Zoo City

Lauren Beukes Avoids the Sophomore Curse with Zoo City

Zoo City’s Only Fault? Inconsistent Awesome

Lauren Beukes' Zoo City; UK Cover by Joey Hi-Fi aka D. HalvorsenAt it’s core, if we strip it of most of its fantastical elements, Zoo City is a arguably just a crime drama – a so-called hardboiled thriller. Or so some blurb writers might have us believe – as well as whoever wrote Lauren Beukes’ Wikipedia entry. But even without the element of mashavi manifested as animals that criminals must bear as they go about their daily lives – imagine Hester Prynne having a scarlet ibis flapping along behind her throughout Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter – Beukes’ second novel is more than just a well-written thriller set in the seedier side of present-day Johannesburg.

Beukes, a self-described recovering journalist, has obviously put her Fourth Estate skills to work and put together an entertaining and rich yet subtle commentary on prejudice, culture and society interwoven with a work of gritty or realistic urban fantasy. Indeed, Zoo City owes more to Gibson and Gaiman than Tolkien and Lewis, to be sure. It’s also a credit to Beukes as an author that a work that could have easily been formulaic and derivative is actually original and eminently readable.

You People: Being Animaled in Zoo City

A bit of explanation is in order: Zoo City is set in an alternate present-day Johannesburg, South Africa. In the world of Zoo City, serious criminals are beset with their own specific animals that mark them as a criminal, making them a so-called “zoo.” In fact, in Beukes’ Jo-burg there isn’t so much prejudice between black and white as there is against the animaled – the zoos – from all quarters. The animaled are  “you people” in Beukes’ alternate world, regardless of the color of their skin.

Given that this is South Africa, many believe the animals attached to those that commit crimes are mashavi, the spirits of people that have left no descendants behind or whose descendants no longer honor or remember them. The idea of mashavi (that’s the plural, shavi is the singular) comes from the Shona people of Zimbabwe, or at least the term does; animism and belief in ancestral spirits is a traditional belief in many traditional African religions.

In any event, within the context of Zoo City, being animaled marks you in no uncertain terms in most people’s eyes, as we see through Beukes’ chief protagonist and first-person narrator, Zinzi December. Like her creator, Zinzi is a former and maybe would-be-again journalist. Unlike (presumably) her creator, Zinzi has served time in prison for a violent crime, and as such is animaled: she now lives with a metaphorical and literal monkey on her back. Only it’s not a monkey, in Zinzi’s case, but a sloth, and as result she lives on the margins of society, even though she has a college degree and professional experience, and has ostensibly paid her debt to society – but we all know how that works, real life or fictional.

Lauren Beukes' Zoo City; North American ho-hum cover artAnd it’s to Beukes’ further credit that she never actually resorts to that cliché about monkeys, backs and bad habits – implied, perhaps, but never stated. This, despite the fact that Zinzi is also an addict (or a recovering one, depending on your sense of semantics and vernacular).

Along with being animaled, being graced with a shavi also gives some people unique talents or skills akin to magic; in Zinzi’s case this is finding things that people have lost. As Zoo City begins, we learn that Zinzi uses this skill as her livelihood, since she is a marked woman in the eyes of society; the South African version of Vanity Fair (or its equivalent) is not likely to come knocking, looking for her byline.

When her current client dies unexpectedly before Zinzi can get paid, she reluctantly agrees to take a potentially lucrative missing persons job, something she ordinarily avoids. It just so happens the missing person is also part of a teenage popstar duo, and we’re off and running with our thriller plot, which is inextricably mixed up with mashavi and magic.

Didn’t Quite Get There: A Bit of an Anticlimax

In fact it would be difficult to have exactly the same thriller of a plot if we stripped away the mashavi; they are at its core. Nevertheless, if there is one disappointing thing in Zoo City, it’s the culmination of the plot. If we do take away the element of the mashavi, the climax leaves us with the standard, ho-hum stuff of pop-fiction thrillers.

But then it is Beukes’ talent that perhaps works against her in this respect; Beuke’s sophomore novel is so well done she perhaps sets up some unrealistic expectations. The characters in Zoo City are so wonderfully realized, the element of mashavi expertly woven into the otherwise common fabric of a seedy, urban backdrop — bringing something blessedly original to a crowded sub-genre – that one anticipates some mind-blowing, oh-my-gods-no-one-could-have-seen-this-coming climax to Zoo City.

And this is not to say that the climax is bad or not otherwise well written and realized, it is. It just doesn’t quite live up to the rest of the novel. Furthermore, this is also certainly not to say that you shouldn’t read it; you should; it’s nothing short of great stuff, particularly considering it’s only the author’s second novel.

Beaukes: Clarke Award Winner, Master of Metaphor

Zoo City is a winner of the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke award (I’m a nerd and keep track of such things as winners of Arthur C. Clarke awards; the master is still one of my favorites, too). In this interview with Beukes from the venerable science fiction podcast, Escape Pod – following the news of the award — one of the first questions the interviewer asks her is how she scored a book blurb from author William Gibson; the story of how this came about is particularly post modern.

Comparisons to Gibson and his contemporaries is perhaps inevitable, given the subject of her first book, Moxyland, it being an example of the cyberpunk science fiction, another crowded subgenre that Gibson himself helped define decades ago. I’ve read enough of Moxyland now to have a feel for it, but I have to say that it is Zoo City actually reminds me much more Gibson’s cyberpunk works, even though Beukes’ second novel is set in the present day.

