by Ned Beauman.
Sceptre, 249 pp., £16.99, June 2014, 978 1 4447 6551 9
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At what point​ does Ned Beauman’s Glow become fantastical? There’s a kid from South London called Raf who likes drugs and raving. From a girl he meets at a party, Cherish, he learns about Lacebark, an American mining company in Burma that mistreats its workers while its executives swagger ‘like conquerors through the town’. Through Cherish, whose mum was raped by one of the executives, Raf gets involved with a disgruntled former employee and a Burmese ‘terrorist’ cell in London that is planning to take the company down. Now that its mines have become unprofitable, Lacebark has decided to start making narcotics, inspired by a French critical theory text called Lacunosities. The drug they want to corner the market in, Glow, is made out of fox poo – more precisely, its active ingredient is a flower that’s psychoactive only once a fox has digested it – and has become a hit on the London rave scene. Eventually, Raf blags his way into Lacebark’s London warehouse, where they’ve installed a perfect simulacrum of a London street, complete with pound shop, kebab shop, charity shop and bookie’s, in which to train security agents. Those security agents, with seeming impunity, are kidnapping and interrogating members of London’s Burmese community in the search for Win, the only guy in the world who knows how to make Glow and who is actually working in Lacebark’s simulacrum, playing himself in training scenarios for his own capture.

Had I not read the novel, I’d have said that those propositions decrease incrementally in plausibility. But Glow keeps throwing actual facts at you to make your grip on what is or isn’t credible less sure. We learn via the disgruntled former employee, a posho named Fourpetal, that the IDF really does make new recruits read Tschumi on deconstruction; from Raf’s friend Isaac, a drugs expert and DIY neurochemist, that the new drugs flooding the London black market, always one step ahead of the law, are often made by ‘legitimate’ chemical engineering companies based in China; and from Win that Siberian shamans used to get high by drinking the piss of reindeer which had eaten fly agaric mushrooms. Updike once described himself as wanting ‘to give the mundane its beautiful due’. But the real world is far from mundane. Science, Beauman suggests, reveals that the world is as alien as anything in science fiction. ‘To find out that ecstasy,’ as Raf puts it, ‘comes from a plant that grew in the ground is to find out that angels have belly buttons.’

The real world is as nuts as the world on drugs: Raf takes Glow twice and nothing happens, because it doesn’t need to, because he might as well already be tripping. Beauman’s factoids are his strategy for getting us to swallow a world that’s as ludicrous as the real world actually is. He tells us about Gyromitra esculenta, a type of false morel used in Finnish cookery that can be broken down by the human metabolism into the same chemical that was used to fuel the Apollo Lunar Modules. We find out that if you put a naked person in a dark room for three hours and photograph them with a camera chilled to -1200C enough light will be produced by chemical reactions in the person’s cells to produce a portrait (in other words, people really do glow); and that there’s a creature called the star-nosed mole which has tentacles and can smell underwater. Cherish drinks vodka after she has sex with Raf and tells him: ‘It’s for the oxytocin … If I drink something neurotoxic right after we fuck, I don’t bond with you so much.’ Raf himself is a walking Weird Science factoid: he has non-24-hour sleep/wake syndrome, his circadian rhythm being set to 25 hours rather than 24, which means that ‘each morning he slips one more hour out of sync with the rest of the world … At the beginning of his cycle, waking up at eight in the morning is easy … after eight days, 8 a.m. is about when he needs to go to bed for the “night”.’ This is a species of hysterical realism in which the world itself is shown to be so hysterical that it makes the most preposterous fiction look less unlikely. How can any plot twist be incredible in a world where the star-nosed mole exists?

But Beauman also draws our attention to another problem with reality, which is that a lot of what people tell us about it is false. The name of the pirate radio station that Raf sometimes works for, Myth, hints that it might not be a reliable source of information, and according to Isaac, ‘You can’t believe anything that fucker’ – the guy who runs it – ‘tells you’: ‘Do you remember when he said he met that guy who could shoot electricity out of his fingers?’ It later turns out that Lacebark has bought the station as a way of infiltrating London’s Burmese community. They have people on the inside at Greenpeace, and at other charities that might criticise their activities. Cherish herself turns out to be a double agent: people aren’t what they seem and knowing whom to trust is not straightforward. Lacebark has invested in a PR firm called ImPressure, which identifies ‘disruptors’ – people who change other people’s minds about things – so that companies can counteract their influence. A video that Raf and Isaac watch about ImPressure gives two examples: Ellie, a girl who tells her friends she no longer likes a certain brand of vodka; and Abdullah al-Janabi, a cleric who turned the people of Fallujah against the American occupation of Iraq. What marketing departments call ‘mindshare’, the voice in the video explains, is not that different from what the military calls ‘hearts and minds’. It’s also not that different from what novelists think of as empathy. ImPressure serves as a reminder that the novel isn’t just a story, it’s a mind-hack: a Trojan horse for ideology.

