Zoo City

Lauren Beukes
Zoo City Cover

Zoo City: South African Noir-Fantastic

Scott Laz

Stories often succeed by doing one or two things especially well. A novel may stick with us because of a memorable character, a fascinating setting, or due to unique or interesting ideas. Zoo City is especially successful in that none of these elements are neglected, and all are brought together by Lauren Beukes in a satisfying whole within a novel that is relatively short and self-contained. Looking back after finishing it, the craft that must have gone into creating the work becomes more apparent. I’ll focus on four of the novel’s strengths, each of which, by itself, would probably be enough to maintain interest in the book. The fact that they are successfully brought together makes Zoo City a compulsive read…

First, the story is told in the first person by Zinzi December, a character whose intelligence and resourcefulness, as well as her guilt, doubt, and regret, are both revealed and explained compellingly. She becomes a character that we want to learn more about. She has fallen on hard times, scraping a living by using her talent for finding lost things (more on that in the next paragraph), as