Ever on the outside of society due to the rare medical condition he suffers from, non-24 hour sleep patterns, computer programmer Raf is already prepared to quit London, the city he has lived in all his life, his girlfriend having left him for a hot Berlin DJ. Exploiting his odd waking hours, his friends at the local pirate radio station Myth FM employ Raf to keep an unpredictably random watch on their relay transmitter, but that is not all that he sees, and his eyes are opened by two chance encounters, Cherish, the exotic girl at the after-hours party with whom he shares a hit of the new street drug glow before she vanishes into the night, and the glowing fox riding the night bus home.
Musing that he would be more at home on Mars because of the twenty five hour day, Raf may be set apart from the world because of his condition but that doesn’t mean he’s not smart, and his marginalised position means he is unbound by consequent preconceptions and modes of thought, his unique lifestyle having taught him to find the pattern in his own skewed life and elsewhere. Something is growing on the estates of south London, a darkness that creeps between the run down tenements and high rises, invading the corner shops and the airwaves, encroaching and insidious, and when his friend Theo is snatched from the street, bundled into the back of a mysterious and silent white van, Raf starts asking dangerous questions.
Ned Beauman’s third novel is a much more commercial novel than his previous releases, which is not to say that he has gone mainstream, more that it is not so wilfully esoteric as either Boxer, Beetle or The Teleportation Accident, set in modern times and with a protagonist who may be isolated but is at least kind and warm, trying to do the right thing. Lacking the manic feel of those books, events do not befall Raf as a perpetual rain of ironic tragedy though he is equally displaced from society as Beauman‘s previous protagonists, and he is naïve, trusting too easily and blurting out truths in the manner of a man who has never kept secrets, possibly as a result of him having so few friends to begin with and all involved in the same drug circles, wryly observing that ecstasy is itself the ultimate truth drug.
Instead it is Mark Fourpetal who is in many ways takes on the role that Doctor Erskine and Egon Loeser have fulfilled in Beauman’s previous works, spineless and absolutely self-involved with no care given to the impact his actions have on others, his own immediate need his only solipsistic consideration; he may not be the principal character, but as the human face of Lacebark, an utterly cold and ruthless multinational who have been buying up vacant industrial spaces in the borough, he is easy to despise.
Without the expanded dramatic licence granted by period setting where absurdist contrivance can be excused by genre trappings, the coincidences do stray towards overtly convenient, but if it doesn’t tie together as satisfyingly as his previous novels, why should it? Life isn’t expected to tie together neatly so why should the stories of Raf, Theo, Isaac, Cherish and her brother, Win and Craig, be other than a trail of blood and tragic happenstance, friendship, family and love all lost?
The prose flits between delightfully playful and sinister, comparing breeds of dog to the different wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum, struggling through the foliage of a flower market to discover a bus loaded with photons, learning how to prevent bonding by washing away oxytocin with vodka or fleeing the ghostly white vans, their “headlights sweeping across the playground like the blank eyes of a wraith,” and the opening chapters are a precursor to a deeper and more complex state, like a protein folding in on itself to present a functional group. Beauman charts the frontiers of brain chemistry (with the caveat in the acknowledgements that he alone is responsible for any outrages committed against neuroscience), the unpredictable seas which recognise that the only true joy in the world is the right neurotransmitter combination to invoke comfort, belonging and connection, as elusive as a fox, the recurring motif of the novel.