Living in Berlin just before the second world war, everything goes wrong for Egon Loeser, and it has nothing to do with the Nazis. In Ned Beauman's terrific second novel, longlisted this week for the Booker, his protagonist, a German set designer, is too sex-starved, self-pitying and, usually, hungover to notice that history is happening all around him. At one point, just before he leaves Berlin to chase a girl named Adele Hitler (no relation), Loeser sees a group of what he thinks are students holding a bonfire outside the library. He assumes it is "some sort of silly art performance" and joins in, cheerfully burning the books of writers he envies. This comes at the end of a section titled Literary Realism – a dig at the one genre that doesn't know it's a genre – after which the book veers gleefully through hardboiled noir, SF, murder-mystery and romance, distorting each in turn.
Although each chapter is set in a specific year, in a specific place, there's a sense that time and space are slipping. In Weimar Berlin of the early 30s, parties take place in abandoned factories and ketamine is becoming fashionable, its users "flexing and humming in the grass". This could be modern east Berlin or east London. Ketamine was first developed in 1962. Spotting historical dislocations becomes one of the book's pleasures – it gives the feeling that, as a lizard from the far-future at one point observes, "all time was one instant, all space one point."
Here's how the narrator puts it: "Compare the Venice of the late renaissance … to the Berlin of Weimar … to whatever city would turn out to be most fashionable in 2012, and you would find the same empty people going to the same empty parties and making the same empty comments about the same empty efforts, with just a few spasms of worthwhile art going on at the naked extremities. Nothing ever changed. That was equivalence." A hipster for every era.
It's lucky, as the book is built on likenesses, that Beauman has such a talent for metaphor and simile. I started underlining and asterisking the quotable ones and now my copy is pretty much unreadable. Here's Loeser on a particularly bad faux-champagne: "It's as if they've decided to incorporate the eventual hangover directly into the flavour as a sort of omen." In the LA chapters there are turns of phrase that would sit happily in a Raymond Chandler novel: "There was enough ice in her voice for a serviceable daiquiri."
In a fun and extensive supporting cast, there is one character in particular, Colonel Gorge, who embodies the novel's drift between past, present and future, between real and imagined. He suffers from extreme visual agnosia and is unable to distinguish between things and the representation of things. As his butler has to explain: "That is not a pickle, sir, that is only a drawing of a pickle in black ink on a napkin." The Colonel greets the portraits of his ancestors in his hallway as if they are real people and yet, in the context of the rest of the novel, this starts to seem pretty reasonable. There are echoes of Douglas Adams and Kurt Vonnegut in the mix of unhinged digressions and moral mad-science. The narrative voice is limber, allowing for references to Lucretius, Lovecraft, Heidegger, Rilke, "Hem" and "Jimmy" (Hemingway and Joyce) alongside a seam of exceptionally smutty jokes.
It's the jokes that help us support Loeser, who can be, as the opening paragraph of the book suggests, "a total prick". Loeser assumes that Adele Hitler, because she is good-looking, is a good person. As a friend tells him, he and the Nazis share a belief that "goodness has some causal kinship with beauty". His chasing her across Europe and America is a byproduct of his cognitive dissonance, his inability to think about the millions dying, off page.
There is so much pleasure in the unstable elements of the story that I couldn't help feel a loss as the wheels of the plot started to turn. Luckily, the setting up of various false leads, reveals and tricks are worth it for the brilliant finale. If there was ever any worry that he might have crammed all his ideas into his first book, the prize-winning Boxer, Beetle, this makes it clear he kept a secret bunker of his best ones aside.