Ned Beauman, ‘Glow’

Ned Beauman, Glow. Sceptre hardback, London, 2014.

I recently spent a couple of days in St Albans, and managed to forget to pack the book I was reading at the time. I bought this one in a well-stocked Oxfam shop. I can see why its original owner didn’t feel like keeping it. Oh, and I promise this will be a much shorter piece than the previous few, because

  1. The sun is shining and it’s much too pleasant a day to skulk indoors
  2. The novel is good, but not that good
  3. My wife has gone shopping and I have a rare crack at the PC for a short time

I’ve not read Ned Beauman before, but he’s a much-feted English winner of awards for producing zanily inventive novels at an absurdly young age. This one had me zipping to the end in two days: the narrative has a rush like…well, no, I’ll resist the temptation to stick a simile into every sentence. Glow has several extended, elaborately unusual ones on the first page, and they keep coming after that with wearying rapidity, with the occasional metaphor thrown in.

Glow: the coverHere’s a random unsuccessful example from p. 4: ‘The sound system isn’t even that loud but the room’s so small that the treble pushes at the sides like a fat toddler stuffed into a car seat’. A simile should involve linguistically yoking together entities (to paraphrase Samuel Johnson) that are similar in certain less than obvious ways, but which are interestingly dissimilar; the net result should therefore be stimulating, maybe even provocative, and satisfying. Far too many of Beauman’s misfire (another random example: a dog called Rose ‘dozes at his feet like a small black hole on loan from a particle accelerator’ – that’s just silly) – though some are humdingers, which genuinely enhance the description, like this one of old men playing cards:

Like copper on rooftops, the tattoos on their forearms have discoloured with age.

The prose is at times fabulously imaginative, and there are some extremely funny ideas, like the drug the protagonist Raf takes in the opening chapter, which he’s told is ‘a mixture of speed, monosodium glutamate, and an experimental social anxiety medication for dogs.’ He’s in a rave located in a laundrette (rave culture is dying), where he spots the simile-laden half-Burmese beauty who becomes his sort-of love interest.

From there the plot spirals off into such complicated curlicues that I ceased to care what happened. It’s something to do with a sinister US mining company branching out into mind-altering drugs (the novel’s title is the name of the new drug they intend manufacturing), and kidnapping and murdering the Burmese expat population of London to do so. Urban foxes are strangely involved.

My goodness, this guy can write. Unfortunately he’s not so incandescent at creating 3-D characters with more than a few grams’ worth of credibility. There’s too much drug-ingestion and geeky, self-satisfied Xbox-playing, internet surfing and unconvincingly athletic sex; I find myself thinking it’s by the scriptwriters of the UK teen-awkwardness TV comedy ‘The Inbetweeners’ in rehab, with all of that show’s smutty, larky awkwardness and much less of the charm.

And despite the linguistic pyrotechnic display, there are way too many occasions when the polysyllabic vocabulary strays into showing off territory (eg this on Raf’s sleep disorder: ‘ It could also be that something’s awry in his suprachiasmatic nucleus, an office of his hypothalamus the size of a grain of rice.’  A few lines later I’d marked this; ‘the pineal gland, he’s read, was once a blush…’ etc. That ‘he’s read’ is tell-tale.)

Unlike Will Self, who I find uses arcane terms because the context merits it, Beauman seems to be showing how clever he is. The neuroscientific register cut with Irvine-Welsh-lite squalor and details about the effects of a range of illicit pharmaceuticals smacks (pun intended) of the textbook (or Wikipedia).

Another writer also comes to mind: Murakami. He too enjoys deviating into bewildering sub-plots with slightly surreal, hallucinatory overtones; but he’s much more adept at keeping it under control, and he’s more capable of refraining from telling us what’s going on all the time. The plot of Glow keeps slowing up so characters can explain plot developments for us.

A good, light read, then – ideal for undemanding holiday entertainment – but ultimately as off-target at the false morel mushroom omelette ingested at one point in the narrative: it’s supposed to give you a high, but fails to deliver.

And it’s started raining.

4 thoughts on “Ned Beauman, ‘Glow’

  1. Good spot on the tell tale.

    Exposition is often a warning sign. It crops up a lot in SF where the writer frequently has to introduce setting elements that may not exist in the real world, and it’s a good test of the writer how smoothly they slip the info in (Gibson’s Neuromancer, much as I love it, has a particularly bad example where the character watches a tv documentary about something he’s already an expert in).

    I’d be more likely to read Beauman if he did fewer interviews. I might well like him in real life, I’ve no idea, but he doesn’t interview well. He always comes over as terribly smug, as the book seems to here.

    I don’t rule reading him out, but I doubt I’ll start on this particular one.

    • Thanks for the comment, Max. I’ve never been a great fan of SF, perhaps, among other reasons, for this business about exposition. I did enjoy Death of Grass and some John Wyndham, many years ago, which maybe have a more speculative genre element, rather than space opera: it’s a broad church after all…how do you define SF anyway? Is 1984 SF? Does there have to be ‘science’ in it? Anything you’d particularly recommend?

      • I would personally consider 1984 SF. For me SF is above all else a literature of ideas, about exploration of ideas. Of course tons of great examples of SF don’t remotely fall within that, definitions are tricky things. I don’t think there need be science, but I think it does need some kind of exploration of an alternative to where we are and have been.

        That alternative may be in a past that never was, a future that may never (perhaps could never) happen, or an altered present but in each case it’s the positing of a new world either for its own sake or as a mirror of sorts to our own.

        So, The Day of the Triffids is a future which I doubt Wyndham ever believed could happen, but which made a great and harrowing story and along the way made some points about the vulnerability of civilisation. 1984 is a future which is actually his present, Russia in 1948, twisted through a mirror and reflected back to us so that (oddly enough) we can see it more clearly.

        Everything you mentioned is both classic and character focused, so I’d avoid any of the hard sf authors – the guys really focused on deep time and astrophysics and how humanity might develop. I think the lack of strong characters (they’re not the point after all) would leave you cold. You might though find some Atwood interesting (though I’ve not read her myself), David Mitchell, perhaps Octavia Butler, Ursula Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness perhaps, or Miller’s A Canticle for Liebowitz, it’s hard to say though.

        Generally however, if a genre doesn’t speak to you there’s nothing wrong with that. Romance doesn’t speak to me, nor does historical fiction, I just leave them to those who enjoy them and focus on what does speak to me.

        • Thanks for this: most illuminating. You’ve put your finger I think on what attracted me to the texts I mentioned as preferences: ‘literature of ideas’, of alternatives, the ‘vulnerability of civilisation’. And of course the dystopian future novel has always reflected on and magnified the problems of the present. I wouldn’t ever reject an entire ‘genre’ out of hand, but as you suggest, some are more appealing to us as individuals than others.

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