In 2010, I picked up a copy of Zoo City, Lauren Beukes’s second novel, because I enjoyed her first effort, Moxyland. The cyberpunk virtuosity of Beukes’s debut had been duly noted (on Twitter and elsewhere) by none other than William Gibson, one of the defining authors of the subgenre. Having seen for myself what Gibson was talking about, I was hungry for more.
Unfortunately, unforeseen events in my work life (in a now-former career) at the time of Zoo City‘s publication (and for a couple of years thereafter) forced me to put the book aside until recently. When I returned to it (still waiting patiently for me on my Kindle) late last year, I was not disappointed — except with my circumstances for having made me wait so long to enjoy it. In the mean time, Beukes had published The Shining Girls, which was a huge hit. I felt even further behind the power curve when her fourth novel, Broken Monsters, dropped in the US while I was just starting to read her second.
Reassuring myself that I would surely catch up on my Beukes reading backlog, I plunged into the story of Zinzi December, a former journalist and addict whose current work includes facilitating email scams (to pay off her rather large debt to the con artist for whom she works) and locating missing objects for people who have lost them. In the latter pursuit, she is assisted by Sloth, an animal who has become inseparable from Zinzi. More of a familiar than a pet, Sloth is the conduit for Zinzi’s psychic talent for finding lost things, but is also a constant reminder of her dark past and its consequences.
Zinzi lives in an area of Johannesburg, South Africa, called “Zoo City” — an urban slum where live the “animalled” who also have the misfortune to be poor. Although there are some who have been supernaturally matched with a magical animal who are also well-off (financially speaking), they all have two things in common. First, they bear a serious amount of guilt (usually related to having killed another human being) that leads to the animal pairing. Second, they are destined to be swallowed up by the Undertow, which could be compared to Hell if it involved continuing to exist (which it doesn’t). This can happen even prior to death, if a Zoo’s animal dies before him/her.
However, the animalled are not limited to Johannesburg. The Zoos are a world-wide phenomenon. Their existence is a metaphor for the world’s condition — making places like Zoo City micro-dystopias within a dystopian macrocosm. Needless to say, Zoos have inspired an ambivalent and hypocritical reaction from the rest of society — one marked by equal parts of self-righteous repugnance (at the “sin” that occasioned the “punishment” of being animalled, as well as the lifestyle to which this reaction drives the Zoos) and exploitative greed (for the fruits of the particular shavi, or apparently magical ability, that a Zoo receives along with his/her animal).
This premise and the protagonist who represents it are not only the basis for a fascinating and original urban fantasy story, but also provide an allegorical basis (on the scale of, say, the film “District 9,” which is also set in a near-future, dystopian Joburg) for social, political, and economic satire. Accordingly, targets of Beukes’s critique are spread over a wide geopolitical range, from Johannesburg to greater South Africa, and from thence to neighboring African states and beyond, reaching as far as China, Japan, and the United States.
On the local level, Beukes focuses on the pop music world and its elites, clubs, and privileges. After a client of her lost object recovery business is murdered, Zinzi receives a business proposition from two other Zoos who happen (apparently by chance) to show up at the scene of the crime. These two grifters, who bill themselves as specialists in “procurements,” ask her to use her talents to help them find a missing person. Although this is the one type of job that Zinzi has promised herself she would not take, she decides to break her rule because she needs the money. She finds herself working for Odi Huron, a well-known and somewhat notorious music producer. It seems that the female half of Odi’s hottest duo, a brother-sister act, has gone missing. By following the paranormal traces of her lost objects, Zinzi believes she can find the young diva.
Zinzi finds out that everyone she has or will meet (including her animalled lover) has a hidden past that clouds her work (sometimes literally). The histories of some are worse than others; these are the people who end up putting her in clear and present danger. However, Zinzi also finds that she has to deal with the ghosts of her own past, great and small. The plot takes many twists and turns as a result, becoming more fantastic with each new revelation. Some are more believable than others (in the context of the novel’s world), which is the main reason that this is not a five-star review. All of them are fascinating, nevertheless, especially to a U.S. reader such as this reviewer. Especially intriguing are those plot elements that are tied up in the history, peoples, languages, and cultures of South Africa and its neighbors. Beukes provides just enough context to understand her social, ethnic, and political references and the words and phrases she draws from languages other than English. Nevertheless, I found myself looking them up because I wanted to learn more about them.
This novel, however, is not intended to be one that only a scholar could love. It is a mostly fast-paced, engaging mystery and crime thriller, wrapped within an urban fantasy context that presumes a dystopian world that is grappling with an ominous, proto-apocalyptic event, the emergence of Zoos. These social pariahs with highly desirable psychic powers, who are also all headed towards an unenviable fate, serve as a metaphor for any social group towards which the wider society has a highly ambivalent attitude. Zinzi herself represents the kind of person who turns involuntary membership in such a group to her advantage, despite the pain and loneliness of being an outcast.