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.