Ned Beauman is one of those rare novelists who can dream up intricate, incongruous plots, pepper them with historical facts, whip in biting British humor, and just like that — they become almost believable.
Not quite 30, this British Bright Young Thing's first two novels, "Boxer, Beetle" and "The Teleportation Accident," were set in the tumultuous 1930s, and both involved sinister Nazi-inspired subtexts, which served Beauman's satirical ear for dialogue, arcane trivia and caustic witticism well. Both garnered awards, with "The Teleportation Accident" landing on the Man Booker Prize long list.
Beauman's third novel, "Glow," takes place closer to the present (2010-11) and is grounded in the contemporary youth culture of London. Raf, the book's likable hero/protagonist, is a programmer who works at a hipster radio station ("Myth FM") and ruminates about the world around him, usually with Rose, his bull terrier (who enjoys eating used condoms) by his side.
"Glow's" thriller-styled plot centers on a sinister Enron-like multinational mining company called Lacebark that, via poor management, gets into a CIA-narco clandestine business to retain the support of its shareholders. This new endeavor involves the closely guarded secret behind the production of a powdered drug called Glow — "a mixture of speed, monosodium glutamate and an experimental anxiety disorder medication for dogs."
Raf wants to get his hands on this new drug to help combat his unusual neurological sleep disorder, which he remedies by self-medicating on synthetic drugs bought at South London raves in empty warehouses and laundromats.
It's at a rave, in the book's opening scene, where Raf meets Cherish, a Burmese American girl who becomes his love interest and, eventually, chief rival, but not before transforming into a mysterious femme fatale. Cherish is not exactly who she appears to be; neither are any of the characters you meet in the book except Raf's friend and drug dealer, Isaac, and, of course, Raf himself. He is the reliable narrator — philosophical but shrewd and often witty to a fault.
The plot thickens, mushrooming into a chess match of Raymond Chandler-esque twists and turns, reminiscent of the early Franco-Rogan vehicle "Pineapple Express" via a "Mission Impossible" script written by Evelyn Waugh. There is a slacker chic quality about Raf, who tries to understand the science behind the synthetic drugs wreaking havoc on London while at the same time indulging in them himself.
Then there's Lacebark, the vehicle for Beauman's jaundiced view of global capitalism. Trying to explain why the company has swapped mining natural resources in Third World countries for designer drugs, Cherish tells Raf, "You know what 3M stands for? The Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing Co. They used to mine aluminum oxide. They make a lot more money now selling Post-it Notes and Scotch tape. That's why Lacebark wants to start manufacturing glow."
Beauman's version of international conspiracy makes the U.S. and Britain's foray into 21st century surveillance more frightening than funny, even if we're laughing at the idea that fox excrement is integral to the process of making glow, the drug.
"Glow" takes places in just under two weeks' time and reads at a breakneck pace of a who-done-it potboiler — albeit a virtuosic, unconventional one.
Gabel is a writer, editor and small publisher living in Los Angeles.
Alfred A. Knopf: 256pp., $25.95