At first glance, Lauren Beukes’s Broken Monsters has one of the most WTF magnetic plot summaries I’ve read in recent memory: “Detective Versado has seen a lot of bodies. But this one is unique even by Detroit’s standards: half boy, half deer, somehow fused together.” YES, Law & Order superfan me thought to myself at the bookstore. Yesyesyesyes.
Broken Monsters begins with the discovery of deer boy, but he is not the last human/imal corpse to be found among the ruin porn, working-class families and upstart artistic communities that constitute post-recession Detroit. The novel unfolds from the alternating perspectives of several residents of this busted city: Detective Gabriella Versado and her teenager daughter Layla; aspiring freelance videographer Jonno and his artsy girlfriend Jen; and street-savvy and world-weary Thomas Keen (d.b.a. “TK”), a homeless man with a fierce loyalty and a sharp intuition.
The most important thing to know about Monsters is that this isn’t a whodunit. Deer boy’s killer is revealed pretty early in the novel, and so most of the suspense comes from waiting for Versado to put the pieces together while we, the reader, see said killer out there murdering and …fusing. And while the novel doesn’t necessarily suffer for its lack of “Was it Mr. Green with the library with the candlestick?” moments, the absence of any guesswork does leave room for other stuff.
Linguistically, I didn’t mind Broken Monsters. Beukes’s decision to alternate perspectives without alternating voices makes the flow a little all over the place, a small chaos that’s exacerbated by her attempts to mix in different types of narrative—chats, texts, etc. But overall this is an enjoyable read, compelling if not necessarily fun (mutilated bodies etc.). And the last 50 pages are truly bananagrams.
It’s in that Other Stuff where things get unfortunate. Perhaps because of Monsters’ lacking mystery, Beukes inserts into the novel a variety of less-than-subtle commentaries: on dying cities, on art, on media, on technology. It’s hardly an unprecedented move (see: Franzen, Tartt, Shriver, etc.) but her execution is off to the point of distraction. Almost every character is made at one point or another to stand in for one of these passive-aggressive diatribes: Versado for the confluence of forces that take down a once-bustling metropolis; Jonno and Jen for the challenges and contradictions in art; Layla and her best friend Cas for the Internet’s impact on the way teenagers speak and socialize. While I find it hard to begrudge Beukes her ambition on these fronts, I couldn’t help but wish she’d chosen just one diatribe, and/or taken care to infuse any of these commentaries with a dose of nuance. Instead, Broken Monsters reads like a page-turner with a touch of preachiness, a white-knuckle novel that slows itself down by trying to be more than it needs to.
About four beers into book club last week, a fellow attendee told me Monsters was the worst book he’s read as an adult. Having wasted precious hours on fare like Witches of East End and 50 Shades of Grey, I can’t say the same. Beukes’s novel is okay, and—to be fair—has received effusive accolades from people far more qualified to bestow them than I. Monsters doesn’t accomplish everything it sets out to do, but that’s because it sets out to do too much.
TITLE: Broken Monsters
AUTHOR: Lauren Beukes
PAGES: 448 (in hardcover)
ALSO WROTE: The Shining Girls, Zoo City
SORTA LIKE: Tana French YA
FIRST LINE: “The body. The-body-the-body-the-body, she thinks.”