Ina somewhat more nerdy and blokeish literary culture, Ned Beauman would probably be more famous. It’s easy to imagine the four precision-engineered, shaggy-dog thriller-comedies that he published between 2010 and 2017 going down a treat in, say, the 60s or 70s. But in the 2020s, the vast majority of literary fiction is, as we are frequently bought (and, reminded, written) by women; And there is something fundamentally boyish about Beauman’s novels that puts him, I suspect, out of step with prevailing tastes.
By which I certainly don’t mean that his books espouse the cruder brands of toxic masculinity. Rather, they tend to skirt the dramatic intricacies of the human heart in favor of the sort of hobbyish enthusiasms we associate with a teenage boy who, let’s say, has a large collection of science fiction novels (don’t get me wrong: I was this teenage boy). We have come to value this kind of writer less and less; and with this re-evaluation has come both profit and loss.
Beauman’s novels know a lot – they are packed with data about scientific research, economics, food, clothes, engineering technologies. They take as their subject the ways in which human beings tend obsessively to instrumentalise the world. They are, in other words, systems novels. And the systems novel, traditionally the preserve of those white male literary dinosaurs whose reputational extinction nowadays goes largely unmourned, is pretty conclusively out of fashion. John Barth? Robert Coover? (Though, to be fair, Thomas Pinchonsystems novelist par excellenceseems to have got a pass, while Tom McCarthy could be described as a well-regarded contemporary systems novelist, though I don’t know that you’d call his books popular as such.)
This is a pity, because the systems that systems novels exist to describe and satirise have not exactly gone away. And it is a particular pity in Beauman’s case, because his novels are so enormously pleasurable to read. His fifth, Venomous Lumpsucker (Beauman is good at titles), is, like its predecessors, a near-faultless technical performance. It also adds two new items to the Beauman repertoire: relative structural simplicity and profound emotional resonance.
Outwardly, Venomous Lumpsucker is a jaunty, cerebral eco-thriller, set a couple of decades hence, about the hunt for the last surviving colony of a fictional fish, Cyclopterus venenatus, the venomous lumpsucker. Inwardly, however, it’s a novel about grief, specifically the grief we feel for animals, and for ourselves, as we live through the Holocene extinction – the mass vanishing of species caused by human activity, when every encounter with an animal, as the novel puts it, “is soaked through with horror and loss”.
The structure may be simple but the plot is ferociously complicated. Karin Resaint, a Swiss animal cognition specialist, has been hired by Brahmasumudram, a ghoulishly destructive mining multinational, to find out whether the venomous lumpsucker is intelligent enough to be saved from Brahmasumudram’s seabed depredations. Separately, Mark Halyard, who works in the amoral “extinction industry” that has arisen in the aftermath of the death of the last giant panda on Earth, is reaping the consequences of a short-selling scam that means he will face jail time if the lumpsucker is wiped out – which, early in the book, it seemingly is. Thrown together, Resaint and Halyard must take a tour of Beauman’s infernal near-future Europe to find the last surviving lumpsuckers.
The Europe of Venomous Lumpsucker is our own continent, pushed slightly further along the roads of elite corruption, scientific hubris and political fragmentation that we’re already traveling. One of the book’s best jokes involves “the Hermit Kingdom”, a northern European country that has retreated into a sealed-off fantasy of nostalgia and self-sufficiency. You’ll guess the Hermit Kingdom’s real identity before Beauman tells you.
After five books – his second, 2012’s The Teleportation Accident, was longlisted for the Booker; his most recent, 2017’s Madness Is Better Than Defeatdid not get the attention it deserved – it is clear that Beauman is a master of English prose, a highly self-conscious creator of sophisticated entertainments who almost never makes a false move on the page.
Here are a couple of minor instances, from Venomous Lumpsucker, of Beauman’s prose powers. Resaint observes from the air “the archipelagian shores of Finland”, “dozens of little pine-covered skerries broken across the water as if the coastline was dissolving into atoms”. Halyard, a pretentious foodie, drinks high-end whiskey that is “cosmetically expensive”.
Running along the smooth tracks of its prose and plot, the novel conducts both a complex debate about our relationship with animals and a kind of funeral service for our human-ravaged planet. To read the book is to be told a story that is at once extremely funny in its details and darkly grief-stricken in its totality. Venomous Lumpsucker is, therefore, an ironically pristine container for the toxic waste of our self-knowledge, in these late years of our biosphere-destroying industrial civilisation. It’s Beauman’s best book yet – and that’s saying something. Let’s hope readers sit up and take note.