While her writing style is somewhat akin to Gibson’s earlier works, it is the character, Zinzi, who is reminiscent of someone out of Burning Chrome or Neuromancer. Here we have someone who is existing on the margins of society, a member of a subculture that most people outside of it seek to either avoid or take advantage of. Here we have someone displaced by an omnipresent aspect of their culture and yet using the very same in order to get by – indeed, that aspect is inescapable; it drives much of the plot and characterization in Zoo City, as it does in Gibson’s cyberpunk works. In Gibson’s stories and earlier novels, that aspect was advanced technology; in Zoo City it’s mashavi.

In lesser hands, the mashavi and the colorful side of the Jo-burg tracks would overshadow Zinzi and the novel’s coterie – menagerie? – of other zoos; in the hands of a less capable author, Sloth would be a cutesy character that overshadows Zinzi. Fortunately for Beukes’ readers, neither is the case. Narrator Zinzi occupies front and center stage, albeit with Sloth – who is nevertheless a character in his own right – along for the ride.

In fact it’s surprising given her background as a journalist that Beukes seems to spill out such effortless prose as that in Zoo City; not all recovering journalists make good novelists. But it’s quite easy as a reader to become immersed in Zinzi’s world pretty much from the outset on page one:

Morning light the sulphur colour of the mine dumps seeps across Johannesburg’s skyline and sears through my windows. My own personal bat signal. Or a reminder that I need to get curtains.

Shielding my eyes – morning has broken and there’s no picking up the pieces – I yank back the sheet and peel out of bed. Benoit doesn’t so much as stir, with only his calloused feet sticking out from under the duvet like knots of driftwood. Feet like that, they tell a story. They say he walked all the way from Kinshasa with his Mongoose strapped to his chest.

The Mongoose in question is curled up like a furry comma on my laptop, the glow of the LED throbbing under his nose. Like he doesn’t know that my computer is out of bounds. Let’s just say I’m precious about my work. Let’s just say it’s not entirely legal.

Only one more thing to say about this: hell yes. How could you not be hooked? By the way, you can hear Beukes herself read this passage in the Escape Pod interview.

And just in those few paragraphs, laden with a few but key details, we learn so much about Zinzi and her world. This is not a fluke; much of the novel unreels like this, bit by bit. It’s quite simply a pleasure to read.

Beukes also has a flair for interesting and colorful metaphor. This doesn’t always work, but it does much more often than not. And when it does, wow. For example:

Emmanuel’s grin drops from his face like a kicked puppy, bounces on the pavement and tumbles into the gutter with a pitiful yelp.

Or

Mr. Huron, I presume, emerges onto the balcony with a flourish. He’s not so much a barrel of a man as a bagpipe, all his weight loaded in front …

Not so much a barrel of a man as a bagpipe. That’s … that’s brilliant; that’s brilliant, original metaphor. Color me green with envy.

Then there is this passage, when Zinzi tells Benoit that her current client died that afternoon.

“She died. Murdered, if you want to be technical. I was practically there and the connection just … withered up.” Saying it, I feel the kick in my gut again. Like a lost heart attack that’s wandered into my intestines by mistake.

It’s this flair for metaphor that brings Zinzi and her world to life, lending an actual flavor of realism to Zoo City, thankfully making that gritty urban world more than just a subgenre – or worse still – marketing label, in this case. To wit, Zinzi’s description of her first day outside of prison, after several years:

I spent most of that first day hiding inside the apartment, trying to figure out what my next move was. In prison, you can drift between claxons that regiment the day, just doing what you’re told, like a ball in a slow-mo pinball machine. I missed those claxons.

Okay, technically that’s a simile, but you still, you get the idea (yes, I’m a word nerd). This talent for metaphor is also one of the things that reminds one of Gibson. Just as he gave us a Chiba sky “the color of television, tuned to a dead channel,” the tiles of a dilapidated swimming pool in Zoo City “are chipped, the lapis-lazuli blue faded to a dull glaucoma.” Just as a Gibson character in Count Zero gave us meatspace as a metaphor for reality, as opposed to cyberspace (is it sad or cool that I know this off the top of my head?), Beukes’ Zinzi describes herself as “meat with faulty programming.”

I really wanted to believe that there were these magic celestial bodies that would direct my life, tell me what to do, and it turns out it’s not stars, it’s some bits of screwy DNA. I’m just meat with faulty programming.

Fortunately for us, Beukes’ meat is programmed with considerable talent for the written word.

Interested in Beukes’ first novel, the cyberpunk opus Moxyland? Follow that link.

Post script: As you may have noticed, there are two different covers presented here; one is the North American one, the other is the United Kingdom edition – the black-and-white one. I’d be curious to know why the publisher thought we needed the more standard cover here in North America – the artwork is fine, but it’s just a basic, standard pop-fiction cover. It wouldn’t stand out at all on a bookstore shelf.

The UK cover on the other hand, is quite arresting. In fact its creator, South African artist D. Halvorsen, won an award for the work at this year’s British National Science Fiction Convention for best cover art. Check out Halvorsen’s portfolio; it’s worth a visit.

Post post script: For some odd reason, the ebook edition I downloaded from Amazon – I pay for books from living authors, and you should too, if you are in a financial position to do so – has the North American cover, but the text uses spellings found in British English (presumably the standard in South Africa). What one English friend of mine once termed English English, as opposed to American English.

One could argue the efficacy of covers in the dawning age of ebooks, but we’ll save that for another time. As for English English vs. American English, well that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish (and chips, with vinegar, yum).

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