Lauren Beukes' new novel Broken Monsters is about the dark forces that awaken in abandoned places — and abandoned people — when they yearn for the kind of attention they once had. Set in the back alleys and art warehouses of Detroit, it's a supernatural thriller that will disturb you in all the right ways.
Like Beukes' last novel, The Shining Girls, Broken Monsters is as much about an American city as it is about the people passing through it. In The Shining Girls, our semi-supernatural killer seems represents a horrific part of Chicago's history; and in Broken Monsters, we have a killer who captures a twisted aspect of Detroit's present. Economic troubles have driven away the city's once-booming population, leaving behind empty industrial buildings and unlit streets. It's a city that nobody seems to care about anymore.
In this ghost city, however, there are still hundreds of thousands of people who are just trying to get along and survive, despite their city's troubles. Beukes plunges us right into the middle of the city's diverse population, charting how the lives of several people are brought together unexpectedly around a series of horrific murders.
Detective Versado is one of the first people called to the scene when a young boy's body is discovered in a tunnel, next to a crude chalk drawing of a door. Well, at least part of the boy's body is discovered — his head and torso have been glued to the lower body of a baby deer. As Versado tries to track the killer while keeping details of the crime obscured, Beukes introduces us to our other major characters, all of whom are dealing with their own toxic relationships with obscurity (and its lack).
Versado's daughter Layla has a best friend with a mysterious past of internet infamy. Layla herself is toying with anonymous creeps online, testing to see how far they will go. Meanwhile, a disgraced journalist named Jonno has just blown into town, and is trying to reinvent himself as a vlogger by using his DJ girlfriend to take him into Detroit's underground art scene. He's hoping his YouTube dispatches from the dead city will make him relevant in New York again. And then there's a down-on-his luck artist named Clayton whose work nobody has cared about for a very long time. He's so consumed with a desire for fame and love that he's left his psyche open to hostile takeover by — something.
All of them are searching for a way to reveal themselves to a wider audience, and none of them understand the consequences. Squirming through these characters' stories like a hidden sewage tunnel is the fate of Detroit itself, a city that was once the nation's jewel, now tossed aside.
When Jonno gets some pirate footage of one of Versado's crime scenes, he's able to bring Detroit back to the country's attention — but only as a horror show. As the novel's mood grows more surreal and grotesque, we watch as the flash fame of social media turns everyone into distorted, horror show versions of themselves.
Beukes masterfully pulls us through the harrowing story, partly because she's brilliant with plot and character — and partly because she knows how to draw corollaries where you might never expect them. We see how abstract art, murder, and viral humiliation videos are versions of the same impulse. Each is an expression of selfhood that has been utterly mutilated by the process of making private parts of ourselves visible to the masses.
But is it the urge to be seen, to be famous, that destroys us? Or is it the way other people steal and reframe our identities in their own quest for exposure? In short, who is to blame for the endless cycle of destructive revelation that characterizes many people's lives in the internet age?
Broken Monsters will leave you wondering, and fill your mind with burning visions of what happens to those who dare to answer these questions. This is a novel that will take you to some dark places — philosophically and narratively — but it also has the guts to suggest that hope is not lost. We can find our way out of the thicket of lies and cruelty, even if we make a lot of ugly mistakes along the way.