To enforce the point, Beauman makes the ideology in the novel pronounced to the point of parody. There’s a clear division between goodies and baddies: the goodies are all working class and the baddies all went to public school. Fourpetal, the former employee of Lacebark, is an ex-public schoolboy who tells Raf that while he was working in financial PR he often bumped into people he’d been to school with. He becomes an ally of Raf and his friends, but ultimately reverts to craven type and betrays them. Nollic, the boss of Lacebark and an ‘Old Bedalian’, has a family that looks like a ‘TV ad for private healthcare insurance’. The young Londoners, on the other hand, are chirpy, cheery and polite, like Cockney extras in a Disney movie. They take drugs, but in the spirit of chefs or explorers: rubbing drugs into his gums ‘reminds Raf of rubbing salt and pepper into a flank steak’. Beauman makes the class Manichaeism so clear-cut that we can’t avoid questioning it. The novel has been engineered to feel like the London street simulacrum, where ‘everything is a bit too bright and concentrated’, and by the time Raf meets Win the fox poo processor in his lab and wonders ‘if any of this is real’ we’re similarly confused. Glow accentuates both the craziness of the real world, and the impossibility of knowing what the real world is, which is a bit like having one’s cake and eating it. At one point Beauman writes: ‘Raf has always envied couriers for the MRI scan they take of their city, front tyres like toroid dog noses, a dead leaf’s difference in the height of a familiar kerb felt somewhere in their sinews.’ So couriers take scans with their tyres which are like noses that can smell differences in height?! That I can’t tell whether Beauman is being incompetent here or avant-garde – after all, we do sometimes think in several metaphors at once – is testament to Glow’s power to bewilder.

One side-effect of Beauman’s emphasis on the strange relationship between reality and realism is that it can make the novel seem glib. That’s a criticism that could reasonably be made of Beauman’s last two novels: The Teleportation Accident (2012) is a Holocaust novel that’s mostly about wanting to shag a girl called Adele Hitler; its predecessor, Boxer, Beetle (2010), is about an English pro-Nazi eugenicist and entomologist who discovers a beetle with swastikas on its wings and names it after Hitler. In both cases Beauman could be accused of not treating his subject with due gravity. But we know who won the war, and the Nazis have long been naturalised as a comic subject (even in Germany, where the bestselling novel of the past few years is Timur Vermes’s Look Who’s Back, in which Hitler becomes a successful stand-up comic). The brutalisation of the working class, which is what Beauman’s first non-Nazi novel is at least partially about, isn’t usually a vehicle for comedy. Things we take for granted in the West still depend on people working in slave-like conditions elsewhere, and we’ve had some uncomfortable reminders of that recently: the Marikana miners’ strike in South Africa during which 34 striking miners were shot by police; the fire at the Tazreen garment factory in Dhaka; the revelations about Thai prawn farms, which, like Lacebark, feed workers drugs to increase productivity then work them to death. Many good novels in the past few years – by Tash Aw, Aravind Adiga and Mohsin Hamid among others – have dealt with the uneasy relationship between capital, corruption and emerging economies. Next to them Glow looks inappropriately light: what are the star-nosed mole and the suffering of the Burmese miners even doing in the same book?

The writing, when Beauman is talking about the conditions at Lacebark, is urgent and intense. Cherish’s earliest memory, she tells Raf,

is the night her Uncle Chai came back to Gandayaw after six months away in the Concession and she burst into tears because he looked so much like a monster: eyes buried alive in the gloom of their own sockets, cheeks like slack grey tarpaulins, mouth turned down in a paresis of pure despair … At the Lacebark mine, you got two hours a day to eat and wash and pray and play cards, and the rest of the time you were either sleeping or working … You worked for three and a quarter hours at a time, and then unrolled your foam mattress wherever you stood and slept for 45 minutes.

But just a couple of pages earlier this scene has taken place:

When Cherish climbed off Raf for the second time, he just knotted the condom and left it on the floor by the bed, which was a serious error … Rose [a dog] scurries into the bedroom, and before Raf can stop her she has found the condom, gulped it down with an actual gulp and escaped triumphantly into the hall.

‘Actual gulp’: gross. Beauman keeps feeding us one drug, only to feed us almost immediately with another with the opposite effect. Maybe he’s problematising realism again: the world’s tone isn’t consistent and most novels falsify this aspect of reality in a way that Glow, with its sudden switches, perhaps doesn’t. But that doesn’t mean the sombre bits don’t make the jokes a little, um, difficult to swallow. There’s a bit in The Teleportation Accident in which the main character, an Expressionist set designer called Loeser, has an argument with a director called Blumstein about whether the theatre should respond to the Nazis’ anti-Semitism, or whether ‘when the atmosphere of Berlin is even more polluted with political talk than ever,’ as Loeser puts it, ‘we ought to give our audience a few breaths of clean air.’ Glow reads at times like it’s written by an author with Blumstein’s sense of obligation but Loeser’s instincts. It doesn’t help that it’s structured like a Famous Five novel: a bunch of kids, including one tomboy, Cherish, take on the crooked grown-up world and (sort of) win. They even have a dog.

