“Yes, it was very nice to launch here first,” says Lauren Beukes, “Because it’s home. And it’s nice to get some early reviews and early buzz building from here. It becomes an animal that gets its own momentum, which is nice. It’s a great way to do it.”
Beukes, one of South Africa’s most successful contemporary writers, is talking about her latest work of speculative fiction, Broken Monsters. The book was released here on 1st July and will be out in the UK by the end of the month, then the US in September. It’s already receiving rave reviews: head of books and ecommerce at The Sunday Times, Ben Williams, called it on a par with Stephen King and said that “South Africans aren’t supposed to write the great American novel”.
The only downside of such a widely staggered release for such a highly anticipated book is that Beukes will be on the road promoting it for the next gazillion years.
“I’ve been touring since March last year,” she says, “And I haven’t really stopped. I took a bit of break between January and March and apart from that I’ve been on the road. I spent 16 weeks overseas last year, and it’s been tough.”
Broken Monsters is Beukes’ fourth novel and is already receiving rave reviews from the press. Like her last book, The Shining Girls – which is still under consideration for a US TV pilot – it’s set in the US. On the one hand, it’s a much simpler and more straightforward book than her previous works – there’s no time travel to kep track of, for a start, and most of the fantasy-horror happens off the page until the final act. But just because it’s also grounded in a reality that’s almost everyday, it’s no less imaginative or affecting. There are echoes of the Dexter series, sure, but with a real dark passenger driving the central killer.
“I would describe it as a cross-over thriller,” Beukes says, “There was a great description on Twitter the other day: I think it was Stephen King meets Thomas Harris meets Hill Street Blues. Which was awesome, I love that, because it is a police procedural and there is a serial killer with a strange obsession, but it’s also batshit insane, there’s some crazy stuff that happens.”
It’s also, I’d argue, one part The Wire thanks to its rundown Detroit setting – the city infamously filed for bankruptcy a year ago and has seen more than a million people leave since its peak size in 1950. And part Golden Years coming-of-age story – the most potent scenes in the book are those between the divorced cop, Gabi, and her nerdy teenage daughter, Layla. Beukes captures what it is to be a teen today in a way that I imagine is perfect – endless text messages, Reddit, hideous amounts of peer pressure Facebook, baiting criminals on Chatroullete… sometimes all at once.
“A lot of people have read this as a warning about social media,” says Beukes, “But at the same time I use social media a lot and it’s only one aspect of it. I use social media a lot to bring good and happiness every day, but I do think you need to be aware of it and how easily it can be infiltrated and how much can happen in here that you as a parent don’t have access to in this private world.”
Beukes herself is very active on Twitter, and often solicits ideas and shares work in progress with her followers.
Brainstorming story ideas with @JoeyHiFi for awesome secret comics project. He says "careful, we don't want to premature plotjaculate".
— Lauren Beukes (@laurenbeukes) July 16, 2014
“I’m not on Twitter because I’m marketing,” she says, “Although I do tweet about events I’m doing because I want people to know about them if they want to come and I want to make sure that the bookstores feel that I’m doing everything I can to support them, because I’m nothing without them. I’m on Twitter because I like it, I like interacting with readers because it’s fun. It’s amazing to be able to ask people like where should I dump a body in Johannesburg or does anyone have a friend in Detroit homicide because I’m not getting anywhere through the official channels.”
Beukes also has a uncanny knack for catching whatever dark zeitgeist is doing the rounds at the moment. Last time I interviewed her, she spoke about how disturbing it was that just after releasing a book which highlighted violence against women two terrible events made headline news – the killings of Anene Booysen and Reeva Steenkamp. This time round Creepypasta (referenced in Broken Monsters) and ethereal serial killer Slenderman were blamed for two teenage girls attacking a classmate in Wisconsin.
“And with Moxyland there was an illegal gathering in the Ukraine where people we told ‘please disband you’re at an illegal gathering and your number has been noted’,” Beukes adds, “I don’t know, it’s obviously something I’m picking up on, it’s not me doing it. Honest.
“But I mean, it’s the novelist’s job to imagine and it means that hopefully I am writing what’s real and I have my finger on the pulse – I hate that term.”
In terms of the writing, what stands out for me in Broken Monsters is the pacing of the novel. It begins with a shock – a homicide cop examining the grotesquely mutilated corpse of a young child. But then it slows and the next 100 pages or so is spend gradually building up the characters whose paths will eventually converge. And it builds up, and up and there’s not a break in momentum until by the time of the climactic finale 300 pages later, things are moving so fast you’ll want to reread the last few chapters again just to make sure you caught everything that was going on.
If pushed, I’d describe the style as ‘cinematic’ too – in the sense that if it doesn’t get picked up for film and TV treatments there’s no justice left. Anywhere.
And it’s also funny and full of slice-of-lives insight: the tough divorced cop and her relationship with her nerdy teenage daughter; the daughter’s cool friend; the polite and pragmatic homeless guy; the oddball artist; and the middle age journalist who’s written one Buzzfeed-style listicle too many and fled to Detroit to find something edgy in the urban decay to write about – only to find that the headline stories of disused shopping malls have already been told.
I admit to Beukes that initially, Jonno the sad journo – we meet him in chapter two, hanging around bars and picking up strangers too young for him – is the character I identify with, in a “there but for the grace of god” kind of way. Broken on the ever increasing demands of the content mill that substitutes for modern reporting, Beukes drew partly on her own experiences to flesh him out.
“I was a freelance journalist for a long time,” says Beukes, “And I had to do stories on Best Conference Venues In The Eastern Cape. You do whatever pays the bills. I was working for Cosmo as a features writer, but I also had to do advertorial. You know, ‘Win a beautiful holiday to palm drenched beaches and white sands’, for a tampon company. I had to write that and put in the beaches and the skies and all that… and it was hard and soul crushing and I knew I wanted to write books, but I had to make a living.
“But it’s also good, it’s informed the way I write books. You know – I have all this experience trying to make a really boring story interesting. It’s like being a basketball player and using a very small hoop.”
Jonno also reads like a more human version of a previous Beukes character – Toby in Moxyland. Where Toby has no redeeming qualities and is an evil machievelian schemer, however, Jonno is simply incompetent at life and just happens to end up in the right/wrong place at the right time.
Jonno may or may not achieve his goal in finding something interesting to write about in Detroit, but Beukes certainly does. She openly admits to using Detroit as a cipher for Hillbrow, which starred in Zoo City. It’s a place defined in popular imagination as a tragedy, a lost cause, a hopeless basket case of urban degeneration – but in reality is full of stories and people and things that need to be said.
“[When I went there for] research and interviews,” Beukes says, “The things people came up with, there was all this Detroit weirdness that I couldn’t even put in the book, it was too insane.”
What do I think? I billed this feature as an “inter-review” because I’m not a book reviewer and never will be. Plus, I’m too big a fan to actually be objective anyway. Beukes’ first book remains my favourite – the near future collision of Cape Town, online gaming and state surveillance remains the most relevant to my particular spheres of literary interest. What I do know is that I generally don’t like police procedurals and American thrillers: but I couldn’t put Broken Monsters down.
And if that hasn’t whet your appetite, then maybe this will.
“Somebody pointed out to me on Twitter that I’d basically killed Mr Tumnus from Narnia,” laughs Beukes, “And that’s exactly what I’ve done, because it’s all about the doors and the closets and the innocence of another land. It’s amazing to see what other people see in your book and what they bring to it.”