Friday 10 February 2017

Review: Slipping by Lauren Beukes

(I've avoided crude spoilers, but this review does discuss the stories in some detail. I  do discuss the end of some of the stories, but  I don't actually reveal what happens.)

After four novels, Lauren Beukes has established herself as one of the most exciting voices in contemporary SF, as well as one of the most relevant of contemporary novelists. Moxyland (2008) was one of the most satisfying dystopias of recent years; Zoo City (2010) was among the most emotionally engrossing fantasy novels to appear since Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials; The Shining Girls (2013) was a thriller about a time travelling serial killer that left the reader engrossed in the lives of ordinary women and their various struggles to challenge patriarchy; Broken Monsters (2014) juxtaposed another supernatural serial killer with modern Detroit, and the result was not only a tale of fast-paced horror thrills but a remarkably sure account of people living under economic deprivation. 

The stories collected here display many of the talents that have made her novels so compelling. Some are funny, some are terrifying, some are intimate, all are convincing: never overly twee, never predictable in their SF speculations, and all with characters whose voices ring with authenticity rather than come across as literary. Beukes's journalistic background is an obvious asset, allowing her to sketch a South Africa so terrifying in its moves towards dystopia and so rich in its history, culture and patois that the reader becomes used to a familiar experience reading the opening sentences of these brief stories: wondering and attempting to deduce whether they are set in the future or the present. One of the most worrying stories, "Riding with the Dream Patrol", is set just one year in the future. Beukes even lends her own name to the reporter in this story, and so authentic is her journalistic style that the distance between reality and fiction becomes worryingly small. Beukes's namesake interviews the head of the Mongooses:

Whereas apartheid’s Special Branch would have had to embed undercover agents to spy on union meetings, for the Mongooses, total transparency, at least for private citizens, is only one click away. A glance at Facebook events, your Flickr set, your Twitter feed, or your Mxit friends list provides information on your known associates, recent whereabouts, political, social and sexual proclivities. But the combination of RICA, which makes every SIM card traceable down to its GPS coordinates, the Protection of Information Act and the Corporate Responsibility Act of 2013 (CRA), which legally obliges corporations to cooperate with government demands such as shutting down cellphonecoverage in a riot zone, for example, makes their job a whole lot easier. The Mongooses can not only monitor open networks but private ones too, including phone calls, emails and your Internet history. They can even track your current location using your cellphone’s GPS -- and they can shut down anything they don’t like.

Particularly impressive here is the story's understatement: Beukes is content to let the report stand for itself rather than add a coda developing it into a more story-like structure. It stays in the reader's memory more like a disturbing journalistic account we once read. Perhaps this was how listeners to Orson Welles's War of the Worlds broadcast felt.

A second reason for the sheer niftiness of Beukes's near-future world building is her strong ear for young people: how they talk, how they reference culture, how technology shapes their lives. Many novelists have found this impossible to pull off, and have ended up sounding merely old-fogeyish. One thinks of Martin Amis seizing on the literary potential of texting in Yellow Dog only to confuse texting with emailing, and his novel Lionel Asbo, named after a Blairite initiative which had already ended by the time the book was published. One also thinks with a shudder of Ian McEwan's recent novel Nutshell, in which an unborn fetus narrating the book mocks Young People Today and their safe spaces, trigger warnings and other things McEwan has received a one-sided account of from reactionary sources. Beukes's writing is both too empathetic and too in tune with the rhythms of different speech and writing -- emails, texts, tweets, posters, slang -- to make these kind of blunders. 

The excellent, very brief story "Confirm\Ignore" manages to capture, in just a few paragraphs, an entire zeitgeist of young people and social media: a world of anonymity, deletion, failure and trying again. She manages the impossible task of understanding the culture of celebrity worship and social media with some degree of affection without becoming indulgent towards to it. "Pop Tarts" captures this idiom nicely, evoking a South African nightlife in which "everyone and their domestic worker has public access broadcast rights and a private channel to call their own". We follow Jude (real name Koketla), "South Africa's official Most Desirable", who hits the town on a tour of the VIP rooms accompanied by her friends, her camera man and Dirk, "the coldest, savviest, most flamboyantly evil bastard of a marketing pimp you ever could meet". While getting into their limo, they are hijacked by "Joshua-X. Joburg’s number one white-boy hijacker, whose daring criminal exploits go out 24-7 on 136 channels around the world, not including subscriber Internet." It's paced fast enough so that these characters don't become tiresome, with their language and surroundings deftly rendered -- they're broadcasting on a five-minute delay, "something all the live TV producers cottoned onto after that whole thing with Janet Jackson’s boob" -- until the story ends on a shocking note when drastic action is taken to boost ratings. The ingenious "Easy Touch", a variation of which appeared in Zoo City, tells the story of a scam emailer prepared to fleece a couple who need money for their disabled son. The story gains much power from the way Beukes regularly punctuates it with the emails themselves, exposed in all their banal glory, from pleas from Robert Mugabe's wife to congratulations on winning a Nokia promotion. The story takes a different path to the Zoo City version, ending with a hugely satisfying twist.

