I would guess we all have some pre-conceived ideas about books that win prizes. Unfortunately for me, that would include the aphorism: books that I really, really like never win big prizes. This is weird as I am normally a massivley optomistic, glass half full kind of person. Having thought on this for quite some time over the weekend I have decided that this probably implies a lack of respect for the prize-awarders on my part, rather than a lack of faith in my own choice of favoured novels.
I had never really thought about this until I came to The Teleportation Accident.
I really, really liked this book. It ticked all the boxes (see ref. Blog #2 ‘3783 Pages, 83 days’).
1. It wasn’t all doom and gloom
Definitely parts of it were strange, disconcerting and far from joyous. You can’t base a book on a cynic living in 1930s Germany and then 1940s California and expect unadulterated happiness and laughter throughout. But there were hilarious segments. Some wonderful examples:
- “The fact that you are so neurotic about your past lovers makes it both fortunate and predictable that you have so few of them. It’s one of those elegant and self-regulating systems that one so often finds in nature.”
- ” Back in the 1890s, for instance, he wouldn’t have felt nearly so depressed that he never got laid, because no one else would have been getting laid wither – the same principal they now used in Russia with electricity and potatoes and so on”.
NB. I am not sure I found the parts hilarious that were supposed to set me off. By far my least favourite bit of the novel was a farcical scene involving a lady, her maiden aunt and a fake monkey testicle.
2. Things happened
Loads of things happened.
Like any book set in this era, there were a lot of parties, both decadent pre-Nazi Germany and decadent Gatsby-style USA parties, with drugs and cocktails and so many affairs that the theme of one party was to connect yourself with coloured string to everyone in the room you had slept with.
But also a lot of stranger things also happen. There are a vast array of themes interwoven throughout the book, including but not exclusively:
- teleportation (duh);
- disdain for politics;
- public transport systems, and their role in society;
- love versus. destruction; and
- equivalence (nothing ever changes across space and time).
Incidentally, I won’t tell you whether teleportation happens.
3. This book is seriously quote-able
Boy oh boy is it ever. I don’t think I have ever underlined so many passages in my life. Particularly the first half, which is more thoughtful and less plot-driven than the latter half, is almost one big quote. A random selection of my favourites would include:
Quotes on society
- “So you’re telling me Marlene herself is a sort of avatar of the twentieth century… because she nurses sentiments that have been sold to her as closely as she nurses sentiments of her own. Or perhaps even more closely.”
- “If you want to understand what American culture really is you should go and look at the new escalators… they’re American-made. Never in your life will you have seen so many apparently healthy adults queueing up for the privilege of standing still”.
- “mass transit of any kind tends to promote authoritarian socialist leanings in its users, whereas drivers of auto mobiles tend to be committed free-market capitalists”.
Quotes on people
- “He had that odd conversational manner of some scientists and mathematicians that is so doggedly awkward that it sometimes seems to verge upon the flirtatious.”
- “two bottles of red wine had transformed him into the emotional equivalent of one of those strange Peruvian frogs with transparent skin exposing their jumpy little hearts”.
- “He had an educated, ironic, very English manner, at once sharply penetrating and affably detached, like someone who would always win the bets he made with strangers at weddings on how long the marriage would last but would never bother to collect the money”.
4. I will remember this book
Few books make me laugh out loud, and even fewer make me think while doing it. Though I may not remember it for some of the crazier moments and I may forget some of the facts divulged, I will remember that I read it in two days (no mean feat at 368 pages) and thought it was simply wonderful.
A footnote…Not that nothing about this book was irritating in any way
I don’t think there is any book, however good, which, if you think hard enough, is not irritating at certain points. Or maybe I am just easily annoyed. Either way, four elements of this novel really frustrated me.
1. Trite moments
The main protagonist occasionally participates in and comments on seminal historical moments (e.g. book burning) with no awareness of their importance and no political impetus behind his participation. These moments make this book feel like one of those books (or indeed Forest Gump) where the participants are unwittingly involved in a series of important moments. Like a lot of other novels really, which somehow lessens it in my eyes.
As an aside to this, I really don’t like the cover of this book. It is far too blatantly ’30s decadent Berlin (e.g. Cabaret) and reflects this desire to be like other things, which I find deeply frustrating. Because overall, the greatness of this novel lies in the fact it isn’t like anything else.
2. It feels like two books
The first half is quite thoughtful and philosophical and character-driven. The second half is a little more murder mystery / sci fi and seems all about plot. It feels rushed. I by far preferred the first half.
3. The main protaganist retains his cynicism throughout
Maybe I am just too much of a sap, but I hoped for something of a redemptive moment – a moment of clarity and realisation. That doesn’t really happen, which I found a little depressing. (NB. I know some will dispute this, but saving lives is not the same as coming to an existential realisation).
4. The end is just plain weird
Now I am not a big fan of books that are all about the end (see ref. Swimming Home) but I would like the end to at least be good, understandable and not just massively strange. But I imagine this is something plenty of people would dispute with me – they probably loved it.
But read it. Read it in your pyjamas, with a large cup of coffee, on a long rainy Sunday. Vanish into its slightly crazy, cynical, hilarious, confounding world. Well, that’s what I’d recommend anyway.