Spy Novels, Mice Brains, and the Neuroscience of Pleasure: Ned Beauman on ‘Glow’

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There are some go-to mentionables about the novelist Ned Beauman, snippets or shorthand remarks that are true but work to obscure his literary gifts and value. It is often pointed out, for example, that Beauman was the youngest writer on Granta’s Best Young British Novelists of 2013. And it is now a given that his first two novels — Boxer, Beetle and The Teleportation Accident — recall the work of William Gibson and Thomas Pynchon. Both of these are fine things to write or say — and Beauman is unfailingly modest, a writer who is genuinely humbled to hear such things — but for me they don’t quite get at the consistency or quality of his work. Time after time, Beauman is able to capture a milieu, or totally invent one, in fleet, intelligent prose that is somehow analytic, beautiful, and comic all at the same time. When a new novel by Beauman arrives, I open it knowing that I’m going to be swept into an engaging, possibly ecstatic plot. I also know that I’ll be quoting it to all of my friends.

Beauman’s riveting third novel, Glow — released in the US this week — is set in London in 2010. As far as descriptions go, I’ll simply say that it covers a lot of terrain, but that it begins by recreating a specific South London feeling that somehow brings together foxes, drugs, pirate radio, and, as Beauman says below, the sensation of being on the top deck of a night bus in South London on a rainy night. By its conclusion, though, Glow manages to metamorphose into a novel of global intrigue, political nefariousness, and, like all good novels of the 21st century, friendship. I talked to Beauman, who was about to leave London for Tangiers, over Skype last week.

Flavorwire: When I first met you you were living this peripatetic lifestyle. I met you in London at a party for The White Review. You sounded like a spy almost, in a spy novel. You talked about Moscow at one point. But your first two novels, and now Glow, all mirror this global movement from city to city. Is this a reflection of your own peripatetic life?

Ned Beauman: Raf [Glow‘s protagonist] deciding whether to leave London for Berlin or somewhere else obviously has something to do with me moving out of London 2011. It’s the same thing in The Teleportation Accident. When he’s leaving Berlin he’s actually leaving London.

You mean you leaving London?

Yeah. So it’s a reflection of my life in that way.

But in Glow most of the places where it’s set are places I’ve never been. I’ve never been to Burma or Pakistan or Iceland or Guinea. I think the spy novel comparison is a good one. I don’t particularly love James Bond films, but I do love the way a new one is announced. It’s like: “This one will be in Monaco, Tehran, and Vladivostok,” or whatever. It’s a little bit like, you know, The New York Times just had that “52 Places to Go in 2015” thing they do every year. Those James Bond films are similar to a travel feature where it’s like: “James Bond recommends three destinations for this year!” And I really like that quality of the Bond films, or the Bourne films. So it is trying to get some of that into the books. But it’s also that I have this real obsession with the color palette of my books. I’m afraid of them using too monochrome a palette. Having the multiple locations is a way of expanding the palette. In that respect, you could probably make a connection with my peripatetic life, in the sense that one of the reasons it’s so nice to be away from London — and in so many different places — is because London is literally and figuratively so gray. It’s just nice to have some other colors in your life.

One of the great things about Boxer, Beetle and The Teleportation Accident is the way you bring distinct elements and locales into a coherent world. In the case of Glow, you cover a lot of thematic ground, and there are these really intriguing, recurring images and motifs — pirate radio, drugs, foxes. Was there, for you, a single entry point into the world of Glow?

Yeah, it’s a very specific experience I was trying to crystallize in prose: sitting on the top deck of a night bus that’s going through South London in the drizzle at 2 or 3 or 4 A.M. Fairly empty bus. Almost completely empty street. Listening to either the first or second Burial album on earbuds and maybe seeing a fox run across the road when you’re stopped at the traffic lights.

From that one sensorium — which to me is quite a quintessential part of being in your early twenties in London — almost the whole book unfolds. That doesn’t directly involve pirate radio for instance, but you only have to make a few connections before you have all of that other stuff.