 It is all too easy to go down the Black Mirror road and write predictable now-technology-owns-YOU stories, or short stories about someone being stopped as they try to leave a store with a crashingly predictable twist-ending in which, of course, they are stopped for *not* taking anything, because, you know, capitalism. Beukes never goes down that trite path. "Exhibitionist", an earlier take on a scene that appeared in Moxyland, is the most Ballardian of these stories. It focuses on an exhibition of various works of art including this installation:

The thing is gore￾deluxe, red and meaty, like something dead turned inside out and mangled, half-collapsed in on itself with spines and ridges and fleshy strings and some kind of built-in speakers, which makes the name even more disturbing --Woof & Tweet. I don’t understand how it works, but it’s to do with reverb and built-in resonator-speakers. It’s culling sounds from around us, remixing ambient audio, conversation, footsteps, glasses clinking, rustling clothing, through the systems of its body, disjointed parts of it inflating, like it’s breathing. 

As with several Ballard stories, particularly those collected in Vermilion Sands, the reader finishes the story with sounds ringing in his or her ears. The story's effectiveness lies in its willingness to forgo trite twists and moralising and instead let us "fondle the details", to use a phrase of Nabokov's. The same is true of "Branded", another embryo version of Moxyland, featuring some of the same characters and ideas. Its idea, crucial to Moxyland, that everyone's mobile phone is fitted with a "defuser",which administers an electric shock to keep you unconscious until the police arrive, is one of the most effective fictional extrapolations of 21st century capitalism that contemporary fiction has produced. Also memorable is the logo "just be it" visible through the skin of its character Kendra, a "sponsor baby" for a brand of cola named Ghost, who is fitted with nanotech that makes it her drink of choice and necessity: 

Brain reacting like she was on some fine-ass bliss, drowning her in endorphins and serotonin, the drink binding with aminos and the tiny bio-machines humming in her veins. Voluntary addiction with benefits. Make her faster, stronger, more coordinated. Ninja-slick reflexes. Course, if she’d sold her soul to Big Red Cola instead, she’d be sharper, wittier. Big Red nano-lubes the transmitters. Neurons firing faster, smarter, more productive. All depends on the brand, on your lifestyle of choice, and it’s all free if you qualify.

It's an ingenious conceit: simple, yet as perfect a fictional embodiment of Naomi Klein's No Logo as could be imagined. It's cool, it's horrible, it's intensely visual and it's creepily sensuous: Beukes literally gets under the skin.

There is impressive range here. As well as SF, there are intimate portraits of everyday lives. "Algebra" skillfully rattles through the stages of a relationship through the structure of an alphabet, a conceit of the kind often used by Ballard but here used to convey almost the opposite of his preferred subject matter of apocalypse and psychosis: everyday life. "Dear Mariana" is told from the point of view of a woman writing a letter to her ex-girlfriend on a typewriter in the latter's flat while she is away. The notion of the narrator's typing ability on the unfamiliar device fluctuating with her mood is put to witty effect, allowing Beukes to bring a distinctive, subtly embittered voice to life. In "Dial Tone", a woman spends her time ringing numbers from the phone book and silently listening to the replies, never ringing the same number twice. "My Insect Skin" is an almost unbearable account of a woman suffering a miscarriage while encountering sexist harassment. It's a story that simply has to be experienced: it is so raw that quoting from it would not do it justice. "Parking" tells the story of a parking attendant who admires a regular parker from afar, and upon finally getting the chance to give her a ticket, nervously says he'll waive it if she has coffee with him. The story is effective in taking the premise of a romcom and playing it with realistic consequences -- showing the painful reality behind entitled fantasies -- and is given added piquancy by the details of the protagonist's job and its political implications: 

Part of his job is to chase away the informal car guards and the street people and the barefoot children who sleep in doorways. His job is to keep the city safe, especially for the visitors, to chase away the rubbish. It is a respectable job, and they say that this is how they sorted out the crime situation in New York. That by stopping the small crimes, you can stop the big ones. But this is the work he tries to avoid, when he can. Emmanuel says he is soft, that he would not last in the Congo, if he can’t even handle children.

