The novelist and the Jewish pugilist

Ned Beauman on foxes, beetles and boxers.

At my cousin's wedding there was a lot of cake, a considerable amount of expressive dancing and some botched Hebrew from the rabbi. As raucous disco classics overtook the traditional klezmer beats, I learnt about Daniel Mendoza, an ancestor of my now cousin-in-law, from a solemn young man who -- once he was no longer eating mozzarella in a gazebo -- became something of a whirling dervish on that memorable Essex dancefloor. Daniel Mendoza was an 18th-century Jewish boxing champion. He reigned supreme in the ring until one opportunistic opponent -- "Gentleman" Jack Johnson -- grabbed his sidelocks and pummelled him into submission. Henceforth, boxers have had short hair. According to Wikipedia, Mendoza was "intelligent, charismatic but chaotic" and the first Jew to talk to King George III. He died in 1836, at the age of 72, leaving his family in poverty. (Since my cousin's wedding, a new Daniel Mendoza has been added to the clan; currently 14 months old and the proud owner of a T-shirt with a squid on it. Perhaps he will grow up to be a boxer -- but probably not).

This is why the phrase "Jewish boxing champion" caught my attention when I first heard of Ned Beauman's debut novel Boxer, Beetle. Among other things, Boxer, Beetle tells the story of a nine-toed gay Jewish pugilist called Seth "Sinner" Roach and a repressed beetle-fixated eugenicist whose interest in Roach is both scientific and sexual. The backdrop is 1930s London. In the present day, the tale of these two characters is linked to a Nazi memorabilia collector, Kevin Broom, who suffers from trimethylaminuria, a rare condition that makes him smell of rotting fish: "Along with trimethylaminuria I also have asthma, eczema, cystic acne, mild irritable bowel syndrome and half a dozen other absurd non-terminal diseases." Consequently, Kevin spends much of his time trawling Third Reich-related internet forums (and in a brief self-reflexive flourish, "nbeauman" appears in an online chat).

Both past and contemporary fictional worlds are conjured with a kind of Dickensian vividness and relish for the grotesque. There are characters called Horace Grublock and Leonard Bruisleand. The latter's effeminate son appears as "two unctuous costly pale limp shiny things, one of which was a silk dressing gown that contained the other". Noir influences are also at work -- the novel contains murder, a (Welsh) hitman and a quest for truth undertaken by Kevin. In the 1930s sections, the narrator's use of startling metaphor evokes the spirit of Chandler, as when a boxer "crashed into the gamblers like a bad idea into a hungry nation".

Beauman's invocation of other authors is a combination of tribute and irreverence. The country-house scenes in which assorted fascists assemble bring to mind Ishiguro, Waugh and McEwan. Here, Atonement's Briony Tallis is re-imagined in the form of the precocious Millicent Bruiseland, a freckled 12-year-old who appears at opportune moments to make explicit sexual accusations about the adults: "Mr Erskine, I have just seen your friend Mr Morton brutally sodomising your dear mother!"

Far from being derivative, Boxer, Beetle has an expansive range that merges the outlandish and esoteric into a narrative propelled by wit and inventiveness. Here is a passage that illustrates this:

Gittins was a fat otter-faced bureaucrat in his fifties who for nearly twenty years had carried around a glass vial containing a small colony of cimicids -- bedbugs -- which every night he tipped out on to his hairy thigh so that they could feed on his blood as part of some obscure long-running experiment into mandible size versus nutritional preferences.

Beauman is now working on his next novel, The Teleportation Accident, and promises that another forthcoming work will feature urban foxes in a major way. A fascination with foxes is apparent in one particular episode in Boxer, Beetle, which becomes a rare moment of aesthetic wonder : "Mangy and thin, it had sinews like twisted telephone wires, a stink like a petrol station forecourt, and a coat the colour of a traffic cone left in a skip full of rainwater. It was -- if I'm not making myself clear -- impossibly beautiful. For perhaps a full minute, the animal stared at me with a strange scepticism and a boy's eyes." Personally speaking, as a fox enthusiast, this is possibly the best piece of fox-themed writing since Ted Hughes set pen to paper. Or Roald Dahl. A loftier encomium cannot be given.

"Boxer, Beetle" is now available in paperback from Sceptre (£7.99)

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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