Zoo City, Lauren Beukes’ second novel, and the novel that brought her name to greater awareness, is a story that succeeds in many areas as much as it takes a few questionable turns. Though effectively rendering a handful of characters from the crumbling near-future of Johannesburg, what was nicely executed at the detail level failed to fully cohere at the macro level, the ending something of a convergence of inorganic elements. For her fourth novel, Broken Monsters (2014), Beukes decided to return to another half-ruined city, Detroit, and present the lives of the people living in its wane. Would she be able to pull it together at the end?
Classic at the meta-horror level and bizarre at the local, Broken Monsters opens on a disturbing scene: the discovery of a boy’s body with deer legs attached where his own should be. Gabi Versado the detective assigned to the case, dealing with the situation that erupts in the wake of finding the corpse proves even more difficult as her daughter, Leyla, gets involved with internet activity she shouldn’t. Conspiracy theorists and amateur online journalists likewise getting in the way, Versado can find little peace to go about her investigation. Among them are John O’Hare, a wannabe writer recently moved to Detroit, who finds an angle in the murder mystery and runs with it on his youtube channel and TK, a former convict now a volunteer for the elderly treading the fine line of homelessness himself. And, there is the perspective of the killer himself. A man with thoughts not of his own living inside his head, art seems his/its only escape.
Broken Monsters contains a lot of triggers—bullying, pedophilia, domestic violence, graphic descriptions, abuse, and others. If the bell curve of reviews on Amazon is any indication, then more sensitive readers have ignored the high quality of writing and engaging story, and focused on their reactions to these elements that Beukes, indeed in challenging fashion, includes. The challenge, however, is to be commended; Beukes does so in strong yet balanced, extreme albeit pertinent fashion. Being a woman, Beukes can present gender and gender issues in direct fashion without fear of backlash (an unfortunate situation in our day and age), but never allows the narrative to devolve into: X is bad, Y is good. Instead, the triggers are made to revolve around a theme that is being addressed at only a few points in literature but rarely in such visceral, affective fashion: social media and the subjectivity of modern society’s perception of the world as viewed through the lenses of that media. Impossible for the reader to walk away from the book without thinking about the evolution, role, effect, and reality of Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and the myriad other social tools in contemporary society, the theme fully coheres to story upon the conclusion. Which leads to:
In the middle of reading Broken Monsters I noted: “Wouldn’t this have worked better as a realist novel?” But upon the ending, particularly the transition from climax to denouement where Beukes reveals the fabric of the novel’s underlying reality (aka concretizes her intentions for the novel), I crossed out the question—several times. Unlike Zoo City, Broken Monsters passes off the extremes it escalates to in organic, even artistic fashion. While initially confusing (Surrealism? Paranormal fantasy? A dream?), Beukes brings it all back under rein in the final sections. The concluding lines are cynical as hell, but they do not destroy the idea that has been built.
Based on its opening, Broken Monsters was a novel I didn't want to like. The cheesy murder and the gratuitous sex scene which followed screamed cheap network television (otherwise known as "I'm fishing for readers with the low brow material"). But slowly, steadily, and then entirely upon the denoument, Beukes won me over. I remain not entirely enamored by the book’s title (the implications are uncertain), but the characters, their situations, the setting, and social commentary are all presented in such sharp, sometimes satirical, sometimes profound fashion that it becomes impossible not to take a step back and ponder it all. Horror and serial killer stories may be 99% trash, but this is the 1% with something more to say.
Beukes' best effort to date, where The Shining Girls was a step beyond Zoo City, Broken Monsters is yet another advancement. The prose even more on point, the sub-plots better balanced, and the underlying thematic material more naturally couched in story, Beukes just keeps getting better. Leyla’s life as a high schooler in contemporary America, John’s perceived rights/victimhood, TK’s skeletons in the closet, the portrayal of Detroit—all punch off the page for their vivacity just as the internet generation, the scale of net media, and the subjectivity of the perception of it all, drive the theme. There are moments the plot is a touch contrived, but given it all integrates so well with Beukes’ aims, the thought must be pushed aside in favor of discussion on the latter. One of 2014’s best books…