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From one of England’s most accomplished young writers: a taut, riveting, compulsively readable novel in which a young man (with a bizarre sleep disorder) uncovers the connections between foxes behaving oddly in London, Burmese people going missing, and glow, the newest recreational drug.
South London, May 2010: twenty-two-year-old Raf spends his days looking after Rose, a bull terrier who guards the transmitters for a pirate radio station, and his nights at raves in dingy warehouses and launderettes, where he first hears about the mysterious glow. When a good friend disappears without a trace, Raf’s efforts to find him will lead gradually and then suddenly right into the thick of a massive corporate conspiracy. And along the way, he falls in love with a stunningly beautiful young woman, only to discover that there is far more to Cherish than meets the eye.
Combining the pace, drama, and explosive plot twists of a thriller with his trademark intellectual, linguistic, and comedic pyrotechnics, Glow is Ned Beauman’s most compelling and virtuosic novel yet.
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Ned Beauman was born in London in 1985 and studied philosophy at the University of Cambridge. His frst novel, Boxer, Beetle, won the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain Award and the Goldberg Prize; his second, The Teleportation Accident, was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize and won the Encore Award and the Somerset Maugham Award. In 2013, he was the youngest on Granta’s once-a-decade list of the Best Young British Novelists.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Beauman / GLOW
When he first sees her, Raf is sitting on a washing machine about to swallow an eighth of a gram of what is apparently a mixture of speed, monosodium glutamate, and an experimental social anxiety disorder medication for dogs. That, anyway, is what it sounded like Isaac told him, but the music in the laundrette is pretty loud and he wonders if he might have misheard. The powder has been divided between two cigarette papers and then the cigarette papers have been folded up and twisted to make those tight sealed parcels that always remind him of pork wontons, and Isaac has already gulped down his wonton, but Raf still has his in his hand, because he can’t stop staring at the girl by the door. She’s half white and half something else, maybe half Thai; and she has one of those faces where the entire bone structure seems to ramify from the cheekbones in such a way that the result looks like a 3D computer graphic from the eighties because it’s composed of such an economical number of sharp, flat planes, except that the angles are confused here by strands of long black hair escaping from where she’s pinned the rest of it up at the back of her head; and she has a small mouth folded towards a natural semi-pout that must be a good shape for when she’s pretending to disapprove of something while trying not to laugh; and she’s wearing a black hoodie unzipped over a slouchy grey vest. There are about sixty people dancing in the corridor of space between Raf and this girl, like a rush-hour Tube carriage that’s learned to vibrate to a determinate rhythm, and he considers pushing through them all to talk to her—“Will you immediately become my wife?”—but then Isaac knocks him on the arm with a plastic water bottle to hurry him up. Without breaking surveillance, he takes the bottle, puts the wonton in his mouth, washes it down with a gulp of water, and leans over to shout in Isaac’s ear, “What did you say was in this?”
“What did you say was in this?”
“Speed, monosodium glutamate, and an experimental social anxiety disorder medication for dogs.”
“What’s social anxiety disorder?”
The sound system isn’t even that loud but the room’s so small that the treble pushes at the sides like a fat toddler stuffed into a car seat. “What’s social anxiety disorder?”
“I can’t hear you. Come outside.”
Raf reluctantly follows Isaac out into the little paved yard behind the laundrette where a few people are chatting and smoking. Upside down in the corner is 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.
“What’s social anxiety disorder?” Raf says again. From here he can’t see the girl.
In recent years, Isaac explains, a lot of American vets have started to diagnose the condition in pet dogs, and as a result a range of competing psychiatric prescriptions have now been brought to market. As for the rest of the mixture, he has no explanation for the monosodium glutamate, unless that’s just to bulk it out, although in that case it’s difficult to say why, out of all the available inert white powders, the manufacturers have chosen to use monosodium glutamate in particular. (Raf almost wonders if it could be a joke about the wontons.) And it has some speed in it because everything has some speed in it.
“What’s it going to do?” Raf says.
“It’s like really bad ecstasy.”
For a long time Raf had thought of ecstasy as a substance so synthetic it was almost a pure abstraction, so it surprised him to learn from Isaac last month that the reason there’s no good ecstasy in London at the moment is that two hundred and fifty drums of sassafras oil, which in the old days was thought to cure syphilis, were confiscated at a port in Thailand. To find out that ecstasy—like cocaine, like opium, like marijuana—comes from a plant that grew in the ground is to find out that angels have belly buttons. (Speed, by contrast, is made out of ephedrine, which can be extracted from certain shrubs but nowadays is almost always made out of laboratory chemicals instead, so like some theorem in vector algebra the drug owes nothing to the outside world, unless you followed the chain all the way back to the hydrocarbons they take out of crude oil.) Strange, too, to think of the million flirtations that won’t be consummated, the million dawns that won’t be watched, the million comedowns that won’t be endured just because a guy in Laem Chabang neglected to pay a bribe or another guy refused to take one. No politician at a WTO conference ever had so much power. The drug trade, Isaac told him, is the first globalisation of the emotional life.
