Broken Monsters, by Lauren Beukes: decadence and vivacity

“Shakespeare would have it wrong these days. It’s not the world that’s the stage – it’s social media, where you’re trying to put on a show. The rest of your life is rehearsals, prepping in the wings to be fabulous online”

broken monsters

Lately, I have had the good luck of reading books that I have thoroughly enjoyed, and if I were asked to choose the best among them Broken Monsters, by Lauren Beukes, would be my first choice.

Yes, I liked The Shining Girls quite a lot (indeed) and I still think it is one hell of a novel, but I also think that Broken Monsters is a significant improvement by any measure. I also think that is pertinent to speak of improvement because BM builds upon some of the ideas (both thematic and stylistic) already explored in TSG: noir or thriller novel with some fantastika elements more seamlessly included in BM, in my opinion, than in TGS —besides being closer to horror than to sci-fi—. Part of this success I attribute to an improvement in terms of prose and to BM being a more compact novel; another part, though, may owe to the disregard of some concessions to commerciality —such as the cheesy love story— to which TSG submitted and which I fail to perceive in BM. It may well be me overreading, here, but in hindsight it’s like Beukes had assimilated all that she learnt while writing TSG and had said “come on, now the real deal”. And she succeeded.

Although my review may seem a tad one-sided, I’d rather admit that I have nothing negative whatsoever to say of this novel. I wouldn’t touch a single comma. I have a guess of what Beukes is pursuing with this book and she achieves it, to me, to perfection. This is a rather infrequent statement at La Biblioteca de Ilium about contemporary works. Broken Monters, in short, hits me in my sweet spot.

The structure chosen by Beukes relies on multiple points of view, with a narrator in third-person speaking in present tense and free indirect style, focalized in the protagonist of the corresponding arc in the narrative. This leads to an urban story that gives similar weights to the plot itself and to the exploration of a variety of themes —I would not regard them as secondary— orbiting the main narrative axis: from the generation gap between a mother —a divorced cop— and her daugher —an atypical and magnificent nerd far from the idea of a shy geek—, to child pornography or the impact of gentrification in the urban landscape and society at large, or how social media (“What hope does he have?”, we learn of an unsuccessful journalist trying to find a place in our 2.0 reality, “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. He wants to sink into despair, but the cocaine won’t let him”) has changed how we and the world interact. The end result is a novel with multiple sides that Beukes manages to convey as a work both solid and fluid which merges the social criticism of the best journalism with the pure joy —although perverse— of fiction. While reading it, I couldn’t help to think of True Detective but actually, in hindsight, The Wire seems a far more apt reference.And who are the broken monsters in the title? There is an obvious answer, rather literal and inmediate and, because of this, less interesting to me. But there is also a far less apparent one that has to do with the emotional wounds, sometimes self-inflicted, of the characters in the novel. It’s true that Beukes never conceals her liking or disliking towards her creations, but no one in the novel is without flaws and without cruelty. From Layla, the adolescent girl, to Clayton, the alienated artist, the author’s cast shows us the variety of outcomes that resilience (or its lack) can have in both people and the city: Beukes mirrors through her literary Detroit a weird combination of decadence and vivacity that could be read (my reading, at least) as a metaphor for the collective conscience or the modern urban society.

In its formal aspects, besides its elegant and powerful prose style —how could I better describe it? I’m betrayed by my ignorance—, I am delighted by how the novel uses ellipses and the change of points of view to build a sort of spiral structure in which events come faster the closer we are to the outcome. If at the beginning (the outer part of the spiral) the main events have to do with exploring the characters personality, the setting and the first clues about the central mystery, with relatively large stretchs of time between chapters, as we near the end of the novel this stretchs are increasingly shorter and the main story —as is to be expected— gains prominence. In order to dispel any misjudged idea of me being a poet, the mental image I couldn’t shake off was that of the drain in a bathtub, both because the structure and the accelerating rhythm of the book.

And, finally, there is how the fantastic elements in the novel are treated, how it roams a territory halfway between crime fiction and horror. I won’t discuss much this aspect because I think that uncertainty in this regard rather benefits a first read of the novel and it’s a source of enjoyment which I wouldn’t steal from anyone, but I would like to highlight how gracefully it is embedded in the narrative and how much better implemented than in TSG. It’s because of this, at least in part, that I began this review by suggesting that TSG may be read as a previous study of what BM achieves. BM reaches to a wide audience and skillfully plays with the reading protocol(s) of genre(s).

To sum up: this is a sophisticated novel by a sophisticated writer, with a really interesting and personal voice. There is a lot I’m not saying about BM, but I just will add that I recommend it with no reservation whatsoever.

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