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Friday, February 04, 2011

Book Review: Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

When my friend and I asked Lauren Beukes to describe Zoo City, she understandably remarked that the book is rather difficult to explain.  Zoo City isn't like a lot of books.  On the one hand it is a noir murder mystery with a semi-New Weird slant, but on the other it is a novel about refugees, the music industry, South Africa, guilt, revenge, drugs, prejudice, poverty, and so much more.  It is a gloriously complicated novel with equally complicated characters.  You might even call it a brilliant example of worldbuilding from outside of the traditional modern fantasy genre.

Zoo City is concerned with Zinzi December, a former convict who, like many others, must bear the
mark of her crime in the form of a semi-intelligent animal -- in her case, it's a sloth.  But there's also the Undertow -- a mysterious force that some claim is Hell reaching out for the damned souls of aposymbiots like Zinzi.  Aposymbiosis, however, isn't all bad.  Every aposymbiot is gifted with an ability.  Some can create protective charms while others can dampen magical fields.  Zinzi can see the threads that connect people to their lost things.  And that's how she survives:  finding things for people for a modest fee.  But when she takes on a job from a music producer to find a missing girl, things get sticky.  Her employer isn't who he seems and the person she's trying to find might be running for a good reason.  Toss in her debts to a shady organization of email scammers, her complicated relationship with her refugee lover, a murder, and the seedy underbelly of a Johannesburg trying to deal with its new "problem" and you have a complex story about South Africa, its people, and its culture.

Zoo City is immense in its complexity, despite having the allure of a typical genre romp.  Trying to describe the novel will always leave out some salient detail, which will prevent one from conveying a true sense of the novel.  It is, in part, a noir crime novel, but it is also a foray into South Africa's present.  What is surprising about Zoo City is that it breaks the fantasy tradition of disconnection from reality -- what some might call the escapist nature of the genre.  Zoo City roots the reader in the now, altering details as necessary to convey a world that has been changed by its supernatural affliction (aposymbiosis); it is a novel with an intimate relationship to South Africa's present (and, by extension, its past).  For that reason, I think Zoo City would benefit from multiple readings.  The novel's cultural layers are palimpsest-ial in nature, each element bleeding into another so that almost every detail, allusion, and reference becomes integral to the development of the novel's characters and the narrative itself.  I consider this to be a good thing because the novel doesn't suffer from feeling disconnected from the world its characters are supposed to occupy (an alternate-history near-today) -- that is that the characters are so firmly rooted in Beukes' South African milieu that they don't read like characters transplanted from elsewhere.

Being so rooted, Zoo City is as much about its world as it is about its characters.  The first-person-present narrative style allows for Zinzi's voice to dominate, but that doesn't prevent Beukes from providing useful insight into the various other characters around her main character.  While the focus on Zinzi certainly shows a lopsided view of the world, it doesn't fail to show the wider context in which Zinzi has become a part.  Zinzi's detective role, in a way, is a duality:  she uses it first as a survival mechanism, but then as a way to dig into her own personal reality, discovering the truth about her friends and even herself.  It is through this process that the narrative's cultural strands build on top of one another, providing the reader with a progressively deepening view of the characters and their interaction with the world around them.  Zinzi's refugee lover (Benoit), for example, is a man with his own mysteries, and it is inevitably through Zinzi's various other doings, some of which she has hidden even from those that know her, that she not only explains the world from which Benoit has come, but also discovers more about who Benoit is/was and how new events in her life will change the dynamics of their relationship and their relationship to the world around them.  Throughout all of this, Zinzi's humor, sarcasm, and cynicism pokes through, coloring her character and her vision of the South Africa of Zoo City (by extension, the reader's view is also colored by these interjections).

It is this attention to detail and character that I loved about Zoo City.  Instead of focusing undo attention to its plot, the novel finds a balance between both plot and character.  Neither is written at the expense of the other, but the characters also seem to steal the show because they are all incredibly flawed, and deal with those flaws in (sometimes annoyingly) human ways.  Perfection is an impossibility in Beukes' narrative.  Zinzi has many advantages -- her magical ability and her attitude, which she uses to intimidate her "enemies -- but she is also limited, and knows it.  Her actions are appropriately influenced by this knowledge; reading her thoughts as she comes to terms with these flaws, particularly in bad situations, is an amusing, if not voyeuristic, experience.

Neither plot or character are perfectly in-sync, however.  The ending, I would argue, felt somewhat rushed and without full resolution (by this I don't mean the last pages, which I think were appropriate based on what occurs in the novel); in a sense, I think the ending shies away from the noir crime narrative Zoo City started with and delves into darker themes that might have been better served by stronger foreshadowing in the novel.  Zinzi's voice and her character flaws do, to some extent, overwhelm these minor issues, making the ending suspenseful and (slightly) insane, and I suspect that this line of thought is more a nitpick than a sustainable criticism.  What I did enjoy about the ending, though, was that it was not pretty; there are no grand heroes to save the day without a scratch here (and, to be honest, there aren't that many grand heroes that save the day to begin with in the novel) -- Beukes is fairly unrepentant about how she treats her characters.  The unresolved ending might also make it possible for a sequel, which I think would be a great addition to Beukes' oeuvre, since it might offer further closure to the narrative strands that, like Zinzi's gift, are still pulling for that distant "end."

Overall, though, I think Zoo City has pretty much secured its place in my top novels of 2011, and of the decade.  Zoo City is cultural studies in action, and a brilliant piece of work.  I've already found myself leaning ever closer to considering South Africa as the second half of what will form my PhD dissertation.  Whether it will be influential on SF/F over the next decade is impossible to predict, but I do know that the novel has already begun influencing me, much as District 9 did when I first saw it last year, and much like future projects by Beukes and Blomkamp undoubtedly will.  Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go read Moxyland.
If you'd like to find out more about Lauren Beukes, check out her website.  You can find her publisher, the awesome Angry Robot Books (which won the 2010 WISB Award for best publisher, by the way) here.  You might also want to check out The Skiffy and Fanty Show's interview with Lauren Beukes here.

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  1. I absolutely LOVED Zoo City. I thought Zinzi was a wonderful character - deeply flawed yet I could sympathize. Animal familiars isn't unique, but I felt what Beukes did with the idea was. And yes, it is a deeply complex novel, but one that is accessible and completely readable.

    great review!!

  2. Glad we're on the same page :).