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Alternative Cityscapes

Ned Beauman’s Glow, or the hallucinated city

Glow de Ned Beauman : la ville hallucinée
Claire Larsonneur


Ned Beauman’s third novel Glow (2014) revisits the tradition of literary cityscapes and the long history of London fiction through the combined exploration of drug-altered mindscapes and millennial attitudes. Beauman, who was listed in the 2013 selection of Best Young British Novelists by Granta, turns the setting of 21st century South London into a stage where he replays some of the main tenets of urban underground culture. His depiction of ordinary locations such as launderettes, council blocks, railway bridges, junk food joints is cleverly associated with disturbing suggestions of a distinct parallel universe, unstable and rife with trafficking, exploitation and virtual reality. I propose to explore the rich intertextuality of Glow, both visual and literary, and show how it is woven into typically contemporary issues, such as connectedness, surveillance and bugs. Following the critical perspectives of Alexander Galloway and Eric Sadin on the interface and digital monitoring, one may read Beauman’s systematic blurring of the frontiers of perception through drug experimentation and bizarre medical conditions as a “exploit”, a strategy to free oneself of the stifling framework of corporate digital cities. In Glow one could hardly posit that mindscape and cityscape reflect each other: we rather sense that they challenge and cannibalise each other in a thought-provoking way.

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  • 1 Remarks made in a workshop with his French translator Catherine Richard and the students at the Uni (...)

1Portraying London in the 2010s is an enterprise that undoubtedly involves a level of hubris “especially as novels proposing new and original views of the city continue to proliferate” in the early twenty-first century (Guignery 13). The city has been featured in so many novels, poems and films that is has become a trope and carries a very rich intertextuality. The sprawling, multicultural and motley nature of a modern metropolis in itself also proves a daunting challenge for writers, especially in the case of London, a city prone to so many redevelopments and urban reclamation projects. And yet this was the task that Ned Beauman set himself to for his third novel Glow, published by Sceptre in 2014. Himself a London-born, London-bred author, son of the renowned founder of Persephone Books, Nicola Beauman, listed among Granta’s Best Young British Novelists in 2013, Ned would know about literary London, and especially the inter-war era his mother’s publishing house specialised in. His first two novels, Boxer, Beetle (2010) and The Teleportation Accident (2012), thus explored the ambiguities of the thirties, shuttling from Germany to London to the USA, bringing together Nazis and homosexuals, the wiles of show business and a certain infatuation with science. The sudden shift to the contemporary scene with Glow is all the more striking. Ned Beauman claims—rather provocatively—the main motivation for this shift was that he had to write about the drug scene in London before he grew too old (he turned 28 when finishing Glow).1 However the keen eye he has for historical detail was not lost on his portrayal of South London: Southwark, Bermondsey, Peckham are fully recognizable in the novel, which focuses for the first 15 chapters on London in 2010, before brief forays into Iceland and Guinea. Beauman’s work on the urban landscape falls in line with Andrews’ description of landscape as a form of “mental conversion” of our experience of the land, an artifice shaped equally by works of art and our daily practices (Andrews 1). Beyond drugs one should evoke here the influence of digital technologies which inform much of our lives and prompted Timothy Kennett to label Glow a “very internety thriller” in his review for 3AM Magazine. I therefore propose here to explore how Beauman weaves together the heritage of English cityscape and the contemporary aesthetics of the young and urban.

A Millennial’s City

2Beauman’s London is undeniably that of a millennial, if we understand the term as a person reaching young adulthood in the early twenty-first century. With the characteristic cheekiness of youth, Raf, the main character who is 22, highlights the focus on the present that stands at the core of the novel: “Raf shrugs. He’s always felt that if you have to research what was going on before you were born to find London interesting or magical, you don’t really deserve to live there” (168).

3Glow describes a twenty-first century young urban metropolis. Characters are portrayed as typical hipsters, immersed in passionate flings, fascinated by raves and drugs while engaged in sententious discussions about the grand meaning of life, pretty much like many youths all over the world. They are also digital natives, active on Youtube (41, 63, 72, 108, 117, 244), engaged in mailing lists and message boards, expertly using Google maps and Google earth in their investigation.

