/ 19 April 2013

Grisly death passes without comment

The Shining Girls.
The Shining Girls.

THE SHINING GIRLS by Lauren Beukes (Umuzi)

Anene Booysens and Reeva Steenkamp were alive and well while this novel was being written, so this fictional account of femicide seems horribly topical and comes while these traumas are still fresh in the memories of South African readers.

This is Beukes’s third novel and in a recent article the young writer was referred to as a “publisher’s dream”, and one could perhaps agree with that. But whether she is the readers’ dream is another matter. This reader was rather disappointed.

Interestingly, for a South African writer, this novel is set in Chicago. Once again Beukes’s protagonist is a young woman; Kirby Mazrachi, a young journalist who has survived the dippy parenting of her rather fey and hippy mother, and, much more seriously, a murderous attack on her and her dog. It gets off to a chilling start with the weird and sinister Harper approaching Kirby when she is a child, giving her a toy pony. And then we see him again, in a flashback to 50 years ago, when he is fleeing gangsters over a gambling matter and finds himself in a wrecked ­tenement house. In a few short pages one realises that Harper is extremely bad news. He is at times as close to a zombie as a serial killer could be.

The “shining girls” of the title are the girls and women he preys on and, to start with, it’s an absorbing read. Beukes writes really well and has done a great deal of research. Her forte is character and the portraits of the women are the deep strength of the book. My personal favourite is Zora, a black welder-shipbuilder, mother of four, working in the shipyards of Illinois on troop carriers for World War II. She’s a satisfying change from the many feisty girls that feature in Beukes’s novels.

Dan, the sports journalist under whom Kirby is serving her internship at the scruffy Chicago Sun-Times, is another great fictional creation. True, he is somewhat in the mould of the hard-bitten journo or cop, but he is so well done and the delineation of the relationship between him and Kirby so amusing and actually real that he is entirely convincing. Beukes uses him to satirise the hack work that journalists can fall into when she says he is searching, in vain, for “some meaningful insight” or “even just an opinion”.

So where then lies my disappointment? One has to ask what this book is about. Is its purpose to highlight the prevalence of violence against women through the ages? Throughout the book Beukes refers to femicide (good word), but the book is full of violence and gratuitous cruelty described in such detail as to be quite obscene, repeatedly inflicting on the reader a sort of secondary violence by re-enacting these horrific crimes.

With the exception of Kirby, who certainly survives the first attack on her, all these lovely girls are snuffed out by this monster. What comment does this offer on society? Harper is so extreme a manifestation of evil, hunting ghoulishly through several decades, that the common or garden-variety wife-beaters of today can just exonerate themselves. The existence of deranged serial killers in all eras is not really part of the daily harassment of women. It is hard to take this seriously as a treatise on femicide, especially as Beukes seems to revel in the gore. My guess is that most readers, male and female, would find the third description of evisceration to be a bit tedious (skippable). But then, I couldn’t even watch Alien 2 for longer than 10 minutes.

One of the more playful elements of Moxyland was Beukes’s conflation of cyber reality with “real” reality; in The Shining Girls she entertains the reader with time sequences that seem to run concurrently, or dovetail impossibly. This, like the decor, dress and other social contexts, adds to the pleasing “set dressing” of this novel. Not all of it is blood and gore, but the time sequences get so crazy that one feels Beukes is being too clever at the expense of the reader. Perhaps this is why this book arrived with a girly letter addressed to the reader, a sort of placatory gesture.

By the end it is just depressing, with not much post-reading residue. At most, one has a sense of the glamour, and the squalor, of Chicago. It is not a book that will change your consciousness or your life.

Settling for less
Moxyland, Beukes’s first novel, is a hard act to follow for its startling originality, sociopolitical prescience and plausibly frightening vision of Cape Town in the not too distant future, in which all power has devolved into the hands of big business and human rights have all but disappeared.

By comparison, the social comment in The Shining Girls is weak, counterproductive and diffused in the thriller context. We are left with gratuitous violence, sex and death.

What has become of the gravitas underlying Moxyland? The latter was not cheerful, but it was redeemed by its multifaceted insights. Despite the mature confidence of her writing, Beukes has settled for less in both Zoo City and The Shining Girls. In taking her new book so firmly into several kinds of now highly respectable genres, Beukes asserts her freedom to write what she likes, but her charming maverick quality makes her less of a sociopolitical commentator than she first seemed, and that she seems (in interviews) to want to be.

Finally, the evil at the heart of The Shining Girls is more dark mythic fantasy than possible horror; Harper is too far beyond the reach of ordinary people for this to work as a social corrective.

In Moxyland, the desolate ending and horrible consequences flow from the weakness of Kendra, the foolish, decent, vulnerable girl, and the self-absorption and casual indifference of Toby, inter alia. But they are convincing in a way that the confusions of the climax of The Shining Girls is not. Kirby is fun to read, but does not grab the heartstrings.

There is a huge amount of hype around the publication of this book, which will appear simultaneously in four English-speaking countries, and it will also come out in another 15 languages. All well and good. Many may like her current writing, but the question is: What does being “a publisher’s dream” do to a writer? Perhaps this book will give her the financial security to claim some space to consider this.