Disclosure: This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher. No other consideration was offered.
I really loved The Shining Girls, and so I’m not terribly surprised to find that I really enjoyed Slipping, Lauren Beukes’ latest. I suspect that you will as well if you share my taste for weird, off-beat books and strange stories — and if you don’t, seriously, what are you even doing here. Slipping has all the great traits of her earlier work, but at the same time, it also displays her narrative flexibility.
This book is a collection of short stories and essays, and I have to confess that I actually liked the short stories more than the essays, though they were definitely pretty interesting, and offered insight into Beukes’ life in other arenas. (And sometimes they provided hints and glimpses into the origins of her stories and writing, as well.) You don’t have to read the text in any particular order, and can bounce around at will to find the things that interest or intrigue you most. You can also, of course, read it straight through, though you may find it a little rich to charge through at full speed.
The stories range from short — less than half a page — to complex, multipart explorations of human nature and embodiment. Some are played more or less straight in a contemporary setting with characters you might meet anywhere. Others take on science fiction and the boundaries of what humans can do. Some zip into outer space, or retell fairytales, or offer narratives of vengeance for the noxious sexist things people to do one another. Many of them are set in various versions of Beukes’ home, South Africa, and they attempt to show interesting slices of a world that many people know only in vague shapes and suggestions.
What draws me to Beukes’ writing is the strong and very genuine sense of weirdness — her work unsettles, forces you to pause, obliges you to re-read and roll something over in your head. Did she really just…? Yes, she did. Sometimes it’s genuinely gross, body horror at its best, and other times it’s strange, uneasy. While she has an incredibly consistent style and tone, each story feels fresh and distinct — they are cut from the same cloth, perhaps, but they are presented in such radically different ways that they, and their characters, don’t feel repetitive.
I particularly enjoyed ‘The Green,’ which put science fiction at loggerheads with psychology and human nature and capitalism in a very unsettling (and at times gross) piece set on a planet far away where workers risk everything to mine commodities. ‘Unathi Battles the Great Hairballs,’ complete with an absurdist landscape and mechs and disaster, was pretty great too. ‘Parking’ is a simple, classic, clean story that dumps the reader in a twist.
Some of these stories are almost like fragments, disorganised, wild pieces that fall together in random order, but they manage not to feel unpolished, which is tough. At times, I feel like I’m watching a livefeed of Beukes’ brain as she toys with ideas, presenting them, playing with them, taking them away again. At other times, these stories are so artfully refined and carefully structured that they feel well-worn and carefully tended. That mixture keeps the collection really fresh and interesting — I could read five or six at a go, and then I’d have to pause and linger, and then I could gobble up another one, and then I’d need to take a break.
There’s a tremendous amount of literary influence from a variety of traditions in this text, and it glimmers through here and there without being obtrusive — though ‘Princess’ definitely takes on and plays with, in more senses than one, the classic tale of the princess and the pea. She mixes folklore and tradition and legend with reality in a way that’s strikingly deft, and it makes me want to read more literature from South Africa to delve deeper into the traditions she nods to without appropriating from. That’s especially true of stories set in the area, perhaps particularly in the case of those that combine reality with near future with twisted versions of humanity to challenge readers.
Beukes has an incredibly descriptive sense, and while she doesn’t lovingly detail every single element of every single scene, she provides enough information to be captivating — I know what I need to know to get through the narrative, and I’m not bogged down with unnecessary information. For all that her style can be sparse, though, it’s still rich: I can feel the sun, smell the surroundings, sense the precise shade of paint a character is looking at, even when it’s spattered in gore or covered in weird alien jelly masses. And for all that I talk about her gross stories, don’t let that put you off — this really is a diverse mix, and there are lots of tales herein that have little to nothing to do with grossness!
If you haven’t read Beukes before, this strikes me as a really great introduction. It showcases her dynamic range and gives you a taste of her writing and storytelling style, and lets you browse through at your leisure. I suspect that you’ll leave wanting more, and fortunately, there’s definitely more where this came from. If you have read her before, you definitely need to get on it with this book, whether you like science fiction, fantasy, contemporary, or just plain weird.
Image: Hearts, Eirick Solheim, Flickr