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Glow, by Ned Beauman, Sceptre, RRP£16.99, 258 pages
Ned Beauman is a dizzyingly inventive writer. His debut Boxer, Beetle (2010) was all raw imaginative energy and prodigious promise. The Teleportation Accident, which was longlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize, followed up with a bravura tale that skipped across continents and kept a complex, multi-layered plot humming along.
Not yet 30, Beauman has already been shortlisted for a host of major literary awards, as well as selected by Granta as one of its 20 Best British Novelists Under 40.
But while those first two novels were out-and-out spectacles, his third, Glow, is harder to fathom – largely because it seems a bit, well, conventional. Where Boxer, Beetle was set in the 1930s and involved the entwined stories of a Nazi bug hunter and a Jewish east London pugilist, and The Teleportation Accident revolved around a bizarre theatrical visual effects device from the 17th century, Glow is to all intents and purposes a contemporary thriller.
It opens in London in May 2010, and Raf (another of Beauman’s loser-ish protagonists) is going to an all-night rave in a south London launderette. He locks eyes with Cherish, a beautiful half-Burmese, half-American girl, and is introduced to a new party drug known as glow that, he’s told, has crazy psychotropic effects. Thus follows a thriller-ish narrative involving a shadowy multinational mining company called Lacebark, a Burmese resistance group, facial recognition software, pop-up torture warehouses, the local pirate radio station Myth FM and, of course, the drug itself, extracted via a particularly unusual (and unsavoury) method from a Burmese flower called glo.
Beauman is as dazzling as ever. His cast of characters includes a Teflon-coated chief executive, a double-crossing undercover spy, a gay self-taught chemist and a slimy, morally challenged corporate PR; while his zingy dialogue and the unpredictable directions in which the narrative ricochets are as lively as anything he has previously written.
Yet there is a problem here. The novel is at times too fact-packed, too much of a clever exercise in finding connections between disparate scraps of knowledge. For instance, Raf can’t just be a regular guy, he has to have a rare (and real) sleep disorder called Non-24-Hour sleep/wake syndrome that means his body operates on a 25-hour cycle and he slips in and out of sync with everybody else. It is amusing and unusual, but at times it feels like the character is little more than the sum of his disorder.
Beauman’s similes are hit and miss. Every paragraph is laced with them and within the space of a couple of pages you can move from the duds (“like copper on rooftops, the tattoos on their forearms have discoloured with age . . .”) to the sublime (“a child’s discarded glove, damp and blotchy like the carcass of a small blind mammal with a body made mostly of fingers”).
Glow is wildly imaginative, complex – and cartoonish. Although not quite a spoof in the thriller genre, nor a serious examination of corporate over-reach, the international drugs trade or the development of a stateless resistance movement wrapped in a satire, it can also be good fun, with its seemingly endless twists and nesting plots. But one hopes Beauman’s next novel maintains his imaginative high-wire act while reining in his wilder excesses.