Burial, for instance, just sounds like pirate radio.

Exactly. So it’s only one degree of separation before all of the other elements are brought in.

Can we talk about the drugs? I found the neuroscience of the book convincing, which is to say it’s fun and smart and not heavy-handed.

What I found researching the book is that there obviously… well… obviously pop science is huge at the moment. And there are loads of books about the brain coming out all the time. They tend to be more about brain structure or brain imaging. So they’re more about “the amygdala” or “the hypothalamus” or whatever. They’re less about brain chemistry. It’s actually very hard to find a layman’s explanation for what dopamine does, or what serotonin does, that isn’t in a Daily Mail article about some meaningless new study that has put out a press release about what dopamine means for your sex life or whatever. So it’s quite hard to research in that respect. On the whole, it’s hard to find a straightforward explanation for how neurotransmitters work, for instance.

So I went and talked to a couple of neuroscientists in New York. I found out that — well, some of this is in the book — but first of all you can’t make a straight distinction between brain chemistry and brain architecture because — as I understand it — neurotransmitters are the medium through which those pathways are activated. So when you’re talking about what the amygdala does, you’re also talking about neurotransmitters. So there isn’t actually the distinction that I thought there was going to be.

So you talked to a couple of people about the neuroscience, and you just extrapolated from there?

I talked to a couple of people just to understand the concepts. One of them — well, in fact, both of them — were experts on the chemistry of pleasure. So one of them took me to his lab, which I think was in NYU, and he showed me this sliver of mouse brain under a microscope. It was like a one cell thick slice of mouse brain that they were keeping alive with saline solution. And they were pumping neurotransmitters into that to see what it did.

I did a little of that. I also looked at a lot of Wikipedia. And also a lot of scientific papers. Obviously I can’t really interpret a scientific paper, but I can read the abstract, and I can read the conclusion. So maybe the book is not reliable in that respect, but I justify it on the basis that it’s about characters who are themselves autodidacts. They are finding out about neurochemistry in exactly the same way that I am. So my mistakes are their mistakes. And also I think that the essential point about learning to see your own brain as a bit more of a mechanism of inputs and outputs that you can have some control over. That still stands even if I’ve got everything wrong.

The protagonist of the novel, Raf, has a peculiar syndrome called non-24-hour sleep/wake syndrome that affects his circadian rhythms (and therefore his sleep). Did you do anything to inhabit this logic while writing Glow?

Well, I did have a plan to try and live for a month as if I had non-24-hour sleep/wake syndrome. I thought that’d be really interesting to do, but I decided it was not viable with roommates, because if you do that you’re nocturnal, and you just can’t put people through that. It also means that you don’t have a social life. I wish I had done it, but there just never did seem to be the perfect time.

Apart from that, because I travel so much, I am kind of obsessed with jet lag and how you overcome it.

I’ve heard that you have this theory about jet lag.

About anti-jetlag fasting. It has completely changed the way I travel.

What is that?

Well, someone claimed recently that there is no scientific basis for it, but I also read that the US Air Force uses it… so basically the theory is that if you don’t — in a way it’s weird that this is not in the book — but if you don’t eat for 16 to 18 hours your circadian rhythms are suspended. So they’re much easier to reset. You pick a meal, usually breakfast, in your destination. And you count 18 hours back from that. You don’t eat during that 18 hours, you just drink a lot of water and sleep. It reduces the process of getting over jet lag by several days. It now never takes me more than a day. It’s just so great. On the way back from Mexico, I ended up having to fast for 28 hours, but it was worth it.

Also, I went to boarding school, and I slept in a dormitory. We were all woken up at the same time every morning by people coming in to make us go to breakfast. Later when I read the research that adolescent brains just have different circadian rhythms. The reason that adolescents want to sleep late and stay up late is not because they’re lazy, it’s because they literally have different brains. There is nothing they can do about it. When I read that research, it made me so furious in retrospect — and I kind of am still furious about it — that they would make us get up every morning, and imply that we were morally at fault. It is now known that if they had let us sleep in and start our lessons a few hours later, we would have actually performed much better academically. So I never had sleep issues or a sleep disorder, but it has penetrated my life.