4The choice of scenery within the novel equally corresponds to the lifestyle of partying youths: launderettes, junk food joints and an Iranian corner shop for daily necessities, a warehouse, the roof-top of a council block, a salvage yard or railway bridges for alternative encounters. Ned Beauman’s method involved extensive research on Flickr and may feel at times like an Instagram account of trendy millennial London. It is also coherent with his use of very short snippets of reality, which could be linked to the culture of Twitter posts and hashtags: Beauman details inscriptions on the dusty vans and on railway bridges (34), truncated shop signs (86) and bill posters, and relishes in phrases like “social anxiety disorder for dogs” that have the feel of witty soundbites from social media.

5Beauman’s sources of inspiration are themselves markedly contemporaneous, at least in the account he gives through his blog where he exposes the making of Glow. Sharing some insights into his creative universe, Beauman created a playlist on Spotify2 of the tracks he listened to while writing. Some titles by Burial are directly related to the plot, like “Night Bus” corresponding to the scene with the fox. Beauman describes this in detail in his Flavorwire interview by Jonathan Sturgeon:

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.

  • 3 Interview with Claire Larsonneur, personal email, September 19, 2017.

6Beauman also cites photographers Rinko Kawauchi and Rut Blees Luxemburg.3 Rinko Kawauchi, born 1972, lives and works in Tokyo. She has won numerous prizes and is currently one of the most famous Japanese photographers. Her photographs reveal the overlooked beauty of minute details of everyday life: the soap bubble blown by a little girl, a dish of strawberries, vines climbing unto a metallic chain:​en/​works/​241/​. Kawauchi’s use of close-ups and the poetic intensity she imparts on trifles match some of Beauman’s description techniques. In the following example, broken glass is thus elevated to the status of diamond; the description itself centers on the chance encounters of detritus on a big city pavement, very much in keeping with Kawauchi’s choice of subjects.

Someone’s windscreen must have got knocked through outside Isaac’s block of flats, because in the gutter there are diamonds of safety glass with which this morning’s rain has mingled an alluvium of damp white blossom and a few fronds of synthetic wig hair caught on a chicken bone, like the shattered remains of a tribal fetish. (20)

7Rut Blees Luxemburg (​) is a German photographer, born in 1969. She has published two works on London: A Modern Project (1995-1997) and London Dust (2013). Her photographs highlight the geometrical shapes produced by night lighting on ordinary buildings such as car parks or estate towers. Leo Benedictus’s 2009 interview of Luxemburg about her A Modern Project in The Guardian, shows that her work not only matches the general atmosphere of Glow but may also have inspired some of its more striking scenes, like the unexpected appearance of foxes and hallucinogenic plants within the urban landscape or the creative uses of tower roofs:

Rut Blees Luxemburg focuses tightly on her local neighborhood in London, a scene of intense transformation and evolving interests. On the one side is the principle of ATLAS, one of many new towering developments in the vicinity of the ‘digital roundabout’ of Old Street. On the other side is the re-emergence of nature, manifest in urban allotments and captured in the representation of a vine, growing on the wall of a local corner shop in the shadow of a satellite dish, flourishing, despite horticultural indifference.

  • 4 Interview with Claire Larsonneur, personal email, September 19, 2017.
  • 5 Interview with Claire Larsonneur, personal email, September 19, 2017.

8Like both photographers, Beauman’s indebtedness to visual traditions extends of course to the very genre of landscape painting. He wrote up a whole scene about the frame of a window revealing a crucial strip of scenery (161) and another about the panoramic view of London (15), revisiting thus two main subgenres of landscape painting, the window frame hailing back to the Renaissance tradition and the panorama to nineteenth-century exhibitions (Andrews 140-142). Among film references one could cite Top Boy, a 2011 mini-series about two young dealers in a London estate, The Matrix which may have inspired Raf’s comment on “the machine code on which the world runs” (56) or the exotic locations of James Bond movies.4 Most of his references thus appear to be visual or audio, again in keeping with the youth culture of the 2010s. But one should remain wary of a writer’s self-defined exposure and Beauman may reveal some influences to fend off disclosure of others. Though clearly fascinated by London, he nevertheless pretendsto like cities in proportion to how much they remind me of Blade Runner and London almost never feels like Blade Runner”.5

9In terms of literary genres, Glow explicitly points to the detective story and to fantasy. Part of the plot follows Raf’s attempt to understand how foxes could have entered the tightly sealed freight depot: it draws upon the topos of locked-room mysteries, echoing E.A. Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” or Gaston Leroux’s Le Mystère de la chambre jaune. Working as a counterpoint to the locked-room, the topos of the secret passageway, in this case an entrance door through a fridge via a narrow gulley of improbable geometry, is a clever yet transparent rewriting of both C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. In his 3:AM Magazine review of Glow, Timothy Kennett indeed takes up the reference to Lewis Carroll:Beauman’s imagery is here something like a series of curated prose hyperlinks, each leading to something interesting and semi-related; his plots are structured like wikiholes, down which the reader obligingly and rapidly tumbles” (2014).

