March 2013

Jeanne-Marie Jackson

fiction

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

Lauren Beukes's new novel The Shining Girls is A Very Big Deal in the world of South African publishing. This is, on its face, sort of curious, since the book is set in Chicago between 1929 and 1993 and its entire cast of characters is American. There are Polish-Americans, Korean-Americans, and African-Americans, in supporting roles, but none of the usual expat fare of The Rainbow Nation exploring itself from abroad. The buzz surrounding Beukes at home makes sense only seen from this counterintuitive angle: finally a South African writer who's mastered a global idiom, instead of the shop-worn themes of global export.

Since South Africans on the whole are more eager than we are to shrug off the burden of their famous "white consciousness" fiction -- the books Americans read in school, dutifully stirred by the pained liberalism of Cry, the Beloved Country, July's People, or Disgrace -- it's not surprising that The Shining Girls' displacement should be well received. The most notable part of stacking Lauren Beukes against Nadine Gordimer is that you can't: a novel about a horny time-traveling serial killer and the indie-chic girl who eludes him is so far outside the postcolonial lexicon as to make the comparison seem silly.

My nostalgia for anti-apartheid realism as the gold standard of "global" writing made even me wince in the presence of Beukes's well-accessorized hipness. Her book is full of vintage props like lighters and My Little Ponies, and its '90s Chicago sections are peppered with shout-outs to punk bands and zines. The Shining Girls is a book you read for historical throwbacks and not for historical unearthing, though it takes some shallow stabs (pun intended) at gender violence -- the title refers to the killer's pursuit of ambitious women who "shine." And it's fresh, it's fun, not all fiction needs to trade in the heavy coinage of awareness and alterity. But even if that's true, I thought as I flitted across eras and disemboweled victims, surely it should do something else? Isn't it fair to ask what we get from Lauren Beukes that we couldn't just as easily get from Dexter?

There are lots of kinder, gentler criteria that come to mind for determining why we read, why it matters at all that print culture stick around when there are plenty of great TV shows ripe for DVD bingeing. A book about a killer who meets his victims as little girls then travels through time to carve them up as adults, for example, should have style, suspense, and a strong sense of place, a sentence-level flair that HBO just can't match. But The Shining Girls is too often transparent in its bids for the taut and atmospheric: its first few sections are cluttered with references to heavy breathing and captive animals (a bumblebee, a horse), with the book's stage-setting for its later design laid bare by generic description. Lines like "The door swings open into darkness, and for a long, terrible moment, he stands paralyzed by possibilities" capture Beukes's penchant to tell and not show.

This extends to her only superficially vivid portrait of Chicago. The city becomes a fašade for locality without idiosyncratic grit, or at least, with just the illusion of it. We're told that it's Capone's town in the 1930s and by the '90s we get some descriptions of urban decay, but really, "shabby jazz joints" and "ragged children" could be a lot of places. References to local institutions stand in for any felt sense of what those institutions mean, but one suspects that this is largely the point. The setting is as spectral as the prose itself, which allows anyone from anywhere to project onto it.

It isn't surprising that Beukes claims admiration for David Mitchell, reigning king of global fiction in a formal sense as well as a market one, in a recent South African interview. The flip side of Mitchell's much-heralded lack of boundaries is a sense that connection must yield to the demands of connectivity, as geographic scope (or temporal, in Beukes's case) stands in for depth of character or craft. This isn't necessarily a bad thing if one thinks that erratic "mapping" is what fiction must do to be truly of-the-moment, but it results in portraits so hackneyed as to border on offensive. (The Holy Mountain section of Mitchell's 1999 novel Ghostwritten -- a composite sketch of stereotypes about Asian female victimization and spirituality -- is a good example of this.) Beukes's attempts to channel black American voices, especially young, male ones, sometimes reminded me of white people parodying Ebonics at my middle school in the '90s.

What Beukes does well -- and might yet do better, given half a chance, with less money on the line -- is capture the whimsical joys of time-travel removed from cardboard people who think things like, "For God's sake, she's not even a socialist, let alone a member of the Communist Party. But she's artistic. And these days that's bad enough. Because artists socialize with all kinds of people. Like blacks and left-wing radicals and people with opinions." A scene at the 1934 World's Fair in the book's last quarter contains the most enchanting mechanical dinosaurs I've encountered since watching Jurassic Park as a kid, and the killer's rejection of their "crude mechanics" is among Beukes's most salient characterizations.

At the end of The Shining Girls, then, one does not have the impression that Beukes is a master stylist, or of having uncovered a master plot. Her killer sums up my sense of the novel he's in with his claim that we read life in "A desperate attempt at order because we can't face the terror that it might all be random." Did I look for too much in this book? I have no doubt that many people will insist I've missed the point of Beukes' soon-to-be best-seller, that I don't "get" its fusion of marketable genre fiction with something more literary, that I too readily overlook its flickers of beguiling imagination to push a dated belief in the novel's social imperative. So the question, as fewer and fewer writers from Africa or elsewhere get paid or get read, is what we're prepared to demand of the books that do. If not insight, if not craft, then what? And if the answer could as readily be found without the work of turning pages, is it enough? It needn't be.

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
Mulholland Books
ISBN: 978-0316216852
384 pages