An uneasy air of psychedelic paranoia hangs over Ned Beauman’s Glow, the by-product of key rhythms—sleep cycles, sober thought processes, the reassuring way that things have always been—getting booted into ditches on the side of the road. Things move too fast, like someone “editing the machine code on which the world runs,” and when the cause of this is sought, every sliver of answer is met with more questions. “For every three parts of the machinery she’s learned to follow,” Beauman writes of a revolutionary, “there are seven or eight farther back that she’ll never even glimpse.”
The center of Beauman’s novel—which is at once manic and melancholy, and for the most part successfully walks a very difficult line—is the creation and prospects of the title drug (the potency of which is summed up with a tester’s journal entry: “LIGHTS!”). Around it orbit such phenomena as unusually intelligent foxes, a trio of Japanese beauties, and a pirate radio station with a newfound love of Burmese chants. But while those descriptors sound comic, even quirky, they represent the last gasp of a manic stage before the slow creep underneath takes hold. Beauman, whose The Teleportation Accident is also worth a look, conveys a real sense of being stretched, of someone on the verge of collapse. Descriptions and phrases subtly recur without comment, appropriate for the life of an insomniatic or addict, for whom past, present, and future can seem to be occurring all at once.
The insomniac addict driving Glow is Raf, a Lebowskian slacker introduced at a Laundromat-cum-rave blitzing himself on wontons stuffed with speed, MSG, and an “experimental social anxiety disorder medication for dogs,” the kind of drug cocktail that grows more dubious with each passing word of the description. When a friend disappears into a mysterious white van, he’s pressed into unraveling the crime, though like the Coen brothers’ Dude or Inherent Vice’s Doc Sportello, Raf stumbles into clues more than he uncovers them; his big investigative insight concerns a glass of water that never existed.
Thomas Pynchon is a crucial reference point here, from the story’s hazily elegiac tone to the byzantine details of the conspiracy, which ultimately concerns corporate powers running roughshod over the innocent and unspoiled. (There’s a touch of Don DeLillo too, as in a throwaway line about an army “whimsically” using the proceeds of illegal drug sales to construct a Museum Of Drug Eradication.) One queasily plausible corner of the plot involves shops stocking foreign spices in the hopes of luring those countries’ expats and exposing them to security cameras, where their images can be run through online databases and persons of interest can be identified.
Like his lackadaisical forebearers, Raf is befuddled on details but not on morals, though he’s a bit too confounded by the shifting ground under his feet to be truly compelling on his own. Glow really springs to life whenever Cherish, a young woman of dubious motives, enters the scene. She’s a wonderful creation, playful and idealistic, but private and unyielding on issues that are several layers below the surface. Post-coital, she drinks to offset her body’s natural chemistry: “I don’t want to like you any more than I would if you hadn’t squeezed some hormones out of me.”
Beauman’s writing is muscular and vivid, given to long digressions and descriptions that are outlandish while feeling exactly right. A man speaks with “the syntax of someone who’s made a diligent study of English from coke rap and specialist message boards”; money doesn’t flow into a country by a ravaging company, it “invades” it. As Raf goes about his investigation, there are extended explanations of drug chemistry and radio engineering—too extended. They serve a purpose, but throw off the pacing.
Glow is ultimately a story about rhythms, and people who live outside them—the revolutionaries and corporate powers scheming beyond legal means, drug users seeing the world through skewed perspectives, insomniacs whose nocturnal lives set them apart. The book’s impact comes from the sympathy Beauman has for those people, understanding that while the notion of “breaking free” is inherently romantic, his characters find that freedom to be another kind of prison. Raf at one point describes his world as Russian nesting dolls of lies, each one betrayed by the one inside. When the final doll is reached, it’s far from clear whether those betrayals will allow anyone to get back in sync with each other. Things get so lonely, at one’s spot in the wave.