Doubles and opposites

10Now Alice in Wonderland is a central reference for Glow: the strange properties of the biscuits Alice feeds on find a drug equivalent in Glow; both books are centred on a double, fantastical world to which one finds access by accident. The key to London’s representation in Glow is this coexistence of two contrasting worlds that seldom connect. The opening scene of the novel is a paradigmatic example of that structure:

Raf stumbles out of the laundrette to find himself engulfed in flowers. It’s as if some phenomenological anode inside him has been swapped with its cathode, so that every sensation is replaced by another of exactly inverse quality and equal intensity: petals for skin, perfume for sweat, cold for heat, silence for noise, anthocyanins for disco lights. (8)

11The theme of the double not only drives a number of descriptions, it also stands at the centre of the plot. Matching the mundane, day-to-day London is a secret underground London peopled by thugs, a logical development for a novel based on drug dealing. The analogical world of pirate radio transmitters contrasts with that of the internet, realistic descriptions are matched by fantastical moments. A set of objective correlatives also function on the principle of matching opposites: white delivery vans turn out to be camouflaged military vehicles, the actor playing a fake chemist is actually a real chemist (183), there is much talk of “false real morels” (31) and so forth. The very geography of London is designed around a set of blind spots (the depot, the roof of the estate) that nobody notices yet play a key role in the novel and a set of hotspots like the laundrette, the radio studio, Cherish’s flat or the McDonalds, home to intense encounters. Beauman describes them as “those small pressurised containers you sometimes find in London that are put to such a brutally demanding and urgent and contradictory selection of uses” (137). Navigating the city consists in journeying between those blind spots and hotspots, and bypassing all the null, indeterminate spaces in a manner reminiscent of a Google map query, where the lie of the land is only the pretext and the background for identifying a web of locations as marked by the little red pins. This is not a geography of buildings and streets but one of blind spots, hotspots and such “non-places” as identified by Marc Augé as symptoms of modernity.

12The purple patch of this logic of opposites is the MOUT model, a replica of London built by an evil corporation inside a warehouse for the training purposes of its mercenaries. It comes in complete with streets, props, extras, a light cycle of 3 hours and weather effects like rain. The whole apparatus evokes a film set and could be compared to the towns and landscapes of the recent television series Westworld (2016-2018) for the accuracy of detail and a relentless, overwhelming digital monitoring of characters and scenery.

And there’s no chewing gum on the pavement, no stickers on the lamp-posts, no paint flaking from the windowsills of the flats above the shops – none of the scurf and sebum that distinguish a body from a mannequin. He’s rendered architectural models on his computer with more texture than this.

Of course, if you put everything together rationally, it becomes apparent that Lacebark have built some sort of film set or theme park here inside the freight depot, but at first sight, before he understood what he was looking at, it seemed more like a dip in the bandwidth of reality itself. When at last the trance breaks, he walks over to the greengrocer and picks up a delicious looking plastic mango from a cardboard box at the front. (121)

13In this fake world, Beauman captures the spirit of the times, evoking the current appetite for ultra-realistic videogames (for which Raf the main character is a computer graphic artist) or the development of virtual reality environments (Whitson, Eaket et al. 2008). However, the illusion is not perfect: “everything is a bit too bright and concentrated, sickening, like undiluted orange squash” (122). Much of it lies in the paradox of a London without Londoners, designed by strangers for underground motives to be used by strangers.

‘The people who designed all this, were they Londoners themselves?’

‘No’, says Belasco. ‘We find that natives of the simuland have a tendency to introduce unconscious distortions in their models’ (122)

14Again, much like the viewer’s experience of Westworld, the character and the reader are first dazzled by the perfection of the replica before being introduced first to the technical flaws, then to the ethical flaws of the model. For instance, the complete anonymity of the designers and mercenaries of Lacebark, their facelessness, is a testimony to the depersonalisation induced by some digital technologies. Here the narrative of place doubles up as a political narrative of digital technologies, and of their impact on our subjective relation to the world. Beauman’s work echoes Eric Sadin’s analysis of the soft monitoring of our lives by intelligent agents: “Une administration robotisée des existences s’institue progressivement, assurée par des agents clairvoyants et empathiques, agissant de façon soft et sans bruit, tendus vers la prise en charge efficace et harmonieuse des êtres et des situations » (Sadin 28).