Beukes manages to take those who are part of the everyday machinery of South Africa, and show the humanity behind the bureaucracy.

Unabashed entertainment is offered in the form of "Unathi Battles the Hairballs", which begins quite brilliantly. Unathi, a member of the Saiko Squadron -- "the most elite Mecha Squadron on Earth" -- is on shore leave in a karaoke bar about to sing along to a new Britney Spears cover of the Spice Girls' Wannabe when a giant tentacle comes smashing through the wall and dismembers several of Unathi's fellow squadron members:

The karaoke jukebox clicked over to the duet. Looking in your eyes, there’s reflected paradise. And that might have been true if Ryu still had eyes, or, for that matter, a head. His body stood swaying for a moment, like an indecisive drunk. And then a bright, hot jet of blood fountained from the stump of his neck, spraying Unathi in the face like some vampire bukkake video. She managed to suck in enough air to scream. She’d had an inkling of his crush. It was in the way he showed all his teeth and scratched the back of his head whenever she gave him a direct order. The cheesy eighties duet cemented it. And now he was dead. Excepting herself, the whole of Saiko Squadron was dead. And, worse, there was blood and spilt sake on her white patent-whale-penis-leather boots.
“Someone is going to fucking pay!” Unathi growled.

The combination of the comic details, the verisimilitude, the fast pace and the kickass heroine is quite irresistible. It ultimately goes down a one-joke metafictional avenue (complete with Haruki Murakami guest-starring as himself), but remains impossible to dislike.

Beukes's charm is also on full display in "Princess", an Angela Carteresque reworking of the Princess and the Pea written for an erotic anthology, in which the Princess is a modern rich kid in a similar vein to Jude from "Pop Tarts" -- her duties as Princess include "making the cover of Heat and People and US Weekly, dabbling in music or fashion or reality TV, looking hot at all times, dancing on tables and, most importantly, Being Seen" -- and the pea her clitoris. She faces the glare of the paparazzi with the aid of her handmaid, an economic refugee from Ecuador "who deeply loved the princess in a manner not entirely appropriate or approved, despite what you may have seen on those Spring Break reality TV specials". The tone here nicely marries the contemporary with the fairy-tale, bringing verisimilitude to potentially twee characters and not outstaying its welcome. "Ghost Girl" is a more quietly engaging story, in which the title character -- the mysterious ghost of a young girl who claims to have committed suicide -- befriends a male architectural student. It achieves its effects through the chemistry between the two characters, weaving a nice parable about creativity and social responsibility --is it enough for architects to unleash their imaginations, or should they concentrate on homeless shelters?

This more fanciful side of Beukes's imagination can also be unsettling, and can continue to disturb the reader for some time afterwards. Perhaps the most harrowing story here is "Unaccounted", which tells of a prison previously run by aliens which falls under human occupation following a conflict between the two species. The story opens thus: 

The ittaca is wedged into the uneven corner of cell 81C, as if it is trying to osmose right through the walls and out of here. It is starting to desiccate around the edges, the plump sulphur-colored frills of its membrane turning shriveled and grey. Maybe it’s over, Staff Sergeant Chip Holloway thinks, looking in through the organic lattice of the viewing grate. The thought clenches in his gut.

Things get worse, and Holloway starts to hear the word "maggot" used as abuse. Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib are present here on every page. Beukes is too sophisticated to make the comparison explicit: as China Mieville has often pointed out, SF's strength lies in is ability to allow its metaphors to be things in their own right as well as metaphors. The story is powerful because the ittica is just that: the ittica. It isn't a clumsy metaphor for Muslims or for Al Qaeda, as Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica have respectively blundered into: instead the situation has the integrity of something that gets more horribly real as we read on, so that we can smell the urine in the trashed cell and hear the snarls of "maggot!" Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib are not tritely and predictably reassembled in metaphorical form: instead they are present as a whisper. The nightmarish drives that caused them and the implications they raise as 21st century history progresses animate this story and they linger in the mind as the reader finishes it, but so does the power of Beukes's story itself.

