By ditching the tired narratives of contemplation and guilt, Beukes’s otherworldly novels have beefed up the anaemic world of South African fiction.
I meet Lauren Beukes at her home in Tamboerskloof, a steeply inclined suburb at the foot of Table Mountain. We had agreed to meet at the Woodstock Exchange but her home has the “murder wall” — a fretwork of red thread linking the headshots of beautiful dead women and clippings in fine print crisscrossing the 1930s and 1990s. Some of the press clippings are Photoshopped; others real. The murder wall is the map and trigger for Beukes’s latest novel about a time-travelling serial killer, The Shining Girls.
We settle down to talk and Beukes is struck by the clunky dictaphone I position between us, the cassette heaving asthmatically. “You need an iPhone,” she says; apt given the sleek technosphere I imagine she inhabits. “Vintage,” I’m tempted to say, but I’m distracted by her healthy glow.
Beukes is a publisher’s dream: attractive, gifted, on point. She is the winner of the Arthur C Clarke Award, which has previously been awarded to Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro and China Miéville. “I write the stories I want to write and what I’d want to read,” she says. Moxyland and Zoo City are widely and deservedly celebrated reads, but what about Maverick: Extraordinary Women from South Africa’s Past? Beukes launches into a gushing account of Glenda Kemp, the snake-dancing stripper; Ruth First, the glamorous freedom fighter blown up by a letter bomb; and Dolly Rathebe, “Africa’s first black movie star who ran a shebeen and sold weed on the side”.
Like the red fretwork of her murder wall, Beukes’s conversation keeps returning to “women burning with potential”, women snagged in the brute “reality of violence”, a far cry from the generic noir image of “a beautiful blonde splayed on a floor legs akimbo and one high heel cast aside, blonde hair in a pool of blood”.
Beukes knows her noir porn but she also knows how to read the entrails of a grim truth and how, in this morally bankrupt world, it’s become difficult to separate the two. Which is why she fights to make the writing more real “because violence is real, we disconnect with that, we don’t see what it is”.
“I want to be a David Mitchell; a Margaret Atwood,” she says. “Hopefully my audience will follow me wherever I want to go.” All the indicators suggest that she has no difficulty inspiring her readers. Beukes’s feral splicing of genres reflects a world unimpressed by categories.
That said, no “talking squids from outer space” pop up in Beukes’s fiction. The remark is Atwood’s. Made on the back of The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake, it irked science fiction fans who thought it dismissive of the genre. Pitting speculative fiction against science fiction, Atwood’s point was that the former “could really happen”. Well … what actually can happen is surely up for grabs, though Atwood tried to mollify the justifiably rankled with her next morph, “social science fiction”. Like “speculative fiction”, social science fiction works for figuring out Beukes, a child of the remix and the mash-up.
“Contemporaneity is and always has been history on the move. A history that we witness, or engender, but whose finality we cannot ponder. A history that makes us rethink ourselves, not in reference to one fixed outmoded identity but as protean beings with multiple changeable identities.” These words are art critic Simon Njami’s and they trigger a trip switch when I read Beukes.
The monstrousness that stalks life
Beukes’s novels are otherworldly yet cannily on point as “ghostings” of the world we live in: real yet bizarre; visceral yet sublime. As for talking squids, they do assume a telling edge in James Cameron and Katherine Bigelow’s film Strange Days, which Beukes admires, and an inspiration for Moxyland. Wired to the brain, the squid teleports the consumer to a parallel dimension — a businessperson becomes the blonde babe in the shower he so fervently wishes to be, which is sweet. But when the squid becomes the device through which a rape victim assumes the rapist’s experience it is anything but. Strange Days depicts one of the most frightening evocations of rape as a killing of spirit and volition: the victim is so utterly dispossessed of agency she cannot even experience her own pain or death.
Atwood, Cameron and Bigelow are key inspirations for Beukes and it is easy to understand why: Atwood’s powerful conceits, Cameron’s rich plots, and the frisson and pace of Bigelow’s direction are vital elements in a Beukes novel. Moreover, their women are powerful, intelligent, driven and occupy the vortex of the drama. The worlds they conjure force us to reckon with the perversity at the core of the civilisation that defines us. Furiously politicised, unrelenting in the challenges they pose, damning of the monstrousness that stalks life, these artists in their populist idiom bring us back to the power of fiction to make the world a better place.
