After romping through 1930s Berlin and Los Angeles in “The Teleportation Accident,” Ned Beauman returns to the present day and settles down ever so slightly in his new novel. Mind you, he’s as fond of arcane information as ever. His hero, Raf, has an obscure disorder called non-24-hour sleep/wake syndrome, whose ramifications are intricately explained. We also learn a fair amount about the composition and manufacture of illegal drugs, particularly the one that gives “Glow” its title. An array of unsavory characters is after that narcotic.
Beauman’s zest for everyday comedy and a well-turned sentence is as evident as ever from the first scene. Raf exits a launderette and observes “one of those white polypropylene slatted-back chairs that colonise faster than rats, lying there in the incredulous posture of an object that is almost impossible to knock over but has nonetheless found itself knocked over.” Casual surrealism makes an early appearance, too, in the shape of a fox trotting down the spiral staircase of a double-decker bus.
Despite such playful flourishes, which Beauman’s readers expect and relish, “Glow” has a more serious tone than its predecessor, and Raf is his most fully fleshed-out protagonist. He’s attached to the real world — multi-ethnic 21st-century London — by recognizable human relationships. His affection for Theo, the missing proprietor of a local pirate radio station, puts Raf on the trail of Lacebark, a sinister American corporation. Lacebark wants to monopolize the manufacture and sale of the drug glow to disguise the fact that its international mining operations have gone bust.
Raf’s deepening feelings for Cherish provide the story’s emotional core. She’s an immigrant from Gandayaw, a Burmese village trashed by Lacebark to maximize profits from its copper and ruby mines. It also happened to be the only place on Earth where the plant glo (basis for the drug) grew — until Cherish and her brother started planting it all over south London. The siblings plan to use proceeds from the glow trade to finance a revolution against Lacebark. They’re not going to bother overthrowing Burma’s military regime, because it’s obvious who’s really in charge.
The ensuing conflict is conducted with up-to-the-minute apparatus: software that maps social networks in order to manipulate them; a high-tech training facility where assaults and abductions can be rehearsed by private companies and national armies. More conventional tools include torture and the knowing sacrifice of innocent lives to serve strategic ends. No one but Raf is surprised that the putative good guys are as willing as their enemies to employ these devices.
Although the product of Beauman’s unique sensibility, “Glow” also is surprisingly close to a conventional thriller. Its baroque plot is carefully constructed right down to an ambiguous resolution that doles out minimal justice while making it clear that the corrupt world order is unchanged. And the novel has a warmth, particularly in the person of good-hearted, loose-living Raf, that marks a pleasing development in the career of this wildly talented young writer.
Wendy Smith frequently reviews books for The Washington Post.
By Ned Beauman
Knopf. 247 pp. $25.95