Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

Moxy Land was one of my favourite books last year, and this new one from Lauren Beukes shares a lot of the characteristics that I liked about that book. I suppose it's Beukes's journalistic instincts at work: she homes in on the characters, the people with a story to tell. It's all in the detail: Moxy Land was a fairly standard cyberpunk dystopia, but due to the way she embedded the characters in the richly evoked South African background they had the feeling of real lives lived in a real world.

Zinzi December in Zoo City is similarly entwined deeply in her world. A former journalist who's reached rock-bottom after kicking a career destroying drug habit, she lives in a Johannesburg squat. She's slowly getting her life back together, partly thanks to her lover Benoit, a gentle former child soldier who has arrived in South Africa after following the trail of refugees south, after his life was destroyed in the Rwanda civil war.

However, her growing peace of mind is shattered when Benoit discovers that the wife and family he thought were dead, killed in the civil war in Rwanda, are alive and well. Both Zinzi and Benoit are living in states of suspended animation. They're kind of paralysed while they deal with different types of guilt and violent pasts. When he hears from his family, it kind of kicks them both back into life and suddenly all sorts of questions about their lives and futures that they had been ignoring are thrown into sharp relief.

This is the heart of the this novel, I think. It's where Zinzi's story really seems to begin, and it's the note on which the novel ends, but it's wrapped up in a whole lot of genre elements that do not, I think, bring much to the party.

First off, there are the familiar animals. The novel is set in the present day, but with the difference that in the 1980s or '90s people with some kind of guilt or who had committed some sort of crime (it's a bit unclear) began aquiring animal familiars, in a condition (we doctors call) Acquired Aposymbiotic Familiarism, or AAF. In addition, the afflicted also gain some kind of minor magical ability. 

I never quite understood the moral logic of all this: if you kill, you get an animal, and a special power, but if the animal dies then you die too (snatched by the ominous force of hungry darkness known as the Undertow). And furthermore, shamanistic African magic (at the very least – we don't see much of the rest of the world) appears to work.

I had trouble working out the rules of this magic, and Beukes doesn't give us much to hold on to. We get a few snatches of journalistic coverage but not quite enough to see any pattern or scheme in it, and the whole thing never really coheres in the way as the twin cities of China MiƩville's The City & The City (and the Undertow reminded me of the Breach).

The concept definitely needed a little more thought, but it's really brought down by the the AIDS metaphor. Beukes writes about the plight of the oppressed in the third world with clear eyes and righteous conviction, but the third world poor don't have super powers at their command. It's the old X-Men game, and Beukes doesn't really get much further with it than Chris Claremont and company, and it has the same arbitrary and random nature to it that the comics do.

I had a real problem suspending my disbelief that anyone with an animal – and concomitant special power – wouldn't be immediately snapped up and used by some corporate or state interest. I seem to recall some talk at the beginning stressing how most powers were rather trivial, but the actors we meet in Zoo City all have quite remarkable powers: Zinzi's ability to find lost objects, D-Nice can mess with people's minds somehow, Marabou & Maltese with the virtual invisibility and – crucially – Benoit with his ability to nullify other people's powers (at which point I immediately, and fatally, thought of Piers Anthony's The Colour of Magic).

I could believe the oppression – the ghettos, the open prejudice, the usual mundane exploitation that comes with second class citizenship – but I couldn't let go of the fact that the super powers seemed to barely have made a dent in how the animalled were treated. In a wider context, this is also a world where magic seems to work, and once more I found it hard to believe that this would be restricted to (or even available at all to) the poorest margins of society.

Some of this is due to the book's relentless focus: in the places where this stuff could be explained or perhaps contextualised more richly, we are instead pushed pell mell through the spine of the novel, a detective story, in breathless present tense. I don't know why, but I find these first-person present tense narratives a bit exhausting; The Quantum Thief was the same, forever thrusting forward at a million miles an hour without ever stopping to smell the roses. It makes it all a little hard to take in; there's no time to stop and ask questions, to pay attention to some trivial setting backstory or unwind some of the yarns that hold the remade world together. It was less of a problem in The Quantum Thief because the world was clockwork-tight, but here there are too many ambiguities and arbitrary events to let pass.

The detetctive plot was also a bit of a problem for me. Zinzi fit the hard-boiled private eye niche, and the tangled plot plot had a suitably Chandleresque air, but perhaps the fit was just a little too close. The subsequent twists and turns happened a little too regularly, like it was going through the genre motions. It's not that Beukes puts a foot wrong on the rhythm and way-points in the hardboiled noir, but, not putting a foot wrong is the problem.

Part of my problem with Zoo City is that Moxy Land set a such a high bar. Zinzi December and Benoit definitely compare in interest and complexity to Kendra, Tendeka, Lareto and Toby, but no one else in Zoo City ever really breaks away from generic roles – goon-squad, Mr Big, bastard ex, magical (literally in this case) clue token dispenser.

But, taken on its own terms, this is an enjoyable crime thriller with an interesting fantasy flourish and an extremely convincing eye for life among the dispossessed in South Africa. There's plenty of good stuff in here: the relationship between Zinzi and Benoit, the crazed Phil Spectorish record producer and the whole South African music scene, the many fascinating places and people in the sidelines, which Beukes paints with beautiful brevity and an eye for evocative detail. If it's not quite the sublime work of its predecessor it's still hugely enjoyable.


  1. I found it a bit disappointing too actually.

    Mostly, I thought that the shift from a multiple-viewpoints to a single protagonist really did no favours to Beukes' writing as the result was a world that felt incredibly thin as she clearly struggled to communicate the richness of Moxyland's world through the eyes of a single character. In and of itself, this is not particularly problematic but, as you suggest, neither the characters, the symbolism or the plot really pick up the slack or make the most of the narrative space opened up by the thinner world and so the book feels incredibly slight and forgettable compared to Moxyland.

    In fact, I read the book twice in preparation for the interview I did and now can't remember that much aside from the intermezzos which were, apparently, written by someone else.

  2. It'll be interesting to see where she goes next. A thought that I didn't feel comfortable putting in the above (as it somewhat projects motives on to the author for which I have zero evidence) that Moxy Land was a kind of urgent book that wrote itself, whereas Zoo City required the highly generic scaffold to get written at all.

    In conversation a few nights ago I somewhat pompously described this as the difference between "writing" and "being a writer". Writing just kind of happens, something urgent spills out, unstoppable, and Moxy Land felt like that sort of book.

    Being a writer requires one to produce a certain amount of output a year to keep the pot boiling (see what I did there?) and thus a greater reliance on generic structures to make it easier. The detective plot fills a space where a deeper look at the story of Zinzi & Benoit could have been, although that would have been much tougher to write, I think, and would also not have required any of the generic elements and - thus - probably not been published at all.

    I do wonder if it wouldn't be good for Beukes to publish a non-genre fiction soon to allow her a wider scope in the future. She's a great writer but not everything has to be about sci fi and zombies and that.


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