Never mind the beer ad guy – Lauren Beukes may be the most interesting author alive right now.
Broken Monsters follows in the tradition of Moxyland, Zoo City and The Shining Girls in using cities as characters, backdrops and plot points. In Broken Monsters, Detroit is both ruined and beautiful, the corpse of a model to which artists and hipsters flock as others tut over her corpse and say its just such a shame, and for the grace of god etc. In this Detroit, bait of urban explorers and home of tough cops, a murderer is stitching corpses and art together, a man tormented and the bearer of something beyond his power to control. But this is no Red Dragon – this is something more sinister and beautiful than that.
Detective Versado, her daughter Layla, Jonno Haim, Clayton Broom and TK make up the constellation of characters that are all interlinked to the Detroit Monster. This story is further complicated by what it means to be living in this naked age of social media, of constantly shifting identities and the repercussions the online world has on day to day life. As we see the CSI Effect damaging the American justice system, the novel explores how the rapid nature of the internet might get in the way of careful, thoughtful justice. The references to websites that millennials live on are rapid-fire and likely to be missed by many readers, but that is of no harm: it is Beukes showing her love of the internet, an exploration of our love-hate relationship with the world’s repository of cat pictures and memes. I was filled with the fuzzies at seeing a mention of Nyancat, possibly the most joyous meme (other than Pope Happycat, maybe) to come out of the noughtteens. (Shut up, that’s a real word, I’m using it now.)
Beukes’ research is remarkable, and the ability to incorporate her bottomless research without bogging the plot down is a rare skill – it informs rather than lectures, and she fleshes out Detroit as she has Chicago, Johannesburg and Cape Town before. Her characters are each exquisitely well-formed, especially Layla and her mother Gabriella Versado. Detective Versado takes no prisoners and no shit, and unlike many other female detectives in crime novels, never needs to be saved from her womanly self. She swears, she drinks whiskey, she tries to give a dead child his dignity while raising a daughter post divorce with no time to do it in. While another character calls her broken, I don’t think people who are genuinely broken are so capable, strong and empathetic, and maybe the definition of broken depends on who’s using it.
As always, Beukes covers a myriad of topics in each work; in Broken Monsters she covers bullying, the rapid dissemination of videos that ruin lives, urban exploration, grief, loss, divorce, police procedure, sex, the vastness of the internet’s invasive reach, hipsters, the art scene, homelessness, revenge, the proliferation of cyber-paedophilia, alcoholism, Detroit as the corpse of America’s hopes, clickbaiting, pottery, fucking Buzzfeed and Upworthy, and Santeria. While the novel does teeter near the line of claustrophobia with so many ideas battling for even a scrap of the spotlight, it contains and expresses its ideas in small details, settings and turns of phrase. Also: hooray for thorough editing. Not a single spelling or grammar mistake in the entire work, which is indeed a rare joy these days. One day when I am big, I hope to put my work before Helen Moffett, Beukes’ editor.
I hesitate to use the word paranormal because that word has been completely ruined by ridiculous ghost-hunting shows and drippy teen novels, but this story does push at the boundaries of what’s real, what lies on the other side of the dimensional fabric and what gives the monsters power. It manages to infuse the story with a sense of genuine horror without getting Lovecraftian (Lovecraft was a racist asshole, which is worth knowing) and instead doing something more avant-garde with horror. (The birds! The glass! The flowers! The tattoos!) There is also a gorgeous reference to Our Patron Saint of the Internet Neil Gaiman‘s stupendous American Gods, another delicious treat for pretentious people like me who like to catch references like other people catch pokemon.
Beukes is a novelist of unflinchingly keen eye and ambitious ideas, her body of work constantly building on some themes while incorporating others. Her love of the cityscape is palpable in her work, and her social commentary biting. Brett Easton Ellis should take notes. If she is capable of writing novels of this kind of depth once a year, I feel that we are in for a treat as readers.
Broken Monsters will be available in South Africa from July from Random House Struik
Watch the terrifying and eerily perfect trailer below: