Hel­ter-skel­ter trip into dystopia, with wit and whimsy

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ge­ordie Wil­liamson

Glow By Ned Bau­man Ha­chette, 259pp, $29.99 IF you have ever been cu­ri­ous about recre­ational drugs but were too sen­si­ble, timid or gen­er­ally up­stand­ing to take them, Ned Bau­man’s new novel is the clos­est you will get to a le­gal high. Glow is a thriller of sorts, a lurid fic­tional in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the ever tighter grip transna­tional cor­po­ra­tions hold over in­di­vid­ual lives. It is also a vi­car­i­ous trip into the realm of al­tered senses.

If, as con­tem­po­rary sci­ence holds, we are lumps of meat an­i­mated by neu­ro­trans­mit­ters, then sight and taste, pas­sions and emo­tions, cal­cu­la­tion and judg­ment, the tex­ture of our ev­ery thought is chem­i­cally gov­erned. It turns out that the ghost in the ma­chine is a drug fiend.

Bau­man has ev­i­dently done his re­search. There is barely a char­ac­ter in Glow who doesn’t

June 14-15, 2014 know their oxy­tocin from their pro­lactin, or re­fuses the lat­est phenylethy­lamine-based party trick, or fails to ca­su­ally name-check syn­thetic opi­oids a thou­sand times stronger than mor­phine. But this is South Lon­don in the near present, a gen­er­a­tion af­ter rave cul­ture be­gan in Bri­tain and spread around the world fu­elled by ec­stasy and techno, and il­le­gal par­ties held for days at a time in aban­doned fac­to­ries or air­craft hangars. It is not just a rite of pas­sage to be drug savvy, it is a cul­tural in­her­i­tance.

Things have changed in the in­ter­ven­ing quar­ter of a century, how­ever. Bau­man’s wouldbe hero, Raf, a young man with a bro­ken heart (his last girl­friend ran off with an­other bloke) and a rare sleep dis­or­der that has shunted his cir­ca­dian rhythms out of sync with the rest of us, has ar­rived at the scene too late. There are no cracks or crevices left in Lon­don’s in­creas­ingly ex­pen­sive ur­ban fab­ric, and these days Raf’s best friend Isaac is obliged to hold dance par­ties in rented laun­derettes. In­deed this is the venue of our first en­counter with Raf, when a tem­po­rary break-down in the drug sup­ply chain means that he is re­duced to sam­pling a sub­stance first de­signed as an anti-anx­i­ety med­i­ca­tion for dogs. The only uptick in these open­ing pages is his chance hookup by an over­sized tum­ble-drier with a beau­ti­ful Burmese girl named Cher­ish.

It is a meet­ing that kicks off a nar­ra­tive of un­usual com­plex­ity and global scope, in­volv­ing a Western min­ing multi­na­tional mov­ing into the il­le­gal drug trade af­ter catch­ing wind of a new nar­cotic named “Glow”, the forced takeover of a Cam­ber­well-based pirate ra­dio sta­tion, and the dis­ap­pear­ance of Burmese na­tion­als from Lon­don’s streets at just the mo­ment when skulks of foxes ex­hibit­ing un­canny in­tel­li­gence and guile be­gin to ap­pear in them. The plot is held to­gether with crazy glue, ad­mit­tedly, but the com­bi­na­tion of post­mod­ern whimsy and real-world com­pas­sion that in­formed Bau­man’s well-re­ceived pre­vi­ous fic­tions, Boxer, Bea­tle and The Tele­por­ta­tion Ac­ci­dent re­main in ev­i­dence.

This in­cludes Bau­man’s ap­par­ently fath­om­less abil­ity to gen­er­ate sim­ile and metaphor. A few dis­carded choco­late wrap­pers in a park look to Raf “as if they know deep down that they can’t biode­grade but are do­ing their best any­way just to fit in”. Of some par­tic­u­larly de­grad­ing pornog­ra­phy made in South­east Asia, one char­ac­ter cyn­i­cally ob­serves: “You could make a lot of money from the ar­bi­trage of sex­ual dig­nity.” And then there is Bezant, an Aus­tralian mer­ce­nary cum fixer em­ployed by a multi­na­tional called Lace­bark, the vil­lains of the piece, of whom the au­thor writes: “When com­pared to the three big body­guards, this man was a pil­lar of tung­sten and steaks, and he would have made any nor­mal prod­uct of the hu­man geno­type feel like a fid­dly new model that had been minia­turised by some clever Ja­panese com­pany to fit bet­ter in the hand­bags of teenage girls.” Hu­mour, world­li­ness, wonk­ish­ness, faint sur­re­al­ity: such are the base com­po­nents of Bau­man’s prose.

Glow also shares with its pre­cur­sor fic­tions a dis­cur­sive streak: it leaps from idea to idea like moun­tain goat ne­go­ti­at­ing a 60- de­gree in­cline. Read­ers are treated to es­says on the cul­tural and neu­ro­log­i­cal grounds of hu­man sleep, the

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