Monday, 27 May 2013

Digging beneath the sparkle of The Shining Girls

By Mary Corrigall

Lauren Beukes is ever the golden girl in her gold dress with cameras trained on her as she poses on the balcony at Zietzies in Brixton. Despite all the success she seems grounded, perhaps to a fault; she's overly interested in accommodating me - "where do you want to sit? Are you comfortable here?" A former journalist, she probably over-identifies with her interviewers. It's an endearing quality.
It's too easy, if not facile, to dub her the Shining Girl, the title of her new novel. Undoubtedly she is a successful novelist and not just in South Africa, where a paltry sale of 2 000 books gets you on the best-seller list, before you go out of print; though Zoo City, her breakaway novel, shall we call it, was out of print until it won the Arthur C Clarke Award in 2011.Beukes is quick to mention this with a note of bitterness, or is it irony? She recounted the same story during a radio interview the day before. Maybe she sees it as a triumph.

Most surprising about her success is that her work appears to be a hit with this country's literary intelligentsia. Rarely is commercially successful genre literature embraced by intellectuals, though the advent of genre literature in this country seems to be setting academia alight. Ever on the lookout for "transliterature" or works that no longer mine the clichéd white-guilt apartheid themes, the sci-fi spin - Zoo City sees people attached to animal "familiars" - seems to offer the imaginative leap that some feel South African literature has been lacking.

It is fitting that this "transnational" literary heroine speaks with a heavy American twang. Even more appropriate is the fact that she can't explain it - way back, and for less than two years, she lived in Chicago, where The Shining Girls is set. It is centred on a time-travelling serial killer called Harper Curtis, a coarse, hard man who begins jumping through time after hitting upon a house in the 1930s that is something of a black hole.

Is setting a novel in another country really an imaginative leap or is it an extreme form of avoidance, repression or denial? It may even be a cop-out; it alleviates the need to negotiate the sometimes irreconcilable socio-political issues of our times.

The most interesting aspect to her latest novel, which is littered with Americanisms, is the way she has cannibalised that culture. It almost reads like a cinematic postmodern pastiche.

It presents a way of "writing back" to American culture, though the novel doesn't quite evince a subversive edge, which is a pity. In some ways the inner friction of the narrative structure - the genre splicing - is linked to this subtle interplay between a repetition or mimicry of pop culture and a desire to subvert it.

Beukes never self-consciously set out to do so. Rather, the novel is a product of American cultural dominance.
"Most of the popular culture we are exposed to in South Africa is American," she confirms.

This novel superficially appears to have nothing to do with this country. Ironically, this is viewed by some as a huge coup for local literature. Few, it seems, have really scratched beneath the surface of this novel, or in their narrow drive for a new literary model that unchains us from our heavy past refuse to see what lurks beneath it.

During our exchange, Beukes reveals that The Shining Girls is subtly haunted by our past. "As a South African writer you can't write anything without it referring to our history."
Many scenes in the book are drawn from historical narratives from the apartheid era - such as a rooftop suicide. The past is thus refracted through this transnational lens.

Like Harper, who keeps retracing his steps, reliving murders or returning to his victims decades before he has brutally annihilated them - he has a ghoulish preference for slicing through their abdomens and putting their guts on display - in a way we, too, are slaves to the past.

While Harper is able to flit through time, engendering the illusion that he is free from human constraints and underscoring the fact that he exists in a realm outside of society, he is similarly trapped by his own acts, forcing him back and forth through time between his string of murders. He can't escape what he has done. The time travelling device ensures that everything is reversed so that, in a way, his victims are dead before he encounters them alive. In this way he can perceive their "light", their youthful, innocent glow - the titular "shining" - knowing it has already been extinguished. Yet this circling backwards could also be read as an attempt to unwrite what he has done, a way of cleansing his conscience, his guilt.

Not that Beukes sets up an access point for the reader to identify or empathise with Harper. He is very much the faceless killer. We know little about his past; Beukes allows us only a small glimpse into his childhood, isolating a moment that illustrates his evil nature.
There is no event that turns him into a coldblooded serial killer - rather Beukes introduces him as an evil being, who we presume arrives in the world morally corrupted. This is at odds with her intention to avoid the manner in which serial killers are portrayed in popular culture.

They are always shown to be highly intelligent beings who mastermind elaborate crimes, she observes, referring to the Hannibal Lector character of Hollywood cinema. In line with this, Harper is portrayed as a crude, debased human (almost animal-like), but his anonymity and our inability to grasp his motivation situate him as the embodiment of the irrational, murderous perpetrator of popular culture.

This also seems at odds with Beukes's express desire to comment on female abuse and the murder of victims, which she says was brought home to her through a crime affecting her domestic worker. It is well documented that women are usually abused and murdered by those known to them - not faceless killers. While Beukes may have set out to comment on this phenomenon and, even express her rage, she doesn't really probe it with any nuance. In this way the pseudo-feminist angle that underpins the book is fairly weak and superficial, and fails to challenge the crime genre.

Beukes set out to do this in other ways, in particular how she renders the murders and her portrayal of the victims. In an attempt not to objectify the victims in the moment of their death, or revictimise them, she doesn't describe the murders - the only (attempted) murder that is fleshed out (pun intended) is that of Kirby Mazrachi, the feisty victim from the Nineties who is the novel's heroine.
"In this instance I really wanted the reader to know what she went through, how hectic it was," says Beukes.

Beukes's focus is on the victims. She details their lives before their "light is extinguished". It's part of her drive to illuminate the tragedy of this phenomenon, she says. This approach is also engineered so as to challenge their victim status too, she implies, suggesting that in drawing attention to their achievements they do not function as objectified female bodies, as is the case in most TV products.
The other less fortunate victims are thus a string of feisty independent women. Zora does manual labour in a shipyard in the Forties. Willie Rose is a female architect from the Fifties who is told "the only reason they hired a women architect was so that she could also answer the phones". Margot works at an abortion clinic in the Seventies.

Harper not only embodies a stereotypical violent perpetrator but functions as a dated chauvinistic throwback who has penetrated time - and thus continues to pervade the future. A transgender victim is an interesting twist that draws attention to Harper's desire to stamp out any beings that challenge notions of masculinity.

The Shining Girls is a giddy, dark ride that is initially exhilarating. The time-travelling aspect is an intriguing narrative device that denies the logic of the narrative, works against its chronology and nullifies any desire for truth, plausibility. The time-travelling dimension burns a hole in the narrative through which everything slips, no matter how tightly you try to hold on.

Yet when the initial excitement of this device wanes, you start to feel like Beukes is simply shuffling the superficial surface of the narrative. It's almost a distraction from the fact that nothing substantial lies behind this seemingly sophisticated facade.

Beukes may dub her hybrid vernacular high-concept sci-fi but there are no grand ideas supporting the architecture of her storytelling in this novel. It would be a mistake to equate narrative complexity with complexity itself.

This doesn't make the novel any less sexy. Beukes is a fantastic storyteller. The Shining Girls is an exhilarating read, until you discover it doesn't arrive anywhere interesting and that displacing a dystopian view of the South African landscape upon another perhaps doesn't offer any ideological discoveries. Barring that no matter how far you travel, you can never escape your baggage.

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