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.

Gatsby, Boswell & Johnson, Hemingway

We’re going to see the new Baz Luhrman film ‘The Great Gatsby’ tonight (there’s a Guardian review of its opening screening at Cannes here, so finding myself in Waterstone’s this morning (I believe they’ve dropped the apostrophe, but never mind) I thought I’d buy another copy of the Fitzgerald novel, having lost, lent or mislaid my own some years ago; must be fifteen years or more since I read it, so it’s time for a revisit.  On display was a range of editions: the Penguin Modern Classics edition looked good, with fairly useful notes and a pleasant cover; then I noticed a bright paperback by Alma Classics (who have the uplifting motto on their website ‘clari in tenebris’; they announced on Tues. I think that they’d won the Booksellers Independent Publishers of the year award); they publish some out-of-the-way and non-mainstream literary work and I thought deserved preference, especially as the store had put one of those ‘buy one get one half-price’ stickers on the front – which also has an attractive design and nice old-fashioned folded-in covers (there must be a technical trade name for this: sort of like the dust jacket tuck of a hardback).  This posed a new selection problem: what to buy as a second book?  The contenders narrowed down to three: Paula McClain’s The Paris Wife (a fictional account of Hemingway’s life in 20s Paris with his then wife, Hadley Richardson, and of their crumbling marriage) – there’s an interview with her by Random House here; David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which we saw a couple of weeks ago at the cinema, and quite enjoyed (but too ambitiously long, perhaps); and Ned Beauman’s The Teleportation Accident – review of the hardback edition in the Guardian last year here.  I ruled out the last one because I’m just finishing Javier Marias’s Dance and Dream, vol. 2 of his ‘Your Face Tomorrow’ trilogy, which although compelling and beautifully written is quite a challenge stylistically, structurally and in terms of content, and it moves at a glacial pace; will post more on him another time.  I thought one novel-film hookup was enough, so opted for the McClain, also on the basis that it looks to be a fairly light, not too demanding read – ideal for the long train journey I undertake next week to travel up-country to visit friends and go to see Colm Toibin talk about opera at a King’s College, London symposium on 22 May in their The Joy of Influence symposium (curated by Andrew O’Hagan), one of three such events on the theme of writers discussing other media of artistic inspiration – they all look intriguing: Sarah Hall on painting and Alan Warner on pop; apart from the Johnson-Boswell event noted below, there are others on Marx and one on ‘Literary Identities’.  Pity I shan’t be able to make it to them all.

Finally for today, I’m going to crave your indulgence as I experiment with something new: I’m attempting to embed a tweet about the 250th anniversary of the first meeting (in London) of Dr Johnson and the young Scotsman who became his close friend and biographer, James Boswell.  The TLS article from which it derives (ie the tweet; sorry about the tortuous syntax here – been reading too much Marias) points out, with an illustrative photo of John Sessions in period dress, that those literary heroes at King’s College, London are also behind an event today in their ‘Telling Lives’ series about this literary pair.  So here goes: let’s try to embed this tweet.  Apologies if goes pear-shaped…

Hmm.  Don’t think that’s worked out as I anticipated.  Must try again, perhaps; fail better…But maybe it’ll be ok