Glow by Ned Beauman

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Reviewed by Simon Thomas

When you’ve established yourself as a (Booker longlisted) quirky historical novelist – if such a title can be given to an author whose first two novels (Boxer, Beetle and The Teleportation Accident) are largely set in the early 20th century and include topics as diverse as coleopterists, trimethylaminuria, and monkey glands – it can be a bit of a gamble to change period and genre for your third. Glow is set in 21st-century London (for the most part) but, even with a recognisable setting and without the distancing effect of being set in the past, there is enough here to disorientate, dazzle, and disturb.

The disorientation comes in various guises. The first is the ‘glow’ of the title – which is a mysterious drug doing the rounds of the types who have raves in abandoned warehouses and disreputable laundrettes.

Raf sees that a boy and a girl have stripped down to their underwear and climbed inside one of the big spin-dryers to kiss, their skinny limbs struggling for purchase on the inside of the drum like test subjects in some astronautical study of the sexual possibilities of small cylindrical spaces. They, at least, have taken something good, or maybe not something good but at least something they’ve never taken before. The DJ is playing a track that Raf has heard on Myth FM a lot. He climbs up on top of the dryer, above the perspiration troposphere, to look around for the girl from before, but he can’t see her anywhere so he just stays up there to dance.

If that’s not a world that is familiar to you – and, I have to confess, my days of dancing on dryers ended shortly before they began – then that might help matters. As I say, disorientation is the order of the day – even if you took to these events as to the manner born, Beauman has a way with language and imagery that refuses to let you settle. How many authors would use the word ‘purchase’ at that point? And that’s before we get to the simile about astronautics.

If that hasn’t got you pleasantly befuddled, then wait for what comes next – the hero (more on the justice of that term shortly) Raf has non-24 sleep/wake syndrome. Hopping over to Wikipedia, we learn that this is the ‘complaint of insomnia or excessive sleepiness related to abnormal synchronization between the 24-hour light–dark cycle and the endogenous circadian rhythms of sleep and wake propensity.’ That is, Raf’s hours don’t match the Earth’s, and he is only occasionally in sync with the day/night patterns suggested by the sun. As with trimethylaminuria in Boxer, Beetle, apparently Beauman was inspired to include it in the novel because he met someone who knew someone who had the condition. While trimethylaminuria (you may need Wikipedia again) helped explain why a character was something of an outcast, here non-24 sleep/wake syndrome feels perhaps a little redundant.  True, it adds to the unsettlement of the lead character, but after a fairly lengthy description of how the syndrome affects Raf’s life, we rather lose the effect of it. Readers (he says, boldly) don’t really care what time it is at any one point, still less what time a character feels like it is.

That hero comment? Well, in a notable departure from the protagonists of Boxer, Beetle and The Teleportation Accident, Raf is a likeable and sympathetic character. I am playing with fire here, as Beauman has said elsewhere that he finds ‘the practice of classifying fictional characters as ‘sympathetic’ or ‘unsympathetic’ to be pernicious and infantile.’ I’ll have to take the reviewer’s prerogative of disagreeing with him. Obviously it is a subjective science, but equally obviously Raf is a stand-up guy whose decisions and actions are unlikely to find discord from the reader.

Perhaps a sympathetic character is needed for the dizzying whirl into which he is thrown – and which is not of his own making. While innocently (ish) trying to take drugs, party, and help out at a pirate radio station, Raf somehow gets caught up in an intrigue which involves kidnappings, foxes, and hazy international corporations with a penchant for The Truman Show. Oh, and the Burmese jungle makes an appearance. I don’t want to give anything vital away – this isn’t a conventional thriller, but it is a sort of thriller nonetheless – so I’ll leave you with that list.

I’ve thought with each of Beauman’s novels that he seems to pick a series of topics at random and manages to weave them together brilliantly. While Glow has its minor faults – that maybe-superfluous syndrome; a few secondary characters who are more indistinct than they should be – it’s another extraordinary work of imagination from an extremely imaginative writer. Where he’ll go next is impossible to guess – but I’m    pretty sure I’ll sign up for the ride.

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Simon is one of the Shiny editors.

Ned Beaumann, Glow (Sceptre, 2014), hardback, 258pp.

Head over to BookBuzz to read our Q&A with Ned Beauman.

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