Helter-skelter trip into dystopia, with wit and whimsy
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