Ned Beauman interview: Michael Gove’s favourite young author
But the admiration is unwanted and far from mutual, as Ned Beauman tells Max Liu
Sunday 18 May 2014
The frothy coffee, humidity, and terrace lamps outside the Hampstead café, where I’m supposed to meet Ned Beauman, are giving me a headache. The seat opposite me has been occupied for half-an-hour, not by the 29-year-old novelist, but by a black cat. Animals figure in Beauman’s new novel, Glow, which takes its title from a fictional party drug that’s derived from purified fox excreta, and he’s said that he prefers dogs to people. He’s been accused of arrogance at the same time as receiving acclaim and awards for his ingenious novels, Boxer, Beetle (2010) and the Man Booker Prize-longlisted The Teleportation Accident (2012). Last year, he was the youngest of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists. Nobody disputes his talent, but where is he?
Another half-hour passes before a pale, bearded beanpole lolls down the street, dressed in black, carrying an umbrella. Whether the umbrella is a surrealist prop or to shelter him from rain, I’ve no idea. Much about Beauman appears calculated, so his tardiness might be tactical, but when I point out that he’s an hour late, he goes even paler, consults his phone and says: “I’m sooo sorry.” Helpfully, I suggest that, in a way, it’s fitting because Raf, the main character in Glow, suffers from non-24-hour sleep-wake syndrome which puts him out of sync with society’s circadian rhythms. “Ha,” says Beauman, and I shoo away the cat.
Sipping orange juice, he displays the confidence of somebody who’s returned home triumphant. “I grew up here and, although I left for boarding school when I was 13, the writers in my house had a big effect on me,” says Beauman, whose mother is a biographer and publisher, and whose family also includes crime writers, historians and children’s authors. “I wrote Glow in Berlin, New York, and finished it in Istanbul, but it’s so Londony.” His accent is a mix of mid-Atlantic hipster and public-school plummy, which makes me wonder if they’re the same thing: “The ending is, like, so Hollywood but, like, a good Hollywood film is one of the greatest things.” He explains that, although Glow explores primal experiences of love, music and urban sublimity, he values urbane qualities, “like good tailoring and talking entertainingly at dinner.”
Both Boxer, Beetle and The Teleportation Accident were partly set in the 1930s and tackled the rise of Nazism in irreverent ways. Glow takes place in a more frivolous 2010s milieu, where characters attend raves in laundrettes and live in cramped sub-lets. Beauman considers it a tribute to the period when, two years after graduating from Cambridge University with a degree in philosophy, he moved to Peckham. “I wanted to capture an aesthetic that’s hard to articulate,” he says. “It’s to do with south London seen from a bus on a rainy night, lights going by, foxes, gangsta rap leaking from the tinny headphones of the guy behind you.”
Raf’s condition rules out steady employment so he’s paid to walk the guard dog at a pirate radio station. “Pirate radio is a neglected subject,” says Beauman. “I also felt the kind of corporate imperialism, which Naomi Klein exposes in The Shock Doctrine, needed a fictional treatment. Parts of the novel take place in the Golden Triangle, in Southeast Asia, where many drugs come from, and where my exploitative mining firm, Lacebark, operate. It’s a kind of drug thriller set in London but taking in events in other countries.”
Beauman specialises in dazzling similes and, this time, I enjoyed the “wasp in the ashtray, almost dead, shivering in small circles like a mobile phone left to vibrate on a table”. He tackles a jaw-dropping array of subjects, including anti-Semitism, urban planning and neurochemistry. Critics claim his fiction lacks warmth but Raf’s love for Cherish, a beautiful Burmese girl who alerts him to Lacebark’s corruption, and his deep connection to London, provide new emotional weight. “I’ve presented previous protagonists’ emotions as laughable,” says Beauman, “but I’m taking Raf’s feelings seriously. Some readers called my other books cold. I accept that, but I have embers in me and they’re in Glow. It’s the novel I feel fondest towards.”
Two years ago, when The Teleportation Accident was published, Beauman told an interviewer: “What sticks in my mind is praise from the wrong people.” He said he hoped his second novel would “slough off” some readers who’d written complimentary Amazon reviews of his debut. Asked about this, he mumbles about wanting to forget the incident, then unloads: “There’s a paradox as a writer where you’re encouraged to put everything of yourself in your books, to take things to the furthest extreme, to hold back nothing. But when you’re talking in your own voice, you have to reassure people that you share their values and agree with them about everything and nobody need be perturbed by the content of the book because we’re in this consensus about how we see each other and see art. It’s not that I think I’m so great but, in England, if you don’t go through the pantomime of being self-effacing then you’re full of yourself. And I get sick of that.”
Beauman’s attitudes to the relationship between writers and readers are more nuanced than his previous comments suggested but, although his books are thrilling, relevant and hilarious, I doubt many people will find their content perturbing. How did he feel when Michael Gove hailed him “the best young novelist in Britain”? “Weird and depressed,” he laughs. “If I become the favoured author of the ruling elite, then I’m writing the wrong books. This government is repugnant. I want nothing to do with Gove.” Will he vote in next year’s general election? “I’ll probably vote Green, although if Ed Miliband announces more policies like taxing foreign property owners, I’ll vote Labour. He’s got nothing to lose. We live in a populist age.”
Many emerging writers’ day-to-day lives are unchanged by literary success, due to publishers’ reduced advances, but Beauman, who’s moving back to New York next month, says: “I’ve basically been living like Ghostface Killah [rapper in the Wu-Tang Clan].” He might have enjoyed every advantage in life but he knows he’s fortunate and seizes opportunities with so much gusto that I think: “Good for him.” He’s excited by travel, feels honoured to be contributing to august magazines and calls corresponding with the cyberpunk pioneer William Gibson “the most amazing thing”. But why does each chapter of Glow begin at an exact minute? “I like the idea of the book being unbound by the clock. If you’re walking around at 3am you see a shadow city that’s as alive as the daytime city. Every hour is important.”
Extract: Glow, by Ned Beauman Sceptre, £16.99
‘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.’
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