Broken Monsters, by Lauren Beukes

I was fortunate enough to snag a copy of Lauren Beukes’s Broken Monsters via a Tweet from her publisher. A few days later, an uncorrected proof arrived, and I found myself reading my first Beukes. I tweeted this, and Beukes replied:

hope it’s not the last

Let me tell you why this is such a good book, and why it won’t be my last Beukes.

The story begins in Detroit, the dying Motor City, where our characters are moving through difficult lives. The first, Detective Gabi Versado, has been presented with a horrific murder case; while Layla, her daughter, is struggling at school; there’s TK, a ‘recycler of found goods’, picking over the bones of Detroit; Jonno Haim is a writer struggling to remember what to write about; and Clayton Broom, an artist, is trying to put his life and his work back together.

At one level, the book is about audience participation, and how this becomes complicity. What does complicity have to do with art? How much does art take from us? What do we have to give? What, exactly, is the meaning of something unobserved? Transformation is another thread: When does one thing become something else? Why do things change, and what is the role of human will in this process? Then there is well-worn notion of surface appearance and its occasional complement, deep reality: well-worn, yes, but making a rich fabric given the right pair of hands.

What I’m saying is, I liked the book.

It is technically accomplished, too. Detroit seemed realer than real. The dialogue cracks like a whip and is occasionally beautiful. I rooted for the characters; liked spending time with them; found them interesting. The experience of reading the novel is compulsive. Beukes begins with short shards of prose that gather and crunch by its conclusion. There are plenty of laughs. The horrors are disturbing. I was not, I must say, a fan of the chapter titles—when many chapters are less than two pages long, the artifice of a cute pun pricks the suspension of disbelief. I’m also undecided about the allusions to Oz; and the ending was a little conventional given the eccentric orbit of the first two-thirds. But, frankly, I’m struggling to find negatives.

It’s a proper book. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be off to have nightmares.

Meanwhile, in a Parallel Universe: The Adjacent

The Adjacent Cover

I had heard of Christopher Priest before seeing the film The Prestige, but I had never read his fiction. I enjoyed The Prestige and, watching the DVD extras, was struck by what Priest said in an interview: he was impressed by the ability of the filmmakers to produce cinematic analogues of the literary metaphors used in the novel. Priest sounded insightful, and I like the movie, so I ordered a battered paperback of The Prestige from Amazon.

You can read my thoughts on the film in this post from March 2008, though there I’m mostly talking about the problem of ‘genre-shifting’ as ‘gear-grinding’. (From today’s perspective, having read the book and watched the film twice more, I see that the science fictional ending blends well with the thriller beginning.)

But I’m here to jot about The Adjacent. Normally, I’d begin with a synopsis, but that would presuppose a narrative, and this book isn’t really into narrative; at least, not in the normal sense of narrative. Does that sound as much fun as modern dance? Don’t worry. The absence of a narrative—or, at least, camouflaging it—does a good job of amplifying the metaphors and themes of the work. These are repeated in different ways: sometimes overtly, sometimes covertly. They include doppelgängers, the World Wars, immigration, photography, and sleight of hand. But, above all, this is a love story. It reminded me of Iain Banks’s masterpiece, The Bridge.

The Adjacent is compelling. It frustrates, yes, because there is that sense of starting anew with each new narrative thread. Priest’s great trick is to establish these narrative islands (in the metaphorical sense) quickly. We soon connect with the ‘new’ characters and, a couple of pages in, we are eager to continue down their new rabbit hole, the old one of only pages before already forgotten.

Reading the book, I was reminded of the difficulty presented by parallel worlds in fiction. One might argue that a compelling narrative is one with plenty of wood behind the arrow; in other words, the more ineluctably scene follows scene, the more the reader is compelled to continue. When a narrative is interrupted, it detracts from the main arc in many and subtle ways. Like a curtain coming down, it reminds the reader that they are in the presence of artifice; their interesting characters have to be abandoned; and, in these days, where books are read in smaller doses, there’s a nagging sense that one will lose track of what’s happening in a story.

Priest manages this situation well. Indeed, he turns its disadvantages into the signature advantages of this book, and this puts it well above the majority of the recent science fiction I’ve read. Throughout my experience of the book, I was reminded of Haruki Murakami’s Kafka On The Shore, in which a similarly broken narrative is presented, but much less successfully; Murakami appears to get lost, or lose track. Priest does not.

Parenthetically, The Adjacent also nags me about my own book, The Amber Rooms (currently unavailable but soon to be published, fingers crossed, by Unsung Stories), where I tried to do something similar: for some readers I was successful, for others I was not. The Adjacent has given me an insight into how to keep the audience hooked. It is a great piece of literary science fiction.