"The Green" and the title story are also riveting excursions into full-on SF. In "Slipping", Pearl Nit-seeko, a fourteen-year-old girl from Cape Town who lost both legs while trying to race a train, arrives in Pakistan to compete in the "+ Games". She can run thanks to cybernetic legs, and her fellow competitors are a girl who runs in an exo-suit, a girl with a sculpted tail, a girl with robotics wet-wired into her nerves and a brain-dead girl remote-controlled by a quadriplegic in a hospital bed. With such a fascinating line-up, it all builds up to a moment of great exhilation on the racetrack. Pearl's augmented body leads to some great moments of unsettling but fascinating body horror -- or rather, body weirdness:

She feels along the rigid seam that runs in a J-hook down the side of her stomach, parallel with her hysterectomy scar, and tears open the velcroskin.
“Let me,” Tomislav says, kneeling between her legs. She holds her flesh open while he reaches one hand up inside her abdomen. It doesn’t hurt, not anymore. The velcro releases a local anesthetic when it opens, but she can feel an uncomfortable tugging inside, like cramps. Tomislav twists off the valves on either side, unplugs her stomach and eases it out of her. He sets it in a sterile biobox and connects it to a blood flow. By the time he turns back, she is already spooling up the accordion twist of artificial intestine, like a magician pulling ribbons from his palm. It smells of lab-mod bacteria, with the faintest whiff of feces. She hands it to Tomislav and he wrinkles his nose. 
"Just goes to show,” he says, folding up the crinkled plastic tubing and packing it away. “You can take the meat out of the human, but they’re still full of shit!"

"The Green" is narrated by Coco Yenko, part of a corporate bio-tech team put out to work in armoured suits harvesting the flora of an alien planet. One of the main results of their discoveries are: 

self-organizing cellular amoebites that ooze around on their own until one of them finds a very recently dead thing to grow on. Then it lays down signals, chemical or hormonal or some other system we don’t understand yet, and all the other amoebites congeal together to form a colony that sets down deep roots like a wart into whatever's left of the nervous system of the animal . . . and then take it over.

Consequently, zombies of deceased crewmembers -- aka Organically Preserved Personnel -- lurch around, including Rousseau, Coco's former boyfriend. The description of the accident that led to Rousseau's death, after his suit is compromised due to the carelessness of another crewmember, is particularly harrowing:

We had to sit in the cafeteria, the only communal space, listening to Rousseau die, pretending not to. It should have been easy. The loud drone of the air conditioner and the filters and the sterilizer systems all fighting The Green is the first thing you acclimatize to here. But Ro’s voice somehow broke through, a shrill shriek between clenched teeth. We hadn’t known anyone who’d ever died from the stingstrings. The labtechs must have been thrilled. [...] 
The other crews were making bets on what would kill him. Marking up the odds on the back of a cigarette packet. Black humor and wise-cracking is just how you deal. We’d have been doing the same if it wasn’t one of ours. Yellow Choke 3:1. Threadworms 12:7. The Tars 15:4. New & Horrible: 1:2.
Ro’s voice changed in pitch, from scream-your-throat-raw to a low groaning—the kind that comes from your intestines plasticinating. The spores must have got in to the rip in his gut through the tear in his armor.

This story fuses SF details with grim realism to great effect, often in a single paragraph:

Which was the same line my mom spun me when she took me to the sterilization clinic in Caxton, mainly for the incentive kickback the government provided, but also to make sure I didn’t end up like her, pregnant and homeless at fourteen, working double shifts at the seam factory--which is what she did after I was born, to keep the pair of us alive. That only makes me feel more guilty--all the sacrifices she made so I could get out of Caxton.

This is a story as memorable for details such as Coco's childhood memories of working with her mother --"I am scampering over the factory floor, back when she still had the job, dodging the electric looms to collect scraps of fabric that she will sew into dishcloths and dolls and maybe a dress, to sell to the neighbors, illegally" -- as for the descriptions of the zombified crewmembers, their tongues coated with a "seething furry growth". It builds to an ending in which the sublime fear of the unknown is all the more convincing because of the believable details of the SF setup.

