduous to research all that Burmese food. You wouldn’t happen to have that actual recipe for chicken curry, would you?

NB I‘ve eaten Burmese food at Mandalay in London and Cafe Mingala in New York, but my acquaintance with it doesn’t go any further than that. The restaurant in Glow and everything they eat there is, unfortunately, pure fantasy.

JWM Yet I know that in some cases, you‘re obsessed with accuracy, at least historical accuracy.

NB I remember reading that, to write The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which was my model for Boxer, Beetle, Michael Chabon would just sit in the library leafing through old issues of Time and Life. I immediately realized that I could never write the same kind of historical fiction because I would never have the patience to do that. My novels are not intended to give the reader any useful insight into what it might actually have been like to be alive in particular period. All I want to do is produce a general impression of historicity, seamless or otherwise. Also, when you research the past, you realize that it‘s mostly composed of old things that dragged on much later than you would have expected and new things that started much earlier than you would have expected—Gibson makes this point, of course—which means that, paradoxically, the more meticulous your research into another era, the more anachronistic your resulting book may feel. All I really want from historical fiction is to feel as if my intelligence is not being insulted. I stopped watching Game of Thrones when one of the characters said he “could care less” about something, a phrase which (quite apart from being nonsensical) didn‘t come into use until the 1960s. I don‘t expect everyone on Game of Thrones to talk like Beowulf, but they should at least sound like they were born in an earlier year than my parents. Otherwise it just feels like the creators are not putting half as much effort into the writing as they‘re putting into the sets, the facial hair, etc., which, speaking as a writer, I find a little depressing.

JWM You also have the distinction of being one of the few living writers to have a Brooklyn cocktail named after one of your books—the Boxer, Beetle (blackberry bourbon, rose hip grenadine, allspice dram, rosemary). Does this feel like an honor on the scale of, say, the Man Booker?

NB I have had plenty of Boxer, Beetles, both at the much-mourned Elsa, before it closed, and at its sibling Ramona. It is one of my all-time proudest moments as a writer, and especially delightful because when Natalka, the owner, first emailed me, she didn‘t even realize that Elsa was already one of my favorite bars in the world. That said, it feels in a very tiny way like a missed opportunity for the cocktail not to include Campari, since the coloring of Campari was originally derived from beetle‘s wings.

JWM And finally, thank you for the playlist of chill wave and trip hop rave music. Can you recommend a list of things you would like your readers to smell as they prep for Glow?

NB Petrichor, dry ice, chip fat, dirty sheets.

J. W. McCormack is a writer whose work has appeared in Bookforum, The Brooklyn Rail, Electric Literature, Tin House, The New Inquiry, The American Reader, n+1, Publisher‘s Weekly, and Conjunctions.

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