Review: Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes
Detroit: Motor City. Once the seat of the American automotive industry, it has experienced sharp decline. Its population has fallen by 25% since 2000, largely thanks to suburbanization and declining inner-city residence. Its economy has also suffered, culminating in the city declaring itself bankrupt in 2013. Suburban citizens have suffered as well as local businesses, with widespread foreclosures and bankruptcies declared thanks to the sub-prime mortgage crisis. This has only added to the derelict industrial landscape of the city, often described as ‘ruin porn’. Today’s Detroit is a troubled city. Small wonder, then, that it provides fertile ground for Beukes’ latest novel, one which explores the fractured psyche of the city and its struggling residents.
The core cast is a diverse bunch. The story opens with Gabi, a Detective in the Detroit PD, standing over the body of a young boy. The corpse has been mutilated in a most horrible manner: the torso has been bisected and the legs clumsily replaced with the rear of a fawn. Meanwhile Gabi’s teenage daughter, Layla, has her own problems, though they are those more traditionally associated with the young: social acceptance, unrequited crushes, and troubled relationships with her separated parents.
Jonno is a recent immigrant to Detroit, having fled the disastrous collapse of his previous relationship and working life. He is of the age where one begins to think of oneself as ageing, and his career as a writer has met little success. He somehow boasts a modicum of natural charisma despite his introspective nature tending towards solipsistic self-pity and arrogance. Another key character, TK, could not be more different. An enterprising vagrant, TK dedicates himself to his few close friends and his fellow Detroit homeless. While he may pick at the remains left behind in repossessed homes and businesses, he attempts to do so with compassion and respect.
Finally there is Clayton, an unsuccessful experimental artist. He suffers severe mental issues, particularly delusions concerning his relationships with others and a tendency to fixate, but despite his numerous personal problems he is not without friends in Detroit’s artistic community.
As Broken Monsters unfolds we follow these five as they work to solve a string of ghastly murders, to navigate the pitfalls of youth in modern America, to build a new life on the back of industrial decay and cultural vibrancy, to survive and support amidst economic ruin, and to execute great works. Their lives, and those of the supporting cast, intersect and build towards a crescendo that is borne of both the technologies and culture of the modern age and the timeless nature of violence and horror.
Given that I am writing this review for Vector it’s essential to acknowledge upfront that based on this plot summary it would be easy to position Broken Monsters as a crime thriller rather than anything borne of the diverse genres of SF. To an extent this would be accurate, yet there are two reasons that this novel is interest to the dedicated reader of spec fic.
The first is that like Beukes’ previous work, this is fiction that is keen to explore the social, cultural and technological realities of the present: challenges that, when met and accurately represented in fiction, cannot fail but be SFnal. What once characterised Detroit is of the past; domestic industry is no longer a significant part of the American national character. In Detroit, as in other cities, the gaps have been colonised, in part by new industries that explore and exploit what remains. Social media and web start-ups play a role in this novel, and the ways they affect and are affected by the lives of their users prove major causal factors in Broken Monsters.
The second is that, without wishing to issue any spoilers, not everything turns out quite as it might in the works of a less speculative and more traditional writer of crime fiction. These elements of the novel are, happily, integral to the tale that Beukes has set out to tell, and are not mere window dressing intended to appeal to her existing audience.
Beukes has an eye for the grime and decay of run-down urban environments as well as the impact such environments have on their residents. This much has been clear since her first novel, Moxyland. Authenticity is an important factor in her Detroit and her research has played dividends, with the city and the characters who live within it all proving convincing. Significant time has been invested into presenting a realistic picture of the Detroit PD, for example. I single this example out because said research has not overwhelmed the story through its clumsy integration. This has been an issue with some of the few modern crime novels I’ve read, such as Simon Kernick’s Relentless, which among its own crimes can be counted the intrusive peppering of acronyms, protocol and fact-flavoured tidbits.
Broken Monsters is an admirable work of fiction. It is dark and gritty without being gratuitous or juvenile, and despite its grim subject matter and often brooding atmosphere it contains genuinely funny moments. As a crime thriller, it offers mystery and horror in a convincing modern setting – although any whodunnit elements rapidly fall by the wayside as they do not serve the story being told. As a fantastic work, it offers low-key moments reminiscent of urban fantasy’s subtler beats as well as more significant intrusive fantasy. As SF it successfully captures what it is to live at a time when technology drives social and cultural change faster than any individual can keep up, and even-handedly portrays both the positive and negative human impact of such.
Its few flaws are rarely significant. Among those that stand out can be counted the risk inherent in writing a novel with social web technologies and concepts so close to the forefront: these date quickly. There is also the associated risk that whatever names you come up with to describe your fictional analogues of real sites will have already been used for real online services, as is the case with the ChatRoulette analogue SpinChat. To Beukes’ credit, she appears well aware of these risks and has worked to mitigate them without sacrificing that vital contemporaneity. This is partly done by largely eschewing the awkward name-dropping that often passes for integrating modern technologies into present-day fiction, focusing instead on the how and why of usage, the interaction with it and the feedback received.
A more immediate flaw is that the core cast, strong as they ultimately prove, initially feel archetypal. They can be quickly reduced to the cynical cop, the bratty daughter, the tortured artist and the homeless hero. They do ultimately transcend such pigeonholing, however, thanks to well-drawn contradictions within their personalities that become apparent through their deeds and words.
One character who leapt out at me early on is Jonno, whose cynicism is far less worldly than Gabi’s. He’s a specific type of young man: occasionally prone to self-destructive impulses, assured of his own superiority yet riddled with self-doubt and even self-loathing, and prone to sorting everything he observes into easily categorised and marketed slots despite his disdain for the BuzzFeed-esque ‘listicle’ web journalism that sustains him.
Jonno proves to be one of the novel’s more contemptible figures, although he’s also surprisingly sympathetic. On top of that he proves a somewhat familiar figure. Readers of Moxyland will remember Toby, that novel’s improbable saviour and survivor. Toby is reminiscent of Charlie Brooker’s Nathan Barley, a character from both the eponymous Brooker/Chris Morris TV series and Brooker’s earlier satirical TV guides, although the author [ed: to be clear, here I refer to Beukes] has stated they were conceived of entirely independently.
Toby, like Barley, was a self-absorbed fool obsessed with his own social media profile and ignorant, often wilfully so, of the wider world. Broken Monsters‘ Jonno falls somewhere between Barley and his nemesis, Dan Ashcroft, a cynical critic of the Barleyesque idiots he despises and yet unable to escape the facts that they are his key readership and have inadvertently come to define his own cultural position.
Drawing a connection between a 2014 novel and a largely overlooked satirical comedy show from 2005 may seem a stretch for a book review, but I do so for good reason. Brooker’s later creative works such as Black Mirror are heavily focused on the nightmarish possibilities that current and future technologies and social trends invite; his earlier works explored similar themes in entertainment and ‘new media’. Beukes, like Brooker, is evidently both intrigued by and ambivalent about the ramifications of these areas of intersection. I’ve encountered relatively few writers who deliver thorough explorations of the way such ideas impact human lives as Beukes. Not bad for a murder mystery in a run-down old city.