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Book Review: Glow

By (January 7, 2015) No Comment

Glowglow cover

by Ned Beauman

Knopf, 2015

Ned Beauman’s 2013 The Teleportation Accident was one of those slim, deceptively complex novels that dissolves like a peppermint lozenge on your tongue the first time you read it and then lingers in the memory and works on the imagination long after, and I suspect this will be even more strongly the case in Beauman’s new novel Glow (here pictured with the UK cover, since the US cover is so hideously utilitarian that every time it’s reproduced, an angel dies). Partly this quality derives from Beauman’s talent for quips, which Glow has in abundance (“There’s a sort of famished muscularity to bicycle couriers that you also see in gay men who’ve kept on clubbing for a few years too long,” we’re told at one point, “and the dozens standing in this pub look as it they all have resting heart rates so slow that by any strict definition they’re medically dead”). But there’s more to it than that, thankfully.

Glow opens as the story of down-on-his-luck young London loser Raf, who does a little freelance computer work but is largely unfit for any other kind of work because he has a rare, wacky neurological disorder. This last will come as no surprise to readers of modern fiction, where (especially young) protagonists would be absolutely mortified to be in possession of uncomplicatedly functional cerebral cortexes. The demographic of thirty-something writers has either spent a solid chunk of its life ingesting fistfuls of unregulated antidepressants and black-market horse tranquilizers or else spent a solid chunk of its life sleeping with people who have, and at least one result is morbidly obvious in their fiction: a character isn’t real unless he’s damaged.

Enter poor Raf, whose brain operates on a “sleep cycle” that’s one hour off from the standard issue, meaning that over the course of every 24 days, he grows more and more out of sync with the people around him – meaning he can’t possibly hold a normal 9-to-5 job and simply has no choice but to take buckets of recreational drugs and do lots of moping. He doesn’t want to be “one of those sleep disorder patients who become nothing but vassals of their illness,” we’re told, “but he could see himself going that way, and he had no idea what to do about it.”

In a contemporary novel, the thing to do about it – though Raf couldn’t be expected to know this – is simply wait a few pages; any author who hauls out a chunk of Wiki-research about circadian rhythms can be guaranteed to forget about the whole business the instant something shinier shows up, and sure enough, that happens after about forty pages in Glow.

The book’s real plot kicks off when Raf attends a drug rave at a laundromat and encounters an exotic half-Burmese woman named Cherish. He’s enraptured by her and immediately starts envisioning many hours of warm, connubial drug-taking. And speaking of which, at the same rave he learns about a fabulous new drug making the rounds in London – Glow, which purportedly makes crack cocaine seem like room-temperature root beer.

And from such humble beginnings you might instinctively plot out the kind of book Beauman is delivering here, the story of two hapless lost souls somehow saving each other. But as any reader of, say, Nick McDonnell’s Twelve or Alex Garland’s The Beach can attest, drug culture novels are never just about drug culture anymore. No, one of the part-time jobs Raf has is that of walking Rose, the guard dog of a pirate radio station manned by some friends of his, and through that pirate radio station a complex-ish plot unfolds involving noiseless white vans, abducted Burmese men, and super-intelligent foxes who’ve overcome their caution about using public transportation. It’s not long before we’re encountering passages like this:

In a little while they would cross the border from Afghanistan into Pakistan and by seven o’clock local time they were supposed to have landed in Quetta, where Martin was going to make a last, urgent, probably hopeless attempt to convince officials from the Balochistan provincial government that the exploration license for lithium deposits north of the city should go to Lacebark instead of a newly established Kernon Whitmire subsidiary called Adosh Mining Corporation.

If, while reading that passage, you begin to have the skittering suspicion that Beauman has bitten off more than he can chew, that he isn’t in quite enough control of his game to link convincingly a sleep-deprived London drug-zombie and the border-passage from Afghanistan into Pakistan, hold onto that suspicion: it will serve you well in the zanier pages of Glow (and it might stop you from feeling the complete fool when Raf metamorphoses into a badass action-hero simply because Beauman wants him to). And in the course of things, the alluring girl from the rave, Cherish, uncorks a few choice lines before she’s white-van kidnapped; after sex in one scene, for instance, she slips out of bed with Raf in order to swig a little “supermarket vodka” and needs no prompting to explain why:

“I came a couple of times, so my brain’s all full of oxytocin – plus you wouldn’t leave my nipples alone, which was, as you know, nice, but that means even more oxytocin – and that’ll make me want to pair-bond with you and then, like, cry when you don’t call. But alcohol messes with hormone release from the hypothalamus and the pituitary. So if I drink something neurotoxic right after we fuck, I don’t bond with you so much. It’s folk medicine, I guess, but I kind of trust it.”

“Why don’t you want to bond with me?” says Raf; not forlorn, just curious.

“We can hug for as long as you want, but I can’t sleep if I can feel someone else’s heartbeat,” Cherish elaborates. “Plus spooning just doesn’t work, ergonomically. Everyone knows it but no one wants to admit it.” A real keeper, in other words.

Beauman’s absurd plot doesn’t so much thicken as tangle, but his virtuoso writing ability somehow keeps the whole thing bubbling along; he tries his hand at action sequences (there’s a very good one in The Teleportation Accident, and there are two in Glow); he introduces a slimy villain; he makes a stab at world-straddling conspiracy theories; and throughout he maintains the same sunny, fizzy confidence in his own narrative zest – and it’s contagious. It’s mostly nonsense, but it’s contagious. There’s an off-kilter vibe that throws up one neat passage after another, especially filtered through hapless Raf’s perspective:

Raf has always envied couriers for the MRI scan they take of their city, front tyres like toroid dog noses, a dead leaf’s difference in the height of a familiar kerb felt somewhere in their sinews when Raf himself probably wouldn’t even notice an extra few inches; and because, like pirate radio, they were supposed to get squashed under the internet, but didn’t; and also because he once saw a game of bike polo and it looked like a lot of fun.

Glow, too, is a lot of fun, and as recommendations go, that’s not so bad.