A hostage exchange outside a police station in Pakistan.
A botched defection in an airport hotel in New Jersey.
A test of loyalty at an abandoned resort in the Burmese jungle.
A boy and a girl locking eyes at a rave in a South London laundrette...
For the first time, Britain's most exciting young novelist turns his attention to the present day, as a conspiracy with global repercussions converges on one small flat above a dentist's office in Camberwell.
Though admiring them is absolutely natural, it's not always easy to enjoy Ned Beauman's novels. Take Boxer, Beetle and The Teleportation Accident: two basically brilliant books, but both are unabashedly bizarre, and decidedly distasteful. No less so Glow, in which one of Britain's best and brightest new writers trains his tremendous talents on today as opposed to the improbable parts of the past he's explored before.
On the surface it sounds almost normal—a conspiracy thriller above a lovelorn Londoner caught up in a plot by an ailing organisation which aims to make massive amounts of money by monopolising the market for a revolutionary new recreational drug—but peer beneath this veneer and Glow is revealed to be as progressive, and at the same time excessive, as its predecessors.
Like the lead of Boxer, Beetle, whose trimethylaminuria made him smell perpetually unpleasant, Glow's protagonist is set apart from the masses by a medical condition. Raf suffers from a real sleep disorder which means his body clock lags an extra hour behind ours every day. On Monday morning he may wake up at 7AM with the rest of us, but by the end of the working week his brain says he needs to rest till twelve. The next week it's even worse. After that, he's nocturnal for all intents and purposes, before realigning, finally, with the right time—only for his strange circadian cycle to begin again.
Needless to say, it's been hard for Raf in recent years. Out of synch with the rhythms that resound in the rest of us, he hasn't been able to hold down a decent job—currently he walks a dog for the owner of a pirate radio station—and his last girlfriend lately left him. In the depths of his despair, Raf has resolved to leave London when the lease on his crappy flat elapses, but when one of the few people who have put up with his problems vanishes into an unmarked van, he does his level best to help:
Raf can't help dividing the world into the people and institutions that are friendly to his disorder and the ones that are hostile to it—like a fox nesting behind a bus depot, he's a creature making the best of an environment to which he is some respects maladapted. So he feels an extra gratitude to his omelette-gobbling boss, maybe a unique one, on top of the friendship that's developed between them over the past year. (pp.32-33)It's not long before Raf realises that something is wrong; that something... odd is going on. At first, all he has is a suspicion that the landscape changes every time he looks away—"a queasy sense that certain tendencies are propagating through his surroundings much too fast, as if someone has been editing the machine code on which the world runs" (p.56)—but the closer he comes to uncovering the reason for Theo's disappearance, the more often the name of a certain company comes up:
Whatever quiet war Lacebark is waging here, whatever toxin may be gushing from their nozzles, he's supposed to be leaving for good in a fortnight. The city isn't his problem any more. None of this is.
But then he thinks about the reason he's given himself for going away, his sense that he had to make a physical escape from the site of his heartbreak because this cold termite hollow wasn't just in him, it was out there, objectively, in things, in all of them, down to the waltzing fall of a cigarette paper when it slips through your fingers. [...] Now Lacebark are in south London, infiltrating it, altering it, coughing this mist of dread over the streets that once meant so much to him. When his girlfriend left, everything here went to shit for a while, and all he could do was sit there and suffer. Seven weeks later, everything is going to shit again, but this time he has a chance to try to stop it. (pp.115-116)Raf won't be able to stop Lacebark alone, of course, so he surrounds himself with others bearing grudges against the company, including Isaac, another of Theo's pirate radio mates; a disgruntled former employee called Fourpetal; and Cherish, a young woman Raf wants to marry the moment he meets, whose father is a Lacebark man.
By and large, likeable characters haven't been among Beauman's strong points in the past, but they've never been more so than they are in Glow. Raf himself is not repellent—rather, he's a laugh, especially paired with the affable Isaac—whilst Cherish is charming: a witty and wilful woman way, we feel, out of our lead's league. Fourpetal comes the closest to the misanthropes Beauman has banked on before, yet even he amuses; he's so transparently untrustworthy that his efforts to worm his way back into Lacebark's favour are weirdly endearing.
By dint of this, the inevitable betrayals are actually impactful. We're invested emotionally as well as intellectually—we care about these characters—thus the twists the tale takes hit harder, paving the way for a very satisfying finale.
Beforehand, however, Beauman's digressive tendencies do disrupt the pace of the piece. Too often he resorts to monologues that, as interesting as they are in isolation, bring the story to a standstill. The drug diatribes are particularly problematic: the author doesn't go so far as to glorify glow, though he does come close. To each their own, I suppose, but this bothered me a bit.
Glow mightn't be the best book Beauman has written—it'll take a lot to topple The Teleportation Accident in my estimation—but it's heady and clever, accessible and, most shocking of all, enjoyable: a conspiratorial take on Trainspotting about the lads and lasses of London that you needn't be a local to like.