15The drug dealing thriller narrative which is presented as the main plot might also be read as a metaphor for the digital control narrative. Addiction and surveillance work hand in hand. The only way out of this conundrum is through bugs of the systems, twists and entropy as signalled by the pungent smell of foxes which unexpectedly found their way into MOUT.

Twists, disorders, distorsions

Lacebark would’ve traced the supply line to me months back, but they don’t have the imagination to see, right? That the centre of Zaya’s network could be… fuck, what’s the word?—he snaps his fingers—could be homotopic with the centre of their own network. The journeys they extras make between they cribs and the facility, the interactions between the extras while they here together—the hilarious thing, Lacebark take care to cut all that stuff from they ImPressure* mapping, because they don’t want any artificial distortions in the data. But we live in those distortions. (200)

16These remarks by Win the chemist, in his distorted English, point to another line of interpretation. There is a digital blind spot within the digital apparatus of surveillance, inside the very warehouse presented as THE spatial blind spot. The fractal structure Beauman builds up is of course ironical but it also points out to the interest of distorting one’s focus, of manipulating the senses to get a different perspective on the city. It might also be said to correspond to the aesthetics of Kawauchi and Luxembourg’s photographic works, where they both explore the creative possibilities offered by overexposure, by unusual light effects induced by smoke or rain, or by odd choices of frame. Beauman’s interest in harnessing altered perceptions or states of mind in his exploration of the city hails back to a rich literary tradition, from Coleridge to Thomas de Quincey’s uses of opium (Ruston 2014). Beauman admits to having researched neurosciences extensively in the Flavorwire interview and confesses a nostalgia for the drug-culture of the 90s. One of the first descriptions of the city compares the courier’s grasp of the city to a MRI scan (25) and Beauman insists on optical tricks and distortions of vision (221). Even the book cover of the English edition or the numerals introducing each chapter are deliberately rendered in a blurred print, in a manner consistent with these systematic distortions. The whole book thus claims to be rooted in some kind of “continuous amateur neurochemistry seminar” (41).

17The cognitive biases induced by drugs are matched by specifically digital distortions such as “the internet’s strange acoustics” (164) or the fuzzy quality of the freight depot in the following quotation:

Before he left home, he checked Google Maps, so he knows that the next warehouse down makes a right angle with the railway viaduct to the south-west, but the depot doesn’t quite line up squarely with either of them, creating the sort of annoying gap you might find in a badly assembled flat pack dresser. No more than a couple of metres wide at the base, it’s just a fuzzy line of brown and grey on the satellite photo, so he can’t tell if it will be of any use until he sees it for himself. (179)

18I would argue that those cognitive distortions are not just a ploy to engage the reader through the thrill of the forbidden and the unusual. They play a structural role in the creation of the landscape. Beauman combines them with the frequent repurposing of locations to create an unstable relation to space. For instance, the launderette and the warehouse become clubbing venues, the roof becomes home to a dog, the junk heap is a passageway, the McDonalds a spy spot. At first this may appear to de-realise the landscape of London, as suggested in the following description:

Raf was once shown how to do chromatography, where you watch the different pigments in a smear of anthocyanin extract bleed different distances up a grid of filter paper, the same way they test for MDMA in the blood, and he sometimes think of a building like this as a giant chromatograph for the streets below, with nothing soluble enough to reach the very top but police sirens and motorcycle engines and on hot days a faint prickle of smog. The skyscrapers across the river are cramped together into one narrow band of the horizon’s curve, a string of paper dolls, as marginal and unconvincing as one of those tourist board graphics where they cut and paste a dozen famous silhouettes into a greatest hits compilation. (15)

19This unstable relation to space is not specific to Beauman’s writing and was famously put forward by a number of postcolonial writers, such as Salman Rushdie (“London has grown unstable once again, revealing its true, capricious, tormented nature […]”, Rushdie 320) a point very aptly and precisely made by Daniela Rogoberte (163). This convergence of perspectives again shows how much Beauman is anchored in the multicultural, ethnically diverse realities of modern London. But rereading Beauman’s evocation of London through the prism of digital technologies via Alexander Galloway’s critique of the interface offers another line of interpretation. In The Interface Effect, Galloway sets himself the following programme:

