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BOXER, BEETLE

If Franz Kafka had a sense of humor, perhaps he would have written a book like this one: quirky, comical, brilliant and,...

Many adjectives come to mind when describing Beauman’s debut novel, but “strange” surely applies. Readers may feel compelled to shower after taking in this satiric tale (both funny and repellent) of fascism, eugenics, boxing, entomology, sex and murder.

Kevin Broom suffers from trimethylaminuria, a rare genetic condition that makes him smell like rotten fish, so he mostly spends his days in his London flat collecting Nazi memorabilia online. But he stumbles on a crime scene that takes the story back to the 1930s with Hitler in ascendance and some British holding him in awe. Broom learns about a five-foot-tall, nine-toed, hard-drinking Jewish homosexual boxer, appropriately named “Sinner” Roach, whose death in the 1930s is even uglier than his life. A eugenicist who wants to study him has previously focused on insects to learn whether he can breed undesirable traits out of them. (Think Aryan beetles.) The story wonderfully mocks eugenics and fascism, while the writing bursts with imaginative metaphors. For example: “Silkstone was a cheerful burly man whose laughter could have torn the stitches out of a straitjacket.” Or: “Twelve-year-old Millicent had so many freckles that Erskine wondered if she had stolen some from other children.” Unfortunately, the novel has no oases of sanity or likability, no character to care about or wish well. Millicent likes to burst into a room and breathlessly accuse people of perverse sex acts, but no one pays attention to her since she doesn’t even understand her own words. Meanwhile, who cares whether Broom solves the mystery or whether Erskine unearths the secrets of racial purity or whether Sinner will become the flyweight boxing champion. Who cares who is buggering whom, and in what graphic detail?The only truly interesting question is how Sinner dies.

If Franz Kafka had a sense of humor, perhaps he would have written a book like this one: quirky, comical, brilliant and, somehow, ultimately disagreeable.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2011

ISBN: 978-1-60819-680-7

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: Aug. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2011

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HOUSE OF LEAVES

The story's very ambiguity steadily feeds its mysteriousness and power, and Danielewski's mastery of postmodernist and...

An amazingly intricate and ambitious first novel - ten years in the making - that puts an engrossing new spin on the traditional haunted-house tale.

Texts within texts, preceded by intriguing introductory material and followed by 150 pages of appendices and related "documents" and photographs, tell the story of a mysterious old house in a Virginia suburb inhabited by esteemed photographer-filmmaker Will Navidson, his companion Karen Green (an ex-fashion model), and their young children Daisy and Chad.  The record of their experiences therein is preserved in Will's film The Davidson Record - which is the subject of an unpublished manuscript left behind by a (possibly insane) old man, Frank Zampano - which falls into the possession of Johnny Truant, a drifter who has survived an abusive childhood and the perverse possessiveness of his mad mother (who is institutionalized).  As Johnny reads Zampano's manuscript, he adds his own (autobiographical) annotations to the scholarly ones that already adorn and clutter the text (a trick perhaps influenced by David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest) - and begins experiencing panic attacks and episodes of disorientation that echo with ominous precision the content of Davidson's film (their house's interior proves, "impossibly," to be larger than its exterior; previously unnoticed doors and corridors extend inward inexplicably, and swallow up or traumatize all who dare to "explore" their recesses).  Danielewski skillfully manipulates the reader's expectations and fears, employing ingeniously skewed typography, and throwing out hints that the house's apparent malevolence may be related to the history of the Jamestown colony, or to Davidson's Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a dying Vietnamese child stalked by a waiting vulture.  Or, as "some critics [have suggested,] the house's mutations reflect the psychology of anyone who enters it."

The story's very ambiguity steadily feeds its mysteriousness and power, and Danielewski's mastery of postmodernist and cinema-derived rhetoric up the ante continuously, and stunningly.  One of the most impressive excursions into the supernatural in many a year.

Pub Date: March 6, 2000

ISBN: 0-375-70376-4

Page Count: 704

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2000

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THE SECRET HISTORY

The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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