In the 1930s, George Orwell penned an essay titled Good Bad Books, meaning “books that remain readable when more serious productions have perished”.
“Who has worn better,” Orwell asked. “Conan Doyle or [George] Meredith?” Orwell’s answer is Doyle, an author “able to identify himself with his imagined characters, to feel with them and invite sympathy on their behalf, with a kind of abandonment that cleverer people would find it difficult to achieve”. Orwell’s point is that “intellectual refinement can be a disadvantage to a storyteller, as it would be to a music hall comedian”.
One need not agree that Uncle Tom’s Cabin will outlive the complete works of Virginia Woolf, but there is something to be celebrated in the idea of “good bad fiction”. Dare I say it: the South African novel in its classic mode is dead, by which I mean the novel of great ideas fed through the mill of colonial taste, disaffection and distemper. Which returns me forcefully to the writing of Beukes, an artist who breaks the contemplative guilt-stricken mould while holding on to the core quest to redefine the aggrieved human condition that defines that tradition. Here Beukes reminds me that she is joined by Jamala Safari, Kgebetli Moele, Thando Mgqolozana, Zukiswa Wanner, Sifiso Mzobe, Diane Awerbuck, Henrietta Rose-Innes and crime fiction writers Deon Meyer and Margie Orford, who “all interrogate the now in exciting and cool ways”.
Beukes, and others, are at the frontier of a new South African fiction making a global impact. Put bluntly, six-figure sums are being lavished on young South African writers wired to a global idiom, a recent case in point being Sarah Lotz. South Africa’s canon still maintains its currency, but there is another concurrent and fast-growing realm in which writers and readers speak each to each beyond the limiting frontiers of national identity. It is not of course the universalism of our suffering and triumph that our writers have tactically engineered that matters here, but the transnational commercial idiom they have finally mastered. Novelist Michael Ondaatje described this generation some time ago as “international bastards”.
The Shining Girls is set in Chicago. Beukes’s other novels are set in Cape Town and Johannesburg. The one she is working on next, called Broken Monsters, is set in Detroit. Cities are her psycho-geographies, cities as visceral as they are imagined. Given the virtuality of lived existences, the global refraction of the prism that makes us up is not surprising. What binds us are imagined communities. Our tenuous substance is networked, our sense of purpose an idea as quaint as it remains urgent. What Beukes returns to us is that very precariousness, that vulnerability and that urgency. “Only connect,” EM Forster declared, knowing then, as we know now, the enormity of the call and the stricken pathos that drives it.
In conversation with Beukes one senses not only the urgency to connect but the threat that dogs the yearned-for moment. A novel that pictures history on the move, in which time folds and events lose the ease of linearity, what forcefully emerges is concurrency: our post-postmodern time as the age of all ages. Deliberately shut off in 1993, The Shining Girls sidesteps the maw of the internet but nevertheless reminds us of a heterochronic world within worlds, of time drained of duration, which postmodern thought anticipated.
The Shining Girls is not a book of philosophy but a thriller in which a serial killer is the jumper between different times in the evolution of Chicago. The strategy allows the writer to gather certain nodal moments that define an age, then, in folding them, forces the reader to reflect on that which changes and that which remains the same. What becomes terrifying is the monotony and unchanging nature of life when it is conceived unimaginatively and hopelessly — this is the horror embodied in the serial killer, an obsessive compulsive fetishist incapable of acknowledging the value of life beyond its reduction to a preordained and monstrous pattern.
The killer’s victims, one of whom survives her preordained murder to become his antagonist, live lives that are spirited, open and unhampered by the sameness of time. The cruelty in the logic of the novel lies in the seeming triumphalism of sameness, but it is left to the survivor of a murder attempt to change all that. Here lies the force of Beukes’s novel. In conceiving a heroine who lives emphatically in the world, a woman who will not succumb to fate — history has “murdered” women for centuries — Beukes returns us to the driving force behind the writing, which is to reflect upon biopolitics and the historic and monstrous condemnation and damnation of women.
To read The Shining Girls as a feminist tract is, however, absurd. Mary Wollstonecraft’s campaign for the rights and vindication of women may prove the pulse of the work, but it is Wollstonecraft’s daughter, Mary Shelley, who is its inspiration. It was Mary Shelley who embraced the monster; Mary Shelley who in examining the random piecing together of dead human matter and its monstrous consequence who returns us to the horror of serialising women, reducing them to objects and perforce to dead matter.
