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.