This review appeared in The Cape Times, 25 June 2010
Zoo City by Lauren Beukes is set in Hillbrow, transformed into the Zoo City of the title, an urban wasteland inhabited by a new species of stigmatised outsiders. These are the aposymbiots, human beings who have become irreversibly linked to daemons in animal form. Zinzi December, the narrator, is one such animalled person with a magical talent for finding things. She is commissioned to find a missing teen Afropop star named Songweza (Song for short), a chase that leads her through a bemusing underworld of 419 scammers, dingy and dangerous rock impresarios, nightclubs and Rand Clubs, police and illegal immigrants, substance abusers and rehab clinics, muti merchants, bouncers, procurers of the unmentionable, and of course, corpses. Her chase leads the reader through an equally intriguing linguistic underworld in which vibrant discourses compete for airspace, ranging through the pop culture jargons of music and techno journalism, inserts on the metaphysics of the animalled, and the film noir voice-over that is Zinzi December’s own internal and always engaging voice.
Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy hovers in the background, and in fact Beukes does wryly acknowledge his influence. I was also reminded of The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher, an intersection of Chandleresque crime fiction and wizardry, and of the relatively recent stream of urban fantasy exemplified by Kate Griffin’s A Madness of Angels. As T.S. Eliot noted, ‘Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.’ The question is what Beukes has done with her sources: not only something different, but something surprising, often comic, and greatly entertaining. The novel is not unlike District Nine, Neill Blomkamp’s Oscar-nominated sci-fi movie. I sat through the first half of District Nine roaring with laughter, because its fantastical premise afforded a most accurately aimed satire of contemporary South African politics. Zoo City is as refreshing as the movie, and not only because its weaving of influences is intelligent and original. There are many things that are not in the novel – you can scratch racial angst, white guilt, liberal atonement, dread about the postcolonial future – yet a sharp caricature of our society in its current form emerges nonetheless. Beukes exposes real formations of bigotry, of xenophobia and othering, in a world that is not literally possible.
I’ve hinted that I didn’t enjoy the second half of District Nine as much as the first. The reason is that as the movie progressed, the pressure of genre became more intrusive and it felt increasingly like Hollywood stock. A related problem emerges from the fusion of crime fiction and fantasy that is Zoo City. Writers need to convince their readers that their work is in some way authentic, particularly in non-realist forms of narrative. It must ring true, in other words, even where it is literally unbelievable. Writers of fantasy and detective fiction alike sometimes use the conventions of their medium to gloss over a thinly made connection or contrived resolution. The reader might accept a dodgy device not because it is convincing, but because it is used so often elsewhere that it has become a reading habit and so is understood to justify itself. Beukes owns a rare luxury in her fusion of genres: she moves her plot along at key points by playing one off against the other. Where wizardry fails, detective work kicks in, and vice versa. I hate to give away too much, especially where the writer has teased out her mysteries with such skill, so I will not be too specific. But there are occasions where the narrative veers dangerously close to a ghost in the machine, a contrived plot device inserted to solve a difficulty that the writer cannot otherwise solve. I also felt that the climax of the action, explosive though it was, might have lost that delicate balance between imaginative free rein and credibility.
Lauren Beukes’s debut novel Moxyland is set in a dystopic Cape Town in which contemporary trends are exaggerated and twisted into surreal dimensions of statement, a world in which the familiar and bizarre collide with creative violence. In Zoo City, this febrile collision is still evident, but Beukes has slightly dialled down the discourse in which it is embedded. Her second novel might therefore reach an even wider audience than Moxyland has achieved. Taken together, the two books have injected a rich and impressive new stream into South African writing. For those who enjoy urban fantasy, local craziness, cyberpunk satire, offbeat crime fiction or simply a delicious read, you won’t do much better than Zoo City.