The award-winning novelist jumps down the drugged-up south London rabbit hole for his third book
What’s the right term for the vulpine equivalent of a shaggy dog story? It doesn’t matter, really – the idea is pretty clear: it’s sleeker, smarter and twitchier than its bad-breathed, slow-witted, drool-prone cousin. Ned Beauman’s third novel, Glow, is the prime example.
Sure, in reality – so to speak – it hops more continents than his last, and it’s just as complex and equally bewildering at times. But it’s also totally familiar: all the corporate politics, neurochemistry and cloak and dagger stuff (all of which abound en masse) are grounded by pirate radio, narcotic experimentation, raves in abandoned warehouses (and laundrettes: see below), poorly-spelled restaurant signage and ultra-confident foxes riding the night bus. Down the South London rabbit hole.
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 aplastic 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?’ ‘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 thatthe 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.
‘Shyness, basically.’ 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 labora- tory 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.
‘No.’ But there’s no way Raf is going to leave it at that. He’s hadgirls 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 bottleany 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.