My point is not that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a novel about a serial killer but that it is the first science fiction thriller to examine the moral consequence of bringing the dead back to life, and inversely, as in the case of The Shining Girls, betraying life coolly and casually on behalf of an obsessive and morbid idea of death.
The window between life and death
What Beukes does show us is how a premeditated murder operates; the chilling care for a girl child’s beauty and its casual annihilation years later. What links Mary Shelley to Lauren Beukes is the power of imagination directed to the window period between life and death, a window rendered pornographic and obscene. It is in this window between life and death, which the killer controls, that the sickness of the book is located. There is no mystery, no gnawing unsettlement that the reader may experience in not knowing when the killer will strike. On the contrary, we are privy to the sordid frisson of pleasure the killer experiences in the anticipation of the moment, we are ground down by the inevitability of it all, until one woman, the avenging angel, survives the killer’s brutal logic. And it is here, in this critical turnaround, that the horror of predestination is challenged, the agency of selfhood championed.
If The Shining Girls was mere gore porn it would be unsatisfactory; if it was a mere moral tract similarly so. To capture the monstrousness of femicide — the unrelenting transhistorical slaughter of women — Beukes chose a form, social science fiction, that cannily expresses our ills; our unremitting failure to love, care for or cherish the lives of others. Beukes provides a solution — the killer is destroyed — but she nevertheless leaves us with a bitter taste that, unlike the taste of gall at the close of The Master of Petersburg, is a taste of and a taste for death. We come to know death intimately, how swiftly all we value and regard highly can be casually extinguished. We are left with the remorseless annihilation of beauty, an annihilation not only of young, industrious and promising women, but also the annihilation of great human spirit.
It is this core annihilation that defines Shelley’s Frankenstein. This annihilation, the consequence of the abandonment of ethics, of justice, is one we experience every day. Indeed, such is the extent of the abandonment that we no longer believe it is possible to right a wrong, recognise beauty or hold on to what is precious. The evil genius of Beukes’s serial killer is that he can still see what is good and, therefore, what can be destroyed while we, inured, emptied, mere husks, know and value little. Philosopher Jean Baudrillard remarked that we live in a world more visible than the visible; such is the saturation and the bloated emptiness of our world, we can no longer disinter, regulate or manage the force field that defines us. In such a hyper-real, saturated world, how do we mediate, reflect or act?
Beukes’s social science fiction raises these questions. The plus, of course, is that she also entertains through novels that are intelligent, hyper-conscious, worldly, intimate, enduring and popular. There is no doubt in my mind how desperately we need writers who can show us who we are, invoke Rainer Maria Rilke’s call to change our lives, and pin us down reflectively to the cruel bind we find ourselves in. What gives Beukes’s writing its power is threefold: the prose is scintillating, the dialogue utterly convincing and the plot riveting.
Beukes displays all the attributes of a postmodern hybrid. Her disregard for pure categories, her queering of heteronormative values, her scepticism of flash style, her distrust of mind removed from things, her sensuous and visceral flair, all forcefully return us to a world as gritty as it is conceptual. A maverick and a glow girl, Beukes brings a heady mix of sex and ethics back into the anaemic world of South African fiction. Trained as a journalist, Beukes developed the instinct for detail early on. All importantly, the details are perverse, twisted, forcing the reader to reconfigure perceptual norms, which is why Beukes is seen as cultish, avant-garde and hip. Here the package comes in the way of the substance. The worlds she depicts suggest such a cool ghetto, but her reach is far greater and far more penetrating. Beukes’s fiction literally shines.
She starts out with the big questions: What is Africa? What does contemporaneity represent within this geographical entity? Her solution has been to estrange these questions all the more and, in the estranging discover a new global commons, a new transcultural nexus, in which cities, as generic as they are unique, set the stage for her brave new worlds.
Like her transatlantic accent, Beukes’s fictive world straddles continents; you can’t fix her. After Pico Iyer, Beukes is a “global soul”; after Donna Harraway a kind of cyborg who moves effortlessly between the real and fantastical.
The Shining Girls is published by Umuzi and will be available on April 15