SA's trending author has expertly embraced new media as a medium of horror, and the characters of her female protagonists defy casual stereotyping.
Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes (Umuzi)
South Africans should be proud of Lauren Beukes, a writer who has gone from the intensely local brilliance of her first two novels, Moxyland and Zoo City, to the gloriously global successes that are The Shining Girls and, now, Broken Monsters.
Of course, notwithstanding the author’s success in other parts of the world such as the United Kingdom, global — in the sense of the much broader appeal of Broken Monsters — is here defined from the point of view of the United States, arguably the country that currently dominates the way the English-speaking world interacts with, and conceives of, the genres of fantasy, science fiction and murder fiction. It’s a false idea of globalisation, but one that is also, at the same time, very real.
Some might — some should — take issue with this, and rightfully mourn the fact that one of South African writing’s most original voices now belongs to the world, and might never return. I only noticed one specifically South African reference in Broken Monsters, to the artist Faith47. Well, two, if you count blogger Jonno Haim’s mention of the Rodriguez documentary. It’s a percentage that probably reflects the reality of world interest in South African literature, which is why we can’t cavil at Beukes seizing a larger canvas for her talent.
But we really needed her hyper-modern insights into our impossible futures. In her first two novels, set respectively in Cape Town and Johannesburg, she was a peculiar voice of, and for, young South Africa, and her finely crafted, slightly insane visions of the future gave us unexpected glimpses into our pasts as well as our presents.
With Broken Monsters, you will be forced to negotiate your South Africanness in the same way that readers from other countries deduce their particularities — through the prism of the American genres we have been persuaded to accept as universal.
In this case, the genre is that of the mad killer and his detective nemesis, and an assorted cast of disparate protagonists whose troubled lives intersect with the main horror of the story.
But Beukes has taken this beyond mere appropriation, however well done, and into an arena she has been making her own for a while now, that of the digital world inhabited by the new humans of the internet. So the most original, and perhaps most clearly delineated, character in Broken Monsters is not the killer, the insane and frustrated outsider artist Clayton Broom, who creates mashups of animal parts and the remains of his human victims.
Nor is it the police detective, Gabi Versado, who is perhaps the weakest of all the characters, embodying as she does too many of the recent tropes of detective fiction. It is Jonno Haim, a disgraced, increasingly irrelevant journalist trying to resurrect his career through video, social media and the erotic trip advisor that is his DJ lover Jen Q.
Jonno’s predicament is that “the world is condensing, attention spans narrowing to tiny screens, and there are people who are wittier and smarter, who know how to write for those nanospaces”.
This constant fragmentation of story and thought is mirrored in the location Beukes has chosen for her tale of horror and minor redemptions, Detroit, the go-to metaphor for the disintegration of the American dream.
It’s tempting to see Jonno’s comment as applying to Beukes, who is one of those people who are smart enough to write for the new reader, and indeed one of the writers responsible for the continual production of the new reader.
Despite the traditional and pleasurable novel form, Broken Monsters can be read as a concatenation of nanospaces. The characters’ lives intersect in surprising ways, and in ways that artfully move the narrative forward, but in essence they all seem to be either isolated or struggling to fight isolation.
There’s more to Jonno than his struggle to convert master narratives into shards of meaning, the new currency of the digital generation. He is also the channel, through his ever-constant mobile phone, by which the killer’s ghastly artworks are transmitted to the world, and indeed by which they attain some sort of meaning.
In the final showdown between the detective and the killer, Broom tells Jonno: “You’re part of the infection. You’re the messenger. I need you. You and your Internet to set it all loose.”
It’s a fresh kind of horror, where technology has become a greater enabler of evil than the supernatural ever could. One of the narrative threads in Broken Monsters is that of Versado’s daughter, Layla, and her friend Cas, and their entrapment of an online paedophile with the alias VelvetBoy. Cas has been the victim of sexual abuse, and the incident is filmed and posted on video-sharing sites. This drives her to out online sexual predators, something that escalates to a physical confrontation with a man trying to lure young girls through social media.
It’s a more normal — if one can use that word to describe the sad reality of perversion in the digital age — conduit for evil than the almost supernatural dissemination and amplification of Clayton Broom’s murderous art by streaming services.
In the final analysis, the horrors played out in the novel are not the things that will live with the reader afterwards. The killer Broom is not a hugely remarkable character, and his bloody art is only interesting for how hard he tries. There’s a suggestion of the supernatural about it all, but read against the grimy banality of the characters’ lives that just seems to be another escape mechanism gone viral.
What will stay with you are the female characters for which Beukes has become fêted. She has a knack for eschewing stereotypes when it comes to young female protagonists. There is nothing remarkable about Layla, or indeed Versado, or Cas, or Jen Q, and yet the way they deal with life makes them survivors and creators at one and the same time.
And it’s this idea of Detroit, and the people creating art and meaning out of depression, that Beukes has used to frame the narrative.
Broken Monsters doesn’t only refer to the hacked up and reassembled victims of Clayton Broom, or to the killer himself, but also to the disintegration of normalcy that the characters experience along with the city.
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Honeymoon Studios presents Beautiful Lies, the first of their new podcast series. Award-winning author, Lauren Beukes, shares her thoughts on lying for money and why we, the audience, are so ready to believe. Listen to the podcast.