To succeed, Glow needed to be much more serious, or much funnier. One reason The Teleportation Accident gets away with it is that it’s hilarious. There are bits that can make you laugh months after reading it. The bit, for instance, when Loeser is roped into sewing a lychee onto the neck of a wealthy American woman who believes the lychee is a monkey testicle that’s going to rejuvenate her. Or the bit when Loeser stages an Expressionist version of a Christmas play called The Snowflake at the California Institute of Technology, and Adele Hitler appears onstage in a ‘tight black gown with a sort of asymmetrical cheongsam collar and spiky shoulders’ to deliver the line: ‘Look Grandma, I caught a snowflake in my hand and it isn’t melting.’ When she makes a wish for her parents to find the money to buy medicine for their dog a light comes on ‘revealing the huge aluminium model of a dog’s skull, ferocious jaws agape, that was suspended on chains from the ceiling to represent the family’s ailing pet’. Glow has nothing like these wonderful comic setpieces.

It also squanders Beauman’s gift for literary pastiche. Some of the best characters in his two previous books are other books. Boxer, Beetle has the eugenicist entomologist’s 998-page Pangaean Grammar and Lexicon (Pangaean is a universal language, à la Esperanto). The Teleportation Accident has the self-help book Dames! and How to Lay Them:

Want to impress a dame the morning after the night before? Run to the kitchen while she’s still snoozing fit to bust, and come back with what I like to call the Egg Majestique. That’s one of every type of egg on a tray: a soft-boiled egg, a hard-boiled egg, an egg over easy, an egg sunny side up, a poached egg, a devilled egg, a pickled egg, a coddled egg, a scrambled egg, a one-egg omelette, and a shot of egg nog for the hangover.

What’s clever about Dames! is that it turns out to have been written by the conman who worked the lychee scam. In other words, it’s an impersonation by Beauman of an imaginary conman’s impersonation of a self-help book, and the register somehow manages to capture this double fold of fakery. Lacunosities could have provided opportunities for similar tonal experiments – postmodern theory being eminently satirisible – but they’re not taken up. Beauman’s best feats of ventriloquism in Glow come with the online drugs forum Lotophage, on which underground neurochemists swap tips: ‘the heterocyclic ring doesn’t allow the tertiary amine to be metabolised into a secondary amine.’ (Here, as Raf points out, ‘pleasure is always hidden behind words like “potency” and “recreational dosage”’: as with novels, adverts and drugs, reality is obscured by its mode of presentation.)

Indeed, Glow is generally less ‘textual’ than its predecessors. There’s hardly a sentence, or an idea, in The Teleportation Accident that doesn’t seem teleported in from Pynchon, Lovecraft, Isherwood, noir, self-help etc. Part of the pleasure of reading it lies in Beauman’s manic suturing of diverse influences. It’s a whirling, giddy composite. Glow occasionally nods at other books – Win tells people on Lotophage that if they want to understand the chemistry of Glow the drug, ‘all you bitches need to read L’Amour médecin’; he also drops a hint as to Glow’s secret ingredient by referring to Linnaeus’s Horologium Florae, a clock that tells the time by means of flowers that open at different times of day – but for the most part wears its relationship to texts outside itself lightly. The exception is Nostromo, which as both a totemic work of not-quite realism and the best novel ever about mining, hangs over Beauman’s book like a monitory cloud. The novels’ stories mirror each other: Raf is ultimately put off the Burmese resistance and realises he has to act in accordance with his own view of the world, not theirs; the moral of Nostromo, if it can be said to have anything as primitive as a moral, is that ideology is, or can be, a tool used by individuals for their own ends – Nostromo, like Raf, ends up doing his own thing. But crimes are still crimes. At the beginning of Glow, Beauman quotes a chunk of Nostromo in which Charles Gould tells himself one of capitalism’s most infamous lies: ‘Your money-making is justified here … because the security which it demands must be shared with an oppressed people. A better justice will come afterwards.’ Countless Economist editorials justifying exploitation as a phase on the way to economic empowerment have said the same thing. But the novel fails to address satisfactorily the issues the quote introduces: it’s so dazzled by the world’s strangeness, and the problems with recording it, that the issues fade into the background.

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Vol. 36 No. 16 · 21 August 2014

I was pleased to see the mention of the star-nosed mole in Nick Richardson’s review of Ned Beauman’s latest novel (LRB, 17 July). Richardson informs us that this marvellous creature ‘can smell underwater’. True, but not thanks to the ‘nose’ that gives it its name. The 22 fleshy appendages that protrude from the mole’s face are not an olfactory organ at all, but a skin surface containing more than 100,000 sensory neurons – it’s the most acute touch organ of any mammal on the planet and about six times more sensitive than the human hand. In order to ‘smell’ underwater – a phenomenon long thought impossible in mammals – the mole exhales air bubbles over objects then reinhales them, allowing odorant molecules in the bubbles to pass over the olfactory receptors.

Sarah Murray

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