“When is there going to be good ecstasy again?” Raf says.
“Maybe never,” says Isaac. “We need to get hold of some glow.”
“You know, that new stuff. Barky said it was the best thing he’d ever taken. Ever in his whole life.”
“Does he still have any?”
“I think so.”
“Is he coming here?”
Isaac shrugs. “His phone’s off.”
The reason the owners of this laundrette are allowing a small rave to take place here tonight is so they can sell drugs to the crowd, but all they have is cocaine, ketamine, and a new ecstasy understudy called ethylbuphedrone that you can buy legally over the internet from laboratories in China, none of which are of any interest to Raf. Looking around, he feels, not for the first time, a mild bitterness that he wasn’t born twenty years earlier, when a night out would have been all about snowy Dutch MDMA in a giant import warehouse near the M11, a drug culture so good that people wrote memoirs about it, instead of these self-administered double-blind trials in a twenty-square-metre urban utility. How was London reduced to this?
Quite soon, Isaac follows him back inside, and Raf sees that a boy and a girl have stripped down to their underwear and climbed inside one of the big spin-dryers to kiss, their skinny limbs struggling for purchase on the inside of the drum like test subjects in some astronautical study of the sexual possibilities of small cylindrical spaces. They, at least, have taken something good, or maybe not something good but at least something they’ve never taken before. The DJ is playing a track that Raf has heard on Myth FM a lot. He climbs up on top of the dryer, above the perspiration troposphere, to look around for the girl from before, but he can’t see her anywhere so he just stays up there to dance.
When Barky does arrive he still wears flecks of shaving foam on both ear lobes like little pearl studs, so maybe, like Raf, he got out of bed only a short while ago. In his wallet there are three more wontons wrapped up in a shred of orange supermarket bag, one dose of glow for each of them. About half an hour after Raf took that previous compound, he started to feel a change, but so weakly that he wasn’t even sure, like when you go into a room and you think you can feel a cold draught but no windows are open and it might just be your imagination. Then it was gone again. So he’s excited about trying Barky’s novelty, and he’s about to swallow some and get back up on the dryer when he feels a touch on his arm. He turns.
It’s that same girl.
She leans to talk into his ear and he watches a soft shine skate across the film of sweat on her clavicle.
“What is that?” she says, which is a lot better than the expected “Why were you staring at me like a psycho before?” She must have seen him take the wonton from Barky.
“Glow,” he says.
“Is your friend selling it?” She has an American accent.
But there’s no way Raf is going to leave it at that. He’s had girls flirt with him just for drugs before, of course, and maybe that’s what she’s doing, but in that case she doesn’t know the rules, because there’s no empty smile, no hand alighting provisionally on the small of his back. Plus, what if she is? He once slept with an Icelandic girl he met like that at a party. So he hopes he’s not being a total dupe when he says, “Do you want some?”
Now she does smile. “No, that’s OK.”
But he takes her hand and presses the wonton into it. “I’ve heard this stuff is amazing.”
Should he suggest they go outside so they can hear each other? No, not yet. “What’s your name?”
“Cherish,” she says, or that’s what it sounds like. Is that a name? “What’s yours?”
“Do you have any water?”
“Just a second.”
He turns to Isaac, but he doesn’t have the bottle any more, and Barky doesn’t have one either. Raf thought he saw a half-empty lemonade up on one of the washing machines, but he can’t see it now. And when he turns back, the girl has vanished again, like the ambiguous chill of the pedigree psychotropic. He asks Isaac and Barky where she went, but neither of them were watching. And Barky doesn’t have any more glow to spare.
Raf stumbles out of the laundrette to find himself engulfed in flowers. It’s as if some phenomenological anode inside him has been swapped with its cathode, so that every sensation is replaced by another of exactly inverse quality and equal intensity: petals for skin, perfume for sweat, cold for heat, silence for noise, anthocyanins for disco lights. Only after a moment does he realise that on Saturdays there’s a flower market on this road, so they’re unloading the tulips and daffodils—and sure enough, just at that moment the silence is broken by the trundling of a steel trolley as it comes down a ramp behind him. He breathes in deeply and then walks on down the road to the bus stop where he can catch his night bus.
