Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes, Umuzi, 2014.
The reality/dream-blur or, more precisely, its ethereal and passing ‘structure’, has fascinated spiritual leaders, neuroscientists, cognitivists, writers and laymen for centuries. And while there might be many reasons for this, it is most likely also because memory resides in both, signalling the slippages of the self in dharma and its dreamy shadow. I shall call this blur – this break in the prefiguring categories ‘reality’ and ‘dream’ – a ‘bender’ so that I can have an anchor to return to, a word to cleave to when describing the elusive, abstract, nonfigurative nature of the reality/dream-continuum which Lauren Beukes explores at length in her new novel, Broken Monsters.
The novel begins as crime fiction. Accordingly the scene is set and a body is found – the body of a boy, though not entirely; only from the waist up. “Skinny as a beanpole. Beautiful skin, even if it’s gone yellow from blood loss.” At the hips the boy’s body has “been somehow ... attached to the lower half of a deer, hooves and all” so that what Officer Jones reports is not the death of a boy – not only – but also the creation of a mythical hybrid-boy which may or may not be the first. (A boy-deer dreamed into existence by a man-monster living in a half-formed fantasy world. What here is real?)
Enter sassy Detective Gabriella Versado. Unlike “New Guy” Officer Jones, she has seen it all; and in a city like Detroit (“The. Most. Violent. City.”) what else can you expect? For her reality is clear-cut. It has to be – because besides being a detective who solves the cruellest kinds of cases so that other people can sleep at night, she is a mom with a teenage daughter in an über-connected, topsy-turvy world. Now meet the daughter, Layla. For Layla reality is not a dream, it is a nightmare, albeit a clichéd angsty teenage nightmare. Except when she finds herself on the internet. (The new dream-world; because what is more bizarre, what bends reality more than cyberspace, that unearthliest of realms?) There anything is possible; there she can be anyone of her choosing, for example the alter ego SusieLee2003 that she and her “BFF” Cas created. And it is here where Beukes really gets interesting as she explores what happens when memory slips into dream and dream manifests in life; how the ‘I’ can become displaced in these ever shifting realities and what is possible in the era of social media, traversed by performative identities, real-time paparazzi (spot Jonno in the book), endeavouring to-be stars and broken monsters (bend, bending, bent, bender, twist). And although Beukes’s rendering of the hyper-connected yet ruptured self is neat, she evades the trap that so many writers fall into: flattening the greyer edges of her characters. This, for me, is Beukes’s greatest strength as a writer: each character is as multifaceted a combination of beautiful, broken, dreamy things as any real-life human being. They hurt and get hurt, they disappoint and fail, they try again, they behave badly, their mistakes have consequences, they are braver than they thought was possible, they are blinded by their own prejudices, they forget what is real, and they fall in love with dreams.
So now we have gathered most of the main threads (and if you read Beukes you will know that she likes many): we have a body which means there is a killer at large; we have the first officer on the scene – Officer Jones a.k.a. Sparkles; we have Detective Versado, her daughter Layla and Layla’s best friend Cas; we have blogger Jonno and his talented DJ girlfriend Jen x. And we have Detroit, the city of lost people, like homeless, aging TK who lost his youth because he shot the man who killed his mother. But TK is a survivor and spends his days either looking for treasure in repossessed homes or helping out ex-offenders at the local church together with his good pal Ramón Flores who, like TK, dreams of better things but makes do with small gifts like pilfered red shoes (click-click sound the heels). And somehow all of these characters are connected to a boy-deer’s passing; a scene that many a reader will find hard to forget.
A.S. Byatt once wrote that “we take pleasure in gruesome death, neatly packaged as a puzzle to which we may find a satisfactory solution through clues – or if we are not clever enough, have it revealed by the all-powerful tale-teller at the end of the book” because we are – at least in part – comforted by “the rules” of the game. But Lauren Beukes does not play by the rules. So if you thought you were in for crime fiction, think again: there is some serious genre-bending going on in this book which I like to think is a kind of meta-bending of the reality/dream-blur. Interwoven is also the thread of words; of what words mean, of what they can do (in reality), of what they promise (in dreams), and what they don’t mean – what happens when they lose the power of signification, when they become empty and removed from any real-world correlation. And then there is the question of the monster. Who is the monster? This broken monster that lies waiting, vigilant, inside the what? where? of who?
Granted, there are many threads, sub-motifs and umbrella themes in Broken Monsters – as in Beukes’s previous novels – and the truth is I often get frustrated towards the end of her novels because it inevitably feels like there is too much; too much information, a plot development too many, sub-themes in excess, profligacy, recklessness! And though I did feel the same sinking feeling towards the end of the new novel, I was pleasantly surprised. The twists simply stopped and the storyline was held together beautifully. Beukes is certainly an ambitious writer, but Broken Monsters also demonstrates that she is a gifted prose-sayer whose craft is maturing venturesomely.