Review: Broken Monsters, Lauren Beukes

I want you to look in a mirror. Are you looking in a mirror? I’ll wait.

Okay, ready?

Now recall the worst thing you ever did. Maybe you hurt an author’s feelings. Really inhabit that moment. Don’t stop looking in the mirror! Are you sad? Yeah? Imagine that you need a hug, but there’s no one to hug you. All of the people who might hug you are pervs. There’s probably a single tear running down your cheek right now. You’re weak.

So, that sums up how you’ll feel after finishing Lauren Beukes’s Broken Monsters (Mulholland Books, September 2014). You should read it. Like, right now. But prepare to drown the ceremony of innocence. Face down in a kiddie pool with two inches of dirty water in the bottom. In the back yard of a house that serves as a meth lab.

Broken Monsters is set in present day Detroit, a provocative choice: The capital of ruin p***, target of political jeremiads, butt of jokes, looming symbol of American decline. Had Beukes failed to tell a story worthy of her chosen setting, Broken Monsters might have been a stillbirth, another corpse to stack in the Motor City’s overflowing morgues. But Beukes rightly focuses on her characters, the people who call Detroit home, the humanity that’s forgotten amid the point-scoring and jockeying for position, and that becomes the book’s saving grace–for what it’s worth. To paraphrase an encounter between the disgraced journalist Jonno Haim, who sees in Detroit’s deterioration his chance for redemption: “People need to know this is happening,” to which an artist replies, “We’re here. We know.”

Broken Monsters, Lauren Beukes

Broken Monsters, Lauren Beukes

Broken Monsters is, superficially, the story of a serial killer with a fetish for weird art. Think corpse montages. roadkill jigsaw puzzles. Imagine the loveliest thing you’ve ever seen, and then imagine that the devil vomited on it. And that he made eye contact with you while doing it. You get the idea. But Broken Monsters isn’t a police procedural. It’s not a mystery, not really, although readers will eagerly wonder how the story pans out. The identity of the killer is known from the beginning of the story, you see, so the question isn’t “whodunnit,” but “How in the hell will the paths of these poor saps intersect those of the murderer? And just what the hell is wrong with him?”

Detective Gabi Versado is the unlucky cop assigned the case that is, unbeknownst to the police, the first public installation of the Detroit Monster’s art. It’s gruesome, and it’s tragic, and Gabi, a good cop, is determined to find the killer, but the police have little evidence to go on, with the exception of some of the, er, materials used in the “piece.” Gabi’s homelife complicates her efforts: Layla, Gabi’s teenage daughter, resents her parents’ divorce, and, despite being a good kid, demonstrates a knack for getting into trouble. And Broken Monsters is really Layla’s show, Layla’s struggle to realize herself as an individual in a fallen world.

Beukes spent time in Detroit prior to (or perhaps during) the writing of Broken Monsters, and it shows, at least to this reader, who confesses that he’s never visited. Beukes references neighborhoods the way I imagine a local might, and, during her visit, she clearly spent time at abandoned industrial sites, the derelict remnants of which are like sores on the civic body. There is a sense of emptiness here, that those who had the means fled, and that those who remain are trapped in an oversized, tumbledown municipality built in better days with a brighter future in mind. Characters, such as TK, haunt the streets, scavenging the goods left behind by those evicted from their homes. And if it can’t be stolen, or if it’s not worth it, then the vultures destroy it, the petty vandalism of those who have nothing left to lose.

And loss is really the unifying theme of Broken Monsters, whether it’s the loss of a loved one, or a relationship, or innocence, or sanity. Or, in one memorable scene, teeth. (Don’t ask. Best to read it for yourself.) Beukes’s Detroit is stalked by a vicious circle of predators and prey, and the delineation between one and the other is never quite clear. Like the Detroit Monster’s artwork, individual’s roles are transgressive. Beukes’s characters are neither fully good nor fully bad–like real human beings, incidentally–and nearly all of the major characters undergo a flip-flop at some point in the narrative that shifts the reader’s perspective from skepticism to sympathy, or vice versa. For instance, Jonno’s “[c]areer highlights: playing Scheherazade to a serial killer.” Readers will laugh even as they weep, knowing that Jonno and his fellow characters knowingly chose their fates.

Beukes’s atmosphere, her sense of place, her plotting, and her characterization are spot on. She wields tension like a knife, twisting it in the reader’s guts: “Something is happening…Something is building like a wave. Tsunamis pull all the ocean back before they come crashing in.” Well, shit, Lauren, what choice do I have but to read on? She engages, too, in cutting commentary on our relationship with social media, and the way it creeps into, colonizes, every corner of our lives. There is something awful, something objectifying and voyeuristic, about staring at a blog full of images of Detroit’s deterioration–but ashamed of ourselves as we might be, we can’t look away. Beukes knows that, holds the mirror up to the reader’s face, and refuses to let her flinch.

Broken Monsters isn’t perfect. (Although it is damn near.) This reader enjoyed the introductions of the characters, one at a time, early in the novel, and was primed to expect equal treatment of them throughout. That doesn’t happen. Nor should it; some characters, and some storylines, are, of course, more important (and interesting) than others. Still, the introduction hinted at an equal time in the narrative that doesn’t pan out. TK is present early on, but disappears after the halfway point, only to return. Layla, and her friend Cas, rise to prominence after the first third of the narrative is complete. Jonno dips in and out again as Beukes needs him. Part of this is due to the panoramic story she’s telling, but some readers might have hoped for more consistency in Beukes’s treatment of her characters.

It's a little known fact that Beukes claims to have encountered a satyr in the woods as a child. Not really, I made that up.

It’s a little known fact that Beukes claims to have encountered a satyr in the woods as a child. Not really, I made that up.

Certain plot elements are predictable. Readers will be able to predict a certain secondary character’s back story early on. Likewise, identifying the killer early in the story could have been a risk if it weren’t for the supernatural elements Beukes eases into the narrative. Beukes evokes tension by leading on the reader, ever curious to see who will next cross paths with the Detroit Monster. That supernatural mystery, too, is a draw. Beukes uses a (blessedly) light touch with the supernatural throughout the novel, although she brings it to frightening fruition at the narrative’s climax. It’s a bit “squishy,” though, never quite clear what it is or is not, which will appeal to some readers but put off those who need more definitive answers. (On a personal note, this reader was uncomfortable with knowing the killer’s thoughts, which has the perhaps unintended consequence of rationalizing his behavior.) Readers sensitive to gore and grimness are warned away. Me? I was like, “F*** this, I’m done. I’m all in.”

These are minor quibbles, though, when taken in the context of what is otherwise an overwhelming success of a novel. Broken Monsters was well received when published in September, and justly so. This reader will go so far as to say that Broken Monsters will end up on its share of the “best of” lists that are ubiquitous this time of year, although it’s likely to be pigeonholed as a “genre” novel. I’m not sure that I would trot out the overused phrase “genre defying” to describe Broken Monsters, but I don’t think I need to; the book speaks for itself. (And that speech consists of shrieks followed by whimpers in the dark.) Beukes has in Broken Monsters an unqualified success. Highly recommended.

Hey, Lauren: If you see this, you’ve made me a fan. (And my readers will know I don’t say things like that often.)