A Review of Ned Beauman’s “very internety” thriller Glow
By Timothy Kennett.
Ned Beauman, Glow (Sceptre, 2014)
I am young enough that I can only vaguely remember life before I had a computer and the internet. I am also young enough to be exasperated by the failure of many people older than me to really understand the internet, and by the consequent failure of many people older than me to write about the internet well, or at all. There is a moment, for example, in Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch where the hero (who is meant to be in his early-twenties: i.e., young and of the internet age, however strange his upbringing might have been) wants to read some news stories in a Dutch newspaper, but can’t speak Dutch, and I sat there wondering why he didn’t use the Google Translate app on his iPhone. I can’t help but suspect that someone younger than Tartt wouldn’t have written that scene.
Ned Beauman is younger than Donna Tartt. He gets included on lists like “the best young novelists under forty,” the existence of said lists perhaps a partial explanation of why literary fiction in general hasn’t quite caught up with internet use: young, aspiring novelists under forty are still way too old to have grown up online, whereas mature, successful, well-lauded novelists are well into middle-age, and probably remember using (or still use) typewriters and pens. So Ned Beauman is young, and he has described his latest novel, Glow, as “very internety in some ways.”
Glow doesn’t immediately seem “very internety.” The plot follows a guy called Raf—“he mispronounced Raf’s name, with a long vowel instead of a short one […] people often guess it’s either Mediterranean or Sloaney, when in fact there’s nothing but south London in his family for a long time back”—who has a 25-hour circadian rhythm, a job looking after a guard dog at a South London pirate radio station and a crush on a half-Burmese girl he met at a rave in a launderette. Raf’s pirate radio boss, also a friend, goes missing, smuggled into the back of a white van which doesn’t make any noise, and Raf begins to look for him. He meets the half-Burmese girl again; she too is on the verge of being abducted and thrown into the back of a white van. Raf uncovers a plot hatched by an international mining company named Lacebark that seems to involve, amongst other things, attacking London’s Burmese migrant community, taking over the pirate radio station Raf works for, worrying about urban foxes and constructing London-imitating training centres. The conspiracy, without giving too much away—partly because Beauman asked reviewers not to, and partly because one of the primary pleasures of reading Glow is seeing things get improbably connected—seems to involve a new designer drug called “glow,” which no one in the novel (excluding in one flashback scene) actually manages to take, a drug that is “a lot like MDMA. But it lasts longer and it’s a lot more…Don’t ask me what the word is. And it does things to the light. […] Any electric light you look at, you see this…I don’t know. But you can’t look away. Once I saw a guy in the street outside a party just standing there watching the traffic lights change like it was the most spectacular thing he’d ever seen.”
Drugs, mines, immigrants, pirate radio, Camberwell and Peckham: not “very internet” so far. But the novel is definitely internety, even if it is not explicitly about the internet in the way that, say, Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge is about the internet. Most obviously, various internety things are used to advance the plot, or just appear where one would naturally expect them to appear given that the characters all live in London in 2010 and are mostly in their twenties. Intelligence is gathered on Google Maps, clues arrive via mysterious YouTube videos, and thoughtless email forwarding leaves sensitive corporate information exposed; drug research and drug connections are made on an online drug forum, with some impeccable imitations of the kind of informal, swear-ridden, posturing and diatribe-laden posts found on such specialised message boards:
you think glow might feel like that ‘because’ the dopamine/noradrenaline balance different??? […] what the fuck you think you mean by ‘because’?! all you bitches need to read L’Amour Médecin by Molière […] no explanatory power, no predictive power, no falsifiability…no real theory. there are >100 neurotransmitters in the brain. we don’t know shit about what most of them do. dopamine used to get all the research funding. now oxytocin. Soon octopamine/enkephalin/substance P/something else. when we still so ignorant, none of this has any meaning!!”
