Broken Monsters explores art, violence and the sinister side of social media in the dark underbelly of Detroit.

Broken Monsters explores art, violence and the sinister side of social media in the dark underbelly of Detroit.

Broken Monsters opens with a body, or two, depending on how you look at it. A young boy’s torso has been fused with the legs of a deer using transglutaminase (that’s “meat glue” to you and me).

What follows is relayed through the eyes of a number of characters, all of whom South African novelist Lauren Beukes inhabits with the ease of a writer at the top of her game.

There’s Detective Gabi Versado and her paedophile-baiting teenage daughter, a desperate blogger looking for a scoop, a squatter and the murderer himself.

Soon we’re racing at breakneck pace through dark corridors and consciousnesses, via art parties and Detroit’s derelicts. It’s not long before heads start hitting the floor ‘with the bright smack of a score at the coconut shy’.

Beukes is a post-modern polyglot who seamlessly weaves Facebook comments, Reddit threads and teenage text messages into the narrative as the investigation escalates, exploring how these new modes of communication might be altering the way we see the world, and transforming our ethical sensibilities.

Had you been to Detroit before you decided to set the novel there? How did you go about researching and getting to know the city?  
I hadn’t been to Detroit before, but I’d obviously seen any number of evocative photographs of decay, I wanted to get underneath the ruin porn façade.

Detroit is interesting for being such a symbolic place. You can hold up the city as a symptom of everything that’s wrong with America (or the world). But the reality is that it’s a lot more than that, symbols have unexpected depths that defy easy clichés and that can be very uncomfortable. We want things to mean something, but cities are much messier and more complicated.

I read a lot about Detroit, followed people on Twitter, and blogs like CurbedDetroit or PositiveDetroit, keept up with news stories, read books including Charlie leDuff’s Detroit: An American Autopsy and Mark Binelli’s Detroit City Is The Place To Be and my favourite, John Carlisle’s 313: Life In the Motor City, which features wonderful biographies and photographs of ordinary people.

I also went there on two separate research trips just over a year apart at the beginning of the novel, to get a sense of the city, and near the end, to fill in the gaps.

I interviewed homicide detectives and teen theatre geeks, I worked in a soup kitchen for a morning and shared food with people living on the street and listened to their stories, hung out with artists and photographers and journalists and insisted that they take me round and show me their Detroit: from the places everyone goes, like the ruins of the Packard plant, to a homicide detective’s favourite lunch spot. Those personal perspectives on the city cracked it open for me.

The book made me think about the double standard in which violence is accepted in ‘high culture’ but blamed for condoning violence in pop culture (especially video games). What’s your perspective on the relationship between violence and art?
I think that’s exactly what I was trying to explore in the novel. Some people see psychologists, I work my issues out on the page. It’s all popular culture – Renoir or Reddit, Madame Butterfly or Metal Gear Solid – and we have been fascinated with violence in our art since the first hand clenched into the first fist. Art is reflection and id and dreaming and symbolism and what we make of it.

In a world that is so traumatised right now (and throughout all our history), art and stories allow us a way to look at the unbearable and maybe see it in a new way. We can turn off the news on Gaza or Boko Haram or Syria or the Ukraine, because it’s too much. Art gets past our defences.

I like art that manages to find humanity in the awfulness, compassion, humour. Relentless nihilism is a bit tedious and doesn’t get at the complexity of being alive in the world.

To break out that Nietzsche quote about how you shouldn’t stare into the abyss: I believe art has a moral obligation to confront the unknowable, and, hey, the worst thing you’ll find looking back is… us. There’s only us and everything we are capable of, all the wonder and whimsy and grace and horror and terror in the world and we have to be able to look at it. Art is a handy lens to do so.

Two of your previous books have been picked up by production companies and you’ve also worked as a scriptwriter for TV and film. Has this had an impact on the way you write fiction?
The books being optioned hasn’t affected the way I write, I’m not sitting there thinking about how the scene would play out if it were filmed with a low camera angle for maximum creepiness, I’m working out how it’s going to work for the story. But of course my former careers as a scriptwriter and a journalist have definitely influenced the way I write fiction, as does writing comics.

Writing for kids’ animation for five years, I had to learn to think visually and describe the scene very precisely for the poor bastard who had to animate it, keep the dialogue pacey and get to the action as fast as possible. You don’t have time to mess around in a six-minute script.

Journalism taught me an eye for surprising detail, to set the scene and to listen for the pull quotes of dialogue that tell you something about the speaker or their perspective on the world.

Novels are my favourite form of storytelling. They’re very personal – you climb right into someone’s head and infect them with your imagination, remixed and translated through theirs. That’s an incredibly powerful thing. I have to confess I like it.

Your novel seems to capture the zeitgeist with its inclusion of Reddit feeds and Facebook comments, for example. Was this a conscious choice?
I live a good chunk of my life online, as many of us now do in the wilder-than-you-could-have-imagined 21st century where we have killer robot drones in the sky and the whole world on our phones. I wanted to write about how amazing that is and how terrifying.

The novel follows my personal interests: news stories I’ve been upset by about teen bullying, creepypasta urban legends, creativity, ambition, broken masculinity, the idea of identity, of a projected, idealised self.

I collected a lot of art featuring distorted or obscured faces on my Tumblr account. It’s exploring who we are, who we want to be, how much we need to be recognised, acknowledged, seen, how much those wretched “likes” matter.

Lauren Beukes’ Broken Monsters is out now, published by Harper Collins.

Catch Lauren in conversation at LonCon:
Thursday, August 14, 4.30-6pm: Refugees Have More to Worry About Than Revenge (ExCeL, Suite 2)
Friday, August 15, 9-10am: Stroll with the Stars (ExCeL, Front of Aloft)