By Ned Beauman

It’s often been said that there’s something vegetable about culture, and that literature can only flourish where it has roots in a particular place. But hasn’t the whole concept of place been left behind in a globalized, wired, “virtual” world?

London, for example, is a place with as rich a literary history as can be imagined, but in 2010 – an alternate, futuristic 2010 that is the setting for Ned Beauman’s Glow – it is looking more than a bit uprooted.

The hero, Raf, is just one of a generation of young people of indeterminate origin enjoying London’s party scene (think drugs, lots and lots of synthetic drugs). Raf has a fluid work schedule because a sleep disorder has thrown his mental menstrual cycle out of whack, but mostly he parties by night and does odd jobs like freelance programming and dog-walking during the day.

One of Raf’s clients runs a pirate radio station catering to immigrant communities, including some mysterious Burmese. This turns out to be significant because Burma is the source for a wonderful new drug named Glow and is also the place where Cherish, a dangerous girl Raf hooks up with, hails from.

Could there be a connection between all these things, and the super-intelligent foxes appearing all over London?

Certainly. And also connected are a gang of paramilitary types who drive around trying to stuff people into the back of a white van. The leader of this sinister bunch is someone you don’t want to mess with: “a pillar of tungsten and steaks” who makes “any normal product of the human genotype feel like a fiddly new model that had been miniaturized by some clever Japanese company to fit better into the handbags of teenage girls.”

As Raf starts to trace even more connections, he discovers that the white-van mafia is providing the muscle for a multinational mining corporation that has an eye on using Glow as an entry into the global drug trade, destabilizing the Burmese government in the process.

Glow is Ned Beauman’s third novel, and follows up an appearance on the longlist for the 2012 Man Booker Prize. He’s a lively, imaginative writer and gives a neo-psychedelic gloss to the proceedings that makes one think of the conspiracy fiction of Thomas Pynchon.

But it’s Pynchon 2.0. The politics have changed. Corporations rule the world and the state has withered away completely. Even for the radical guerillas we meet, political struggles are no longer the main concern: “A tyranny grew old and tired and palsied just like any other beast. But if killing a tyranny was like killing an elephant, killing a corporation was like killing a colony of sentient fungus.”

“Unlike governments, corporations endured: deathless, efficient, self-renewing.”

In a world of corporate colonialism traditional forms of authority, like parents or the police, are missing, and human relationships are utilitarian and brittle. War takes the form of a “ghost conflict” between alienated tribes of stakeholders and London is less a physical place than a postmodernist simulacrum, a composite photograph taken by CCTV cameras, its infrastructure cracking apart in a way analogous to the visual decomposition of a pixelated virtual doppelganger. The “two worlds . . . diverge and then converge,” slowly becoming one in decay and decrepitude.

Glow is a book that looks in two directions. On the one hand it is grounded in London, its urban geography, night life, and hard-to-kill sense of somehow being at the center of everything. But it also looks out toward the rootless, global world of serial immigration, stateless capital, and online communities. Raf is someone with a foot in both worlds. Even in London’s familiar streets he can take a wrong turn and suddenly not have any idea where he is, or find that a chat-room correspondent is actually the guy standing next to him.

Culture may still be vegetable, but like the drugs Raf takes it is no longer organic. Glow is a novel of its time.

Review first published in the Toronto Star April 15, 2014.

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