The urban grit, filth and despair of a city that has come apart at the seams, making it ‘the number-one Death-of-America pilgrimage destination’. Detroit, a city filled with places that are a shadow of what they used to be, a ‘sprawling waste of it. Broken bricks and concrete pillars holding up the sky’ with everything ‘choked with weeds and graffiti.’ The many, many abandoned homes and factories have now become transient spaces, neither living nor dead but just silently waiting in limbo—blighted and lonely.
In Lauren Beukes’ new novel, Broken Monsters, these places are doorways, thresholds between planes; even chalk-drawn outlines of doors on walls are slick membranes between realities and dreams. Amongst the decrepitude of Detroit there remains a desire, a dream trying to break through to the surface though ‘it feels suffocated by the rigidity of the world. And yet…there is evidence of the dreaming everywhere. There is a world beneath the world that is rich and tangled with meaning.’ It is this world that failed sculptor Clayton Boom is trying to bring to life with horrific taxidermy, clay, and murder most foul.
As with her last (fantastic) novel The Shining Girls, Beukes isn’t interested in building up suspense leading to grand reveal of who the killer really is. Part of the horror here is knowing who it is, of feeling their madness firsthand. We find out very soon that Clayton is the one whose mind has opened up to something strange when he drives into a deer and sees the animal die. ‘He felt like he was falling into its eyes. There were doors opening in the trees all around him, a door swinging open in his head.’ Very soon, Clayton is buried under the weight of a secret thing, a ‘dreaming thing he let into his head that didn’t mean to get trapped here, drawn out by the raw wound of the man’s mind, blazing like a lamp in one of those border places where the skin of the worlds are permeable’.
But that’s enough of the supernatural element for now—and there is one, a definite, defiant kink in the weave of this narrative that tells you it isn’t the average sort of psycho-killer thriller. Broken Monsters is also part police-procedural, the multi-POV narrative including that of Detective Gabi Versado, a smart, dedicated Detroit cop who thinks she’s seen everything until she discovers a horrific body that’s both a boy and a deer, somehow grafted grotesquely together. The police department have very little go on, but as more bodies are found, each a twisted part-human grotesquerie that pushes the fabric of reality, Gabi has to search harder and faster, all the while managing a turbulent relationship with her teenage daughter Layla who inadvertently gets caught up in the case as well.
Another person caught up with the physical manifestations of Clayton’s dream is TK, a man living off the streets, gentle and harmless but haunted by a violent incident from his childhood. TK’s path crosses with Clayton’s at a local soup kitchen, a meeting that leaves his head ‘full of ghosts of tortured metal and sheets blooming with bloody flowers.’ There’s something wrong with Clayton, and TK somehow knows it.
Also briefly crossing paths with Clayton is Jonno, a failed journalist who has run away from his past to Detroit and is currently searching for the next big thing, trying to find a new hook, a new angle, a new spin on the same stories that have already been churned out many times, until he realises that ‘People don’t want novelty—they want the reassurance of familiarity. No-one wants to be challenged, no-one wants to have their minds blown. There is an insatiable appetite for affirmation.’ And so Jonno hooks up with Jen-Q, a young, savvy Detroit DJ, who is ‘cool and popular and she opens doors to the parts of the city everyone goes—and then breaks them open to places he didn’t imagine’, hoping that she will help him find his next big break amidst the ruin porn that seems to define the city’s landscape. ‘The problem’ thinks Jonno, ‘is not the obsession with ruin porn, it’s that everyone is trying to figure out what it all means. It’s the human condition, obsessively reading too much into things.’
Beukes’ ability to be astutely, bang-on-target contemporary is astounding. Its not just that she points out that modern life is strange, with our dependencies on the internet for all sorts of validation, but that she’s willing to explore so many facets of it so fast and so cleverly. The dialogue of her characters rings disturbingly true—we’re all prone to constantly hiding behind electronic screens, referring to information gathered on various social media feeds, Buzzfeed ‘listicles’, texting instead of talking, discovering that what’s worse than fifteen minutes of fame is ‘the same fifteen minutes again and again, and it doesn’t change anything’. The characters in Broken Monsters do all this and more. Gabi’s teenage daughter Layla and her friend Cas even enter into a dangerous game of catfishing a potential pedophile online, and while initially I did wonder if this sub-plot was completely necessary to the main arc of the book, it becomes very easy to see how it helps to show great development in Layla’s character, and adds to the idea of how little is sacred and safe in this age of forced exposure and a world where ‘everything is public’.
In some ways Broken Monsters is a more compact novel than The Shining Girls—most of it takes place over the course of a week in Detroit, whereas Beukes’ previous thriller was spread out across both time and space. But don’t be distracted by space or time boundaries here—Broken Monsters manages to deliver a strong, relevant opinion on a great many issues and ideas that are obviously close to the writer’s heart. As always with Beukes’ writing, this novel too refuses to be bound by any single genre.
When I first interviewed Lauren Beukes a few years ago, she’d recently won the Clarke Award for Zoo City and was pretty much considered a speculative and/or science fiction writer. But with The Shining Girls she struck a beautiful balance—she was critically acclaimed by master genre storytellers like Stephen King and she was a bestseller featured by mainstream ventures like Richard & Judy and O, the Oprah Magazine, with the novel also optioned for television production by Leonardo DiCaprio’s firm. Being a big crossover hit while remaining respected by your genre peers and idols is never an easy thing to straddle but that’s what I think Beukes ultimately does with great aplomb—she straddles genres, boundaries, pushes against definitions and limits constantly and tirelessly. Broken Monsters continues to do this, deserving a repeated reading to peel apart everything it is expertly packed with. With Beukes never letting go of the zeitgeist, I for one, am a fan and I can’t wait to see what she’s up to next.
Broken Monsters is published by Umuzi in South Africa (July 1st), HarperCollins in the UK (July 31st), and by Little, Brown & Company in the US (Sept 16th).