As I mentioned earlier, one of the most compelling features of this collection is the process at the start of each story where we wonder if this fascinating world evoked is futuristic or contemporary. This is why the present tense is often essential to her style. The present tense is a form that can be a natural companion to estrangement: it is more likely to eschew explanations of the environment in which the story takes place and take us straight to the experience of the protagonist. "Smileys", one of the collection's finest stories, tells of Thozama, an elderly woman who sells the titular foodstuff -- an intact sheep's head cooked over a fire until its lips pull back in a grin -- at the market. Thozama is on her train to work, when a man tries to strike up a conversation. He's a former member of the Azanian People's Liberation Army who, after the fighting ended, tried to join the police but didn't have the qualifications ("We were lions fighting that apartheid struggle, lions defending our communities, but what happens when you bring the lions into the kraal, among the sheep?"), and so instead he put his talents to use starting the Anti-Crime Association, a vigilante group, the mention of which reminds Thozama of "the man stripped naked and beaten in the streets, on the word of another man and a R150 'transport fee', of the man found hanging behind the taxi rank, his eyes blindfolded". "Soldier" offers to escort Thozama to and from her place of work, reminding her that there are things the ACA can do that the police would not dare, and that all they would need is the occasional donation, perhaps of food. As he continues to harass her as they get off the train, Thozama's life flashes before her: 

Her husband working in Germiston as a petrol attendant, both of them bringing in money, building their home, a family from two different cities over a thousand kilometers apart, when he died in the fighting between the Zulus and the ANC in 1993. She thinks about her twenty-six-year-old daughter who drinks up her government grant, drinks to drown the anger and the shame of her diagnosis, and forgets to give her baby, Thozama’s grandson, his anti-retroviral medicine. 
She thinks about her best wishes: to live with her kids (all grown up, the customs done, her son has already been to the bush), for her business to grow and her kids to take over, so she can relax, stop riding the train to the butcher, stop shaving the heads, boiling the heads, selling the heads.

It's a great story because it captures the combination of estrangement and attention to lived experience that makes Beukes's stories so distinctive. The sheeps' heads are an eerie image, but they also represent Thozama's livelihood, and the image beautifully complements the story's theme of sheep and lions. Like most short stories at their best, it works by emphasising a single moment, where a novel would have to move on. Our understanding of the kind of life that Thozama has lived comes at the same moment as a cathartic moment of violence. In this snapshot the reader has the taste of something weird, yet we are put in tune with South Africa's history and psychological landscape.

The latter, briefer part of the book consists of several pieces of non-fiction which demonstrate both how journalism has allowed Beukes to see and evoke South Africa, and the importance of feminism to her mission as a writer. We see glimpses that have clearly been crucial to her fiction such as the intimidating vigilante group Penisula Anti-Crime Association (PEACA), the refugees from Mugabe's Zimbabwe who have found their experience in South Africa to be so dire that they are consider returning home, the people condemned by Government TV campaigns as "iz’nyoka"(snakes) who climb up poles to break power cables and steal the copper intestine and the security guard at a tenement block who remembers the time he felt bad because "I had to evict this old black guy who hadn’t paid his rent. And I had to hit him with the baton to get him to move because he wouldn’t go. And it made me feel swak, like he must think of old times, like apartheid, this young white oke beating him, but it’s my job, what am I supposed to do?" There is a memorable portrait of the courageous Justice Unity Dow, a High Court judge and one of Botswana's leading novelists, and a curious coincidence in which a young dishevelled woman appears at her house appealing for help during Beukes's visit. We see Beukes convey anger in prose of great brio and economy when referring to a blog that blames urban decay on the black population:

Always the blacks. As if apartheid’s (white) secret police, the ironically named Civil Cooperation Bureau, didn’t meet at the Quirinale Hotel on Kotze Street in Hillbrow to orchestrate atrocities, assassinations and political unrest in their efforts to derail democracy. As if a hundred years before that, Cecil John Rhodes and the (white) mining magnate Rand Lords didn’t scheme in the library of the gentlemen’s club downtown to bring the colonial empire snaking into the interior on railway tracks and the corpses of countless dead.

There is also an excellent, spirited piece about the writing of The Shining Girls condemning the tendency of modern fiction and media to eroticise female victims of serial killers which brings to mind the debate around the BBC's increasingly dubious drama series The Fall.

The book ends with a moving letter to Beukes's five-year-old daughter, reminiscent of Philip Larkin's poem "Born Yesterday". She tries to move her away from "Barbie and the Dreamhouse or Monsters High because they’re all about clothes and boyfriends and popularity, like the Kardashians for kids, and I try to nudge you to My Little Pony and She-Ra and The Powerpuff Girls and even Winx Club, where they have cool outfits and go on adventures. Where it’s about more than being beautiful." This seems as delightful and appropriate a note to end the book on as could be imagined: the importance of life is not to accept bullshit from the patriarchy, not to accept clichés of beauty and femininity, but to have adventures, and there is no more scintillating adventurer in modern fiction than Lauren Beukes.

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