Recent news reports seem to indicate that London is home to about 10,000 feral foxes. That sure means a lot of illegal drugs.
You won’t understand the seemingly illogical jump from the first sentence to the second until you read Ned Beauman’s alarmingly addictive, gloriously gonzo, and immaculately impassioned third novel, Glow. Fine as his first two books were, this outing represents a new pinnacle of accomplishment for the author. He proves himself a worthy bearer of the mantle of Thomas Pynchon — perhaps in the line of descent via David Foster Wallace — with this hipster/slacker/hacker/maker version of The Crying of Lot 49. And the fact that Beauman has just turned thirty years old is sure to cause simultaneous awe, jealousy, and gladness (at the potential of many more fine novels and a long career to come).
The action of Glow commences precisely on a certain day in May 2010, in the city of London, and will occupy a two-week period, followed by a brief coda set a few months afterward. But there’s no sense of nostalgia — or safety — in the come-and-gone narrative time frame. Beauman’s immediacy of voice suggests these events might be transpiring at this very moment, or ten minutes into the future.
Our hero is a fellow named Raf (the name explained as a familial shortening of “Ralph,” but meant, I think, to bring up “raffish” and also to indicate a fellow who, like the orthography of his name, is slightly “off” or deficient). Raf has a sleep disorder that has blighted his life, preventing him from gainful employment, complete physical health, and substantial long-term domestic relations. Nonetheless, he has a fairly solid set of reliable pals, including Isaac (DJ and dedicated neurohacker of illegal drugs), Theo (owner and operator of a pirate radio station hidden within London’s heart), and Rose (an abused bull mastiff tasked with guarding the transmitter for Theo’s Myth FM). Raf’s main paying job these days is giving Rose her walkies.
Raf’s chancy life seems immutable — unless perhaps it should spiral downward, always possible for someone with his disease — until the day he meets a beautiful Anglo-Asian woman named Cherish. Coincident with this fated romantic encounter is the disappearance of Theo, apparently kidnapped by thugs in a white van. The two incidents prove to be intimately connected by the appearance on the London club scene of a new drug, “glow.” An international natural resources corporation, Lacebark, with operations in Burma — the country of glow’s origin and Cherish’s birth — has learned about the drug and wants a monopoly. In theory, this should be easy to achieve, since only one man knows how to manufacture glow, and if Lacebark can capture him, they will have a lock on the market. This fellow, a Burmese named Win, is assumed to be in London, and Lacebark’s operatives are afoot in merciless pursuit, kidnapping, killing, and waging psychic warfare against anyone who stands in their way.
Soon Raf is dragged into the glow vortex, his life deranged into a melange of amateur detective work, anxiety, and horniness. But all is nebulous. Is Cherish against Lacebark, or working for it? What is inside the secret warehouse maintained by Lacebark? Can the Lacebark ex-employee Mark Fourpetal be trusted not to turn traitor, or rather to maintain his treachery against Lacebark? What is the role of London’s wild foxes in this affair? Why is Myth FM broadcasting Burmese music now? What strange new stochastic metrics are being developed by the oddly named Lacebark subsidiary ImPressure⬤? In short, Raf is embroiled in “a ghost conflict detached from everybody else’s London.”
But Beauman does not single-mindedly focus on this main conspiracy. Along the way he gives us digressions on music and neurochemistry, geopolitics and gastronomy, Darwinism and ecology, socioeconomics and sex. But as with Pynchon’s encyclopedic forays seemingly far afield, everything proves relevant, and the complex patterning of the novel features Escheresque intricacy, or resembles perhaps that mathematical form known as Penrose tiling, where higher symmetries come into play, building to a resolution that might best be called, simply, bittersweet.
Beauman’s story succeeds admirably on the grand scale, keeping the reader in suspense with superb plotting and providing us with great, full-bodied characters. Raf and company, while perhaps larger-than-life, are not cartoons. On the microlevel, the book is jam-packed with aperçus, simple yet unique and revelatory, and I fear that if I start quoting, I won’t stop, so I will limit myself to just a couple. “All the cupboard doors are made of that cheap painted chipboard that’s so lightweight they never feel as if they are wholeheartedly closed.” “They come to a builders’ merchant with a big yard at the front full of pallets of flesh-colored bricks wrapped in a thick plastic that makes them look to Raf like stacks of human biceps.” These observations morph into the striking figures that populate Beauman’s meticulous yet organic prose. The longish section in “Day 14” (the chapters are denominated by days and subdivided by time checks, for a very good reason related to Raf’s illness), where time is considered as a physical medium, is one major instance. And in a passage that, I am sure, deliberately echoes Pynchon’s famous riff in Lot 49 about cityscape as integrated circuitry, Raf muses that “someone has been editing the machine code on which the world runs.”
I mentioned Beauman’s patterning and allusiveness, and this is a major component of the work and a source of enjoyment. He will often allude to a concept or item in dialogue and then have something similar or identical appear in real life. For instance, Isaac is making wontons filled with tentacular tidbits and expounding on the neural wiring of such creatures, how it seems they are composed of nothing but fingers. A few pages later, Raf stumbles upon “a child’s discarded glove, damp and blotchy like the carcass of a small blind mammal with a body made mostly of fingers.” This kind of trick makes the interface between reality and the inside of the characters’ heads seem permeable and prone to two-way traffic.
But ultimately, this is not a book where flashy technique trumps humanism, humor, genuine speculation, or engagement with the real world. Beauman has plenty to say on a lot of Big Topics, as well as educing eternal human behaviors — it’s just that he delivers his pronouncements and observations in what amounts to one of those wooden sculptures — a ball, a box — whose three-dimensional jigsaw components must be slid this way and that, sometimes nonintuitively, to disassemble the unit.
Is it too much of a stretch to identify a new school, however awkwardly named, of “British humanist godgame speculative mimetic novelists,” consisting so far of Beauman, Marcel Theroux, and Nick Harkaway? These three gleefully cross the borders between science fiction, detective fiction, and literary fiction like the wily, irrepressible foxes that swarm through Glow, bringing hallucinatory pleasures in their lambent wake.