Review of Broken Monsters by

Book cover for Broken Monsters

So there’s this new show on TV called CSI: Cyber. It’s a spin-off of a little-known TV series you probably haven’t heard of—CSI or something like that—about people investigating cybercrime. Every episode involves bad guys trying to do bad things with computers (sometimes their computer, sometimes your computer!), and the good guys have to race against the clock to stop the bad things by doing things that are like the bad things but are good because the good guys do it. But because it’s CSI, the actors get to stand around for much of the show tossing around made-up terms that sound real but aren’t, and pretty much just scare the audience (who has no idea how computers and hacking actually work) of technology.

I am hacking you with this review right now!

I mock CSI: Cyber as I open this review of Broken Monsters because I feel like police procedurals and crime thrillers are slow on the uptake here. Yes, you have your Tom Clancys, who have made veritable fortunes in writing fictional cybercrime adventures. For the most part, though, it has been a struggle for these writers to capture with verisimilitude the staggering way in which cybercrime operates. Because we are still thinking about computers as things, when in reality we need to start thinking about things as computers … computers embedded in other things.

Lauren Beukes takes her speculative fiction skills and applies them to the mystery genre. The result: a spectacular blend of creepy surrealist SF and kickass crime thriller. The ensemble cast is layered, fascinating, with likeable and unlikeable characters, moments low and moments awesome aplenty. Though slow to get started, the novel is like a kettle coming to boil: soon it heats up, and by the time it starts to whistle, the steam escaping from the spout makes you worry the whole top is going to come off.

This is a powerful book.

I should mention that I read the last 300 pages of it in about two and a half hours. It was due at the library that day, and there was a hold on it, so I couldn’t renew it. I didn’t want to keep it an extra day if I could possibly avoid it—the fine isn’t that bad, but it’s bad karma. Someone else really wants to read the book, so why should I delay them?

Fortunately I wasn’t working that morning, so I had the time to sit with a cup of tea and finish the book. Reading so much of it in a short duration wasn’t ideal—as I said above, this is a slow boil of a story, and you need time to take it in and mull it over. Nevertheless, I’m still so satisfied, both by the story itself and Beukes’ evident talent.

This novel reaffirms characterization as one of Beukes’ core strengths. Broken Monsters just has character, full stop. I so seldom visualize while I’m reading; to me, it is just words on a page. But when I read this, I could almost picture the scenes in my mind’s eye. The characters were just that real, that believable, that I could nearly turn this book into a movie in my head. That’s exciting for me.

I could go on at length about each of the characters. I could talk about the linoleum-like texture of Gabbie’s life, how Beukes expertly portrays the worn-out, scrubbed-over palimpsest of her feelings about police work and love and marriage and motherhood. I could talk about the brutal earnestness of TK, and how he leads a life I’ll never really understand given my privileged upbringing. I could even, if I really pushed myself, find some things to say about Jono, the shiftless would-be writer who has come to Detroit to discover his own fame. (I didn’t like him that much, which is not to say he’s a poorly realized character.)

But the two characters who really caught me were Layla and Cas.

Layla and Cas are incidental, in many ways, to the ostensible main plot. Layla ends up playing a pivotal role in the climax and resolution. But for the most part, she exists simply as the daughter of Gabriella Versado. Her life is a window on what Gabbie has to deal with as a cop in Detroit. And it’s also so much more.

Beukes nails the depiction of two teenaged girls in the second decade of the twenty-first century. The portrayal of their effortless code-switching, social media savvy, and paradoxical mixture of maturity and naivety was what kept me hooked on the first part of Broken Monsters while the mystery was slow to start. Cas’ announcement that they are going catfishing brought a smile to my lips. It’s very easy to portray teenagers stereotypically; Beukes manages to avoid exaggerating the tropes but still use them when appropriate.

While Layla and Cas don’t initially play a big role in the mystery behind Broken Monsters, I would argue that they are essential to the novel’s main theme—or at least, the theme I took away.

I love the last line of this book: “This is the way the world is now. Everything is public. You have to find other people who understand. You have to find a way to live with it.”

The revelation in the middle of the book, Cas’ big secret, and the magical realism moments of the climax, are arrows through the heart of Broken Monsters and a bullseye on the above. In this age of spectacle, the medium is the message, and the message is “Share! Share! Share!”

Beukes turns a murder mystery set in the husk of Detroit into a beautiful exploration of our post-privacy age. How do we conduct ourselves in a world where everything about us is potentially out there, searchable, findable? How do we grow up? How do we explain the things we can’t explain, and live with the things we can’t unwatch?

The book has no answers for this. I just came away with the certainty that Beukes gets it. And she expresses it in a deep, moving, thoughtful way. Layla and Cas have a subjectivity and a vocabulary to experience this in a way the older characters can’t necessarily. And they aren’t even done growing—what will their world be like in ten more years?

That’s the real issue with shows like CSI: Cyber. We are right to be wary of the ways the Internet can be used for crime. But the people who make those shows either don’t understand, or don’t care, about how the nuances influence our perception of this medium. It’s not just a generational thing—there are plenty of people twice my age who get it. Rather, it’s an experiential one. You have to inhabit this liminal space between offline and online long enough, regularly enough, authentically enough, in order to develop a sense of what it means and what it bodes for our futures.

Broken Monsters is a story about the way passion is infectious. Passion, so wholly neutral in its intensity, so capable of inspiring good and bad and great and catastrophically awful. This is a novel about bad things happening because we are human, and the contradiction of our condition is that our beauty is often terrible.

And this is why we can’t have nice things.

Engagement

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