Countering the received assumptions that interfaces are doors or windows, connecting things to other things, I tried to argue in Chapter 1 and 2 that the digital interface in fact produces an autonomous zone of interaction, orthogonal to the human sensorium, concerned as much with unworkability and obfuscation and with connectivity and transparency. Faced with the breakdown of the interface, it was necessary in chapters 3 and 4, to interrogate responsibility as such. Can media artefacts depict control society, and if so, how? To end I will consider one final interface, the human interface itself, and then offer some concluding meditations on the virtues of generic personhood in the age of the control society. (Galloway 121)

20Beauman’s London shares a number of characteristics with Galloway’s portrayal of the interface, notably the fact that some apparently insignificant or transparent venues become autonomous zones of interactions (the launderette, the freight depot). The combination of enhanced connectivity and recurrent obfuscation that we have all experienced when trying to book reservations or manage our tax accounts online is one of the defining features of the world of Glow. By and by, the logic of opposites that structured the first layer of representation gives way to another logic of a constant flow between states, alternating between various avatars of a given space as in Raf’s musings: “He tries to imagine what this place would look like if it were abandoned for a while like that tennis court, and how its progress would compare to a real street that was abandoned at the same time” (121).

21The cityscape in Glow alternates between hardware and software, street and screen: it enacts a re-composition of space through maps and journeys, which is traditional, but also through a number of gaps or moments of fuzziness. “As far as anyone knew, there were almost no gaps left in the surface of London, just an impermeable glossy sheath, but Lacebark bored some holes and now hundreds of people are crawling in after them.” (204). That glossy sheath might very well be the face of the gentrified, unaffordable, fully cctv-ed, corporate-run London Beauman repeatedly criticizes, but the gaps he evokes are more than just escape bolt-holes. Here again Galloway’s concept of the exploit appears relevant. The exploit is a technical term used by developers to describe the backdoors, or security faults, they embed in software for ulterior hacking. Galloway expands the meaning, defining it as “a resonant flaw designed to resist, threaten and ultimately desert the dominant political diagram” (13% kindle), and gives a few examples such as peer-to-peer protocols, suicide bombers, guerrillas. In this light one could read Raf’s evaluation of the warehouse repurposed into a party scene as a meta-textual comment on what Beauman attempted to do with the cityscape. “He decides this is just the most thorough possible reconsecration of this ground” (204).

22Galloway claims rather provocatively that “today all media are a question of synecdoche (scaling a part for the whole), not indexicality (pointing from here to there)” (2012, 9). Beauman’s geographical fiction indeed posits the MOUT model as a perfect yet contained version of London streets, in relation to what the Lacebark corporation calls a simuland, thereby reframing London itself as a figment of imagination. The relation to sources is no longer focused on truth and reliability but rather on modes of migration into new ways of structuring information, forms of remediation that can be literary, visual, medical or mathematical. The constant to-and-fro movement between real and virtual spaces, sober and drugged perceptions, the surface of things and hidden plots in Glow are a testimony to this very contemporary aesthetics of migration. It pushes even further the “metamorphic and flexible dimension of the metropolis” (Guignery 17), by suggesting that other locations and interpretations are possible if we read between the lines, if we pay attention to the gaps. Yet Beauman does not abandon indexicality: on the contrary, the precision of his descriptions attest to his sense of place and impart more strength and depth to his narrative. The originality of his cityscape lies in the tension between those various states of place and the journeys prompted by those distortions.

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Whitson, Eaket, et al. “Neo-immersion: awareness and engagement in gameplay”. Proceedings of the 2008 Conference on Future Play: Research, Play, Share, 220-223.

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1 Remarks made in a workshop with his French translator Catherine Richard and the students at the University Paris 8 on the 12th of May 2016.

2 , last accessed November 14, 2019.

3 Interview with Claire Larsonneur, personal email, September 19, 2017.

4 Interview with Claire Larsonneur, personal email, September 19, 2017.

5 Interview with Claire Larsonneur, personal email, September 19, 2017.

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Electronic reference

Claire Larsonneur, Ned Beauman’s Glow, or the hallucinated city Polysèmes [Online], 22 | 2019, Online since 20 December 2019, connection on 21 April 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Claire Larsonneur

Claire Larsonneur est maître de conférences en langue et traduction à l’université Paris 8, où elle intervient au sein du master de traduction T3L dans le parcours en ligne (traduction du web et du multimédia). Elle travaille en littérature britannique contemporaine, plus particulièrement sur les récits de voyage et la représentation de l’espace. Elle a publié deux ouvrages : Les Mots du Territoire (Dexia Editions, 2005) et La Recherche Internet en lettres et langues (Ophrys, 2008)

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