Every novelist has a different approach to listening to music. But Glow is tied to a specific culture of music in South London a few years ago. Did you listen to specific music while writing the novel?

Actually, if you look on my website, there is the playlist from when I was writing it. I would listen to the same 12 or 13 tracks in the same order, over and over again, when I was writing it. Eventually I could listen to the opening notes of the first track of the playlist, and it would have this Pavlovian effect of putting me back in the right state of mind to be writing a book.

I found the music incredibly helpful because I chose this heavily edited playlist of the most evocative songs I could find. They really set the atmosphere. I’ve never done that with a book before, and I don’t think I’ll ever do that with a book again. Except…the one I’m writing now there’s a few albums that harmonize with it. But Glow was in an exceptional way a music-led book.

Well, are you ready to talk about what you’re working on now?

Well… not really…

Yeah? OK. Well, I read the Ukrainian Combat Dolphins thing, which I thought was great. And I was thinking about the radio play you did. Are you aiming to do a collection of short fiction anytime soon?

I probably write a couple of short stories a year. I went to Mexico… well… I went there to work on my novel, and I actually ended up writing short stories the whole time. The result of that was that I wrote one and half-finished two. I find short stories really hard. In the long run, I’d like to have a collection, just so they’re all in one place. But I imagined that a) there is so little demand for a Ned Beauman short story collection, and b) that short stories are so marginal in the UK that if it ever happens it will probably be, like, e-book only. So it’s not a milestone, but I’d like to have that one day.

You recently met with William Gibson, who I know is a writer you really admire. When I interviewed him a few months ago, he talked about how much he admires your work. What was it like to meet him?

It still feels a bit unreal that I can email him and call him Bill and he’ll reply. So that is one of the most amazing things — maybe the most amazing thing — that has happened to me as a writer. Just because I’ve been reading him since I was twelve.

As I kind of say in the piece, it was a weird experience because I had quite a lot of time to spend with him. But I wanted to be hanging out with him, not interviewing him. Inevitably a lot of the best stuff he said to me was off-the-record. So every minute I was aware that I could ask him about his career for an audience of Observer readers who don’t necessarily know who he is, or asking him incredibly fine grained off-the-record questions — and also just try to be a normal person with him.

But I met him one time since. And hopefully I’ll meet him again in the future, even though we’re on different continents now. I’m really glad that I did the interview, firstly because in the UK he’s bizarrely underknown. Secondly, it did mean that I got to ask him questions that it would actually be awkward to ask someone if you were just being two human beings. When you meet a writer you really admire, you do feel uncool to ask certain questions. And obviously going to an izakaya with William Gibson and talking about technical menswear was one of my all-time top life experiences.

You once told me that you were no longer reading your own reviews. When did you stop reading your own reviews?

Well… that ended up not really working. I decided it was not helpful to read reviews. I actually turned off my Google alerts a long time ago, but I asked my publicist not to show me anything, etc. But because everything is online, and because I have a smartphone now, and because I’m sometimes drunk and not in a good mood — well, and/or not in a good mood — it’s like being an alcoholic or something. You have to have self-control every minute of the day. “You’re not going to look at these reviews!” After a couple of weeks of keeping it together, I did look at some. And you find them in the most unexpected places. Like I was in an airport newsagent, and there was an issue of a literary review, and I just picked it up, and a review was there. In that second you don’t have time to prepare yourself, so you just kind of look at it automatically before you know what you’re doing. So I failed at this quarantine. And I’m relieved that more newspapers have paywalls now.

I think you have to fail at least once at an endeavor like that so that you get punished. I think in the future I’m going to be able to do it. It’s better, too. You become much less interested in your own profile. It’s incredibly positive not to read this stuff. But I’m not really that sensitive to bad reviews. The main way it bothers me is that it suppresses sales. And in that case I feel bad for my publisher.