So the internet is undeniably present in the novel, as it is in many novels that aren’t particularly internety, like when Chip Lambert sends emails from Lithuania in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, an author who seems to hate the internet in a sort of vague, ill-informed way, and may therefore not be the best possible model for an internety novel. There are other models for fiction that tries to be in some way mimetic of the internet, particularly some of the long, detail-stuffed, anxious fiction of the second half of the twentieth century, like Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, Don DeLillo’s Underworld and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. These works all predate ubiquitous internet use, but they share some qualities that are commonly identified as internety: they are digressive, they are baggy, they are non-linear and often confusing, they mix registers and tones and slangs and technical information, they mess with space and time. Beauman is clearly influenced by all these authors. He shares their interest in the novel’s capacity for encyclopedic reference: his first novel, Boxer, Beetle (2010) was about boxing, eugenics, beetles and town planning, and his second, The Teleportation Accident (2012), about Nazism, sixteenth-century stagecraft and contemporary East London. Both his previous novels have been largely historical, and in doing so have followed Pynchon (particularly Mason & Dixon) in deconstructing the notion of accurate historical novels. They are full of detail and are deliberately unconvincing; they play games with representation and fictionality that recall Wallace’s “Good Old Neon”. There is a character in The Teleportation Accident who suffers from a condition that prevents him from distinguishing between representations and reality, and, as a result, he is rumoured to have collected the largest collection of pornography in the world.
Beauman’s books, however, and Glow in particular, do not follow their models to the letter. For one thing, Glow is very short. For another, it is very easy to read, relying heavily on plot and a linear sequence of events. Glow is not a maximalist postmodern masterpiece; Glow is a thriller.
Beauman has explained his decision to write a thriller in a rather revealing way: “I wanted to write about both pirate radio and resource extraction in the Golden Triangle, and I had to find a way to connect them. The clear solution was the drug trade. And the rest of the plot emerged from that triad.” Or, in other words, the plot is a way of linking together different elements of Beauman’s interest and research into a coherent and readable form. Beauman also wanted to write about urban foxes, which he considers integral to the South London experience: “I needed a way for foxes to be involved and then I thought of that Civet thing.” What the “Civet thing” is will make sense after you’ve read the book, but for the purposes of my argument here, it is a way of forging a link between different elements Beauman wanted to include. The discovery of the fact that the foxes link two ideas that previously seemed unrelated ties all of these things together into the larger theme of writing about south London.
Beauman is excellent at making such links; indeed, the more I read his writing, the more I think that creating unexpected links is its most central appeal. It occurs not just on the structural level, where pirate radio, resource extraction, the drug trade and foxes come together, but at the sentence-by-sentence level of his style. Critics often comment on Beauman’s fairly flamboyant use of imagery, sometimes praising it for its creativity and grace, and sometimes criticising it for being a distraction, a digression or a way of merely showing off. The following is a fairly representative example of Beauman’s prose from Glow: Raf had “always hoped his syndrome [the 25 hour circadian rhythm thing] might turn out to be not only a bug in his programming but also, in some contexts, a superpower. […] He’s like Monet, who apparently gained the ability to see ultraviolet light after he had cataract surgery, if Monet had lived in a world with no known sources of ultraviolet light. That’s not much of a superpower.” Here, Beauman links together superpowers, computer programs, bizarre medical conditions, the theme of light and being somehow able to see invisible light, all of which recur throughout the novel, as well as this great internety factlet about Monet. Beauman’s imagery is here something like a series of curated prose hyperlinks, each leading to something interesting and semi-related; his plots are structured like wikiholes, down which the reader obligingly and rapidly tumbles.
Beauman has been criticised for this tendency. Carl Wilkinson, reviewing Glow in the Financial Times, for example, complains: “The novel is at times too fact-packed, too much of a clever exercise in finding connections between disparate scraps of knowledge.” Such criticism suggests that there are other things the novel should be doing beyond connecting disparate scraps of knowledge. Perhaps this is true, depending on your idea of what the point of novels is. From my perspective, this kind of synthetic creativity is exciting: this is a glimpse of what a kind of post-internet fiction can look like. David Auerbach, in his review of Bleeding Edge, notices that “the information age has seemingly put the cosmic scope of Mr. Pynchon’s other novels within the perspective of one person, information blasted at a person’s pupils at a rate exponentially greater than could have been experienced a century ago.” Thus is Auerbach’s explanation of the structural shift from the non-linear multiplicity of perspective found in Gravity’s Rainbow to the relatively linear noirish plot of Bleeding Edge – which can perhap explains Beauman’s own structural focus in Glow, a novel that uses but also deconstructs the genre of a linear thriller.
Most people, when they discuss the internet, agree that it is vast and full of information and endless noise. One of the challenges every internet user faces is figuring out how to navigate the internet, how to sort desirable information from the noise and the spam and the trolling and the advertising and all the other undesirable things. In the elegant, hurtling, hyperlinked linearity of Glow, Beauman proposes a path that is digressive and hyper-connected but, because of the clue of the novel’s compelling plot, never labyrinthine. We’ll have to see who follows both Beauman’s path as well as his lead.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Timothy Kennett writes and lives in London.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, December 5th, 2014.