The World as Conspiracy Machine: Glow by Ned Beauman

“Have you ever had real glow?” asks Raf, the 22-year-old male protagonist in Ned Beauman’s novel Glow. The title refers to a new party drug permeating London’s underground rave scene, an arrival that suspiciously coincides with a shortage of ecstasy in the city. Haunting the characters throughout Glow is the idea that nothing in their world is mere coincidence.

For example: Raf asks the above question to a young woman named Cherish, the morning after he rescues her from a group of masked men pulling her into a white van. Cherish only appears in Raf’s periphery because they had met the previous week — at a rave in a launderette — and Raf only recognizes the scene’s imminent danger because his friend Theo had been abducted in precisely the same way.

Page-by-page, such strange associations begin to pile up, infiltrating the world of South London. Even before these string of events, conspiracy colors Raf’s perception, invoking suspicion into otherwise mundane observations. In one early scene, he muses that a discarded pile of mattresses might be “the waste product of some secret industrial process.” When his life finally does intersect with “real” conspiracy, he barely hesitates before plunging deeper into the mystery.

Raf and his best friend, Isaac, search through online forums and chat rooms, buried news reports and company websites, noting suspicious names and charting the locations of different people on particular dates. Cherish gradually evolves from an innocent bystander, into an oddly useful source of relevant information, and eventually into a leading suspect in their investigation.

“The world is spinning and meshing all around [us],” she tells Raf, when asked about her enigmatic childhood in a small mining town near Burma. “Even the canniest adult has to accept that for every three parts of the machinery [he or she] has learned to follow there are seven or eight farther back that she’ll never even glimpse.”

Raf and Isaac avoid involving the police, partly to protect their own illegal activities (recreational drugs and a pirate radio station called Myth FM), but mostly because the clues they uncover hint at wide-reaching corruptions that not even legal apparatuses would be capable of correcting. Global corporations appear to be tapping into illegal markets and enslaving migrant workers in an effort to bolster profit margins. Intelligence-based startups are building Big Brother-like surveillance networks and selling that power back to governments and big business.

Despite his introverted background as a suburban-raised, college dropout, EDM-obsessed freelancer, Raf proves unusually adept at tracking down suspects and converting them into valuable accomplices. For individuals so attuned to the world’s darker forces, they are surprisingly keen on confiding in strangers. Backstories are bundled up into dense flashback sequences and dropped into the narrative upon each new encounter.

“I hoped you might be candid but I never expected you to be this candid,” one character says after enduring such a monologue.

The overall plot operates at the speed and logic of a rather conventional thriller, leaning on witty and self-aware one-liners to pardon the implausibility of too many sequences. The rapid shifts in tone, the procedural pacing of the investigation, and the numerous contrived “a-ha” moments at times resemble an episode of Law & Order SVU, where the stark transitions between scenes are underscored by that ominous, slightly cartoonish, “thump thump” refrain.

Rarely do Raf’s complicated stealth efforts encounter any serious logistical hiccups. Even in the harrowing moments that follow life-or-death confrontations, neither he nor any of his partners experience a nervous breakdown or true emotional reckoning. In one scene, seconds after watching a bootleg video of five foxes brutally attacking a group of men, Isaac jokes, “we should send this to Animals Do The Funniest Things.

Psychological complexity is injected into the narrative through the characters’ eccentric and intensely technical mindsets. Raf suffers from an obscure chronic condition known as “non-24-hour sleep/wake syndrome,” and is obsessed with the various tempos of life and objects around him (including flowers, Muslim prayer times, and Maneki Neko cats). His friends and acquaintances, steeped in the world of recreational drugs — both supply-side and demand-side — cling to chemistry’s objective logic in order to make sense of their experiences. Minutes after a bout of physical intimacy, Cherish takes a swig of Raf’s cheap supermarket vodka, explaining that “if [she] drinks something neurotoxic right after [they] fuck, [she] won’t bond with [him] so much.”

Glimpses into these peculiar interior worlds illuminate the many invisible yet essential waves and frequencies on which the outside world operates: solar cycles, circadian rhythms, chemical reactions, light and radio wavelengths, the social rhythms of spiritual adherence, the flow of capital. “It seemed like a dip in the bandwidth of reality itself,” Raf says about one of his adventure’s more absurd chapters, providing a fair description for the book itself.

Glow’s corrupted reality is the grim result of technological capabilities and economic motives gone haywire. Weaved into the narrative are astute observations about the unrestrained capitalist engine, which is designed to exploit any and every arbitrage opportunity, regardless of moral considerations: “There is money to be made selling the same product at different prices to different ethnic groups according to their willingness to pay.”

In a culture born of paranoia, each person guards his or her own theory about how different parts of the world actually operate. Throughout his personal investigation, Raf uncovers a few layers of the conspiratorial forces at play, but many questions and shady characters remain lurking in the shadows. Hotly anticipated conflicts barely surface, their climactic action repressed back into an underground state, lying dormant until enough momentum is gained for another fresh upheaval.

By the book’s closing pages, the lines between “real” and “fake,” physical and virtual, nation and corporation, have all blurred so thoroughly, even the conspiracy’s central characters seem perplexed about the actual state of affairs, and what exactly has transpired. Dozens of pills later, Raf still hasn’t tried a taste of “real” glow, which grows ever more popular across the party capitals of Europe. He and Isaac continue swapping ideas and stories, speculating about what new developments might be mobilizing behind the scenes. Heeding the words of Cherish, they remain convinced there is something else going on, unseen parts spinning and meshing, somewhere farther back in the machinery.

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