Isaac and Barky have already left the rave. For a while, they said they weren’t feeling anything from the glow, and Barky also had a gram of ethylbuphedrone, so they all resorted to dabbing some on their gums, which always reminds Raf of rubbing salt and pepper into a flank steak. But then straight after that, too soon for it to be the ethylbuphedrone, the other two had run out into the yard and started vomiting ballistically over the concrete. Between spasms, Barky said the glow they’d taken must have been fake. It occurred to Raf that if he hadn’t even heard of glow until tonight, and yet some opportunist was already selling a fake version, he must be badly behind the times. And then he realised with horror that somewhere the American girl was probably throwing up too because of drugs he’d pushed on her, and she only had about half Barky’s body mass, so a poison could kick her twice as far. Even if he ever found Cherish again, she’d never want to speak to him.
Now, coming down from the ethylbuphedrone, Raf just feels bleached and fidgety, and he decides he probably didn’t have a chance with her anyway. When the bus finally arrives, its windows are bright like a goods vehicle hauling not flowers to market but bulk photons. He gets on, nods to the driver, beeps his Oyster card, and climbs the spiral staircase up to the top deck. What he sees there startles him so much that he forgets to hold on to the vertical handrail, so when the bus halts at a junction he nearly topples forward.
A fox sits there, about six rows back. Every hair in its orange coat burns with a separate flame, and the reflection of a street light outside the window is curled up inside each of its round black eyes like a pale girl in a spin-dryer. Raf has never noticed before that the white fur of a fox’s snout and belly is sprinkled over its eyes, too, to make two oversized brows, and as it considers him this one wears an expression of detached scientific interest. The animal couldn’t have got past the driver, he thinks, so it must have jumped on at the exit doors when someone got off. As the bus accelerates again, he sits down, and the fox turns from him to look out of the window. A scent reaches Raf’s nose, muddy and petroleous, a savage hydrocarbon with no derivatives. No other passengers get on, and when the automatic loudspeaker announces in her broken diction that they’ve arrived at Camberwell Green, the fox jumps to the floor and trots downstairs to disembark.
For the first six months that he lived in his current flat, Raf honestly believed that the corner shop at the end of his street was run by one Iranian guy who worked twenty-two or twenty-three hours a day. He’s been in there at every time there is, and it’s always the same face at the till just like it’s always Al-Jazeera playing on the TV fixed to the wall over the wine gums. Raf did introduce himself once, but the next time he went in the guy didn’t even acknowledge their new familiarity. Then about a week later he glanced inside on his way past and he saw both owners arguing about something. Like a twist from a bad murder mystery, they were twin brothers. Today, Raf buys three bananas and a carton of orange juice, enjoying the careful, almost clerical way the guy at the counter wets the tip of his middle finger on a soggy foam pad like a prosthetic gland to help peel open the plastic bag; and then Raf walks down to his block of flats, where an old stained mattress leans against the wall by the entrance, ready for rubbish collection the following week. The number of mattresses people leave out here every month seems wildly out of proportion to the human capacity of the building, like the waste product of some secret industrial process.
Even if it weren’t for the drugs, he knows he wouldn’t be able to sleep for another nine or ten hours, but he’s so worn out that he gets into bed for a while anyway. The heavy black curtains are still closed from when he got up around eleven, so the room is in total darkness except for the red LED on his stereo, and around him are all the paraphernalia of his malady: eyemask, acoustic earmuffs, white noise machine, and about two dozen soiled earplugs scattered under the bed like the droppings of a hamster that eats only packaging foam.
The name of Raf’s condition is non-24-hour sleep/wake syndrome. He was sixteen when he started to notice that his sleep patterns were even more fucked up than the average teenager’s, but it took four different doctors before he got his diagnosis. In a healthy brain, your eyes tell your hypothalamus when it gets dark and when it gets light, your hypothalamus tells your pineal gland when to secrete melatonin, and the melatonin makes you fall asleep at about the same time every day. The normal human circadian rhythm is set at twenty-four hours to match one full rotation of the earth. But Raf’s is set at about twenty-five hours. It’s like his brain is wearing a novelty watch.
Most people who have non-24-hour sleep/wake syndrome have it because they’re blind, so their hypothalamus never finds out where the sun is. But with Raf it must be something else, and no blood test or EEG has ever been able to determine exactly what. Serotonin is the precursor, the sassafras oil, of melatonin, so it could be that he has a mutation in the genes that make the enzymes convert one to the other, although that would imply that he has a lot of excess serotonin sloshing around in his brain, which is the same thing that happens when you take MDMA, and it’s not as if he feels euphoric all the time. It could also be that something’s awry in his suprachiasmatic nucleus, an office of his hypothalamus the size of a grain of rice.
Whatever the cause, the effect is that each morning he slips one more hour out of sync with the rest of the world, as if he’s taking a short westbound flight every day of his life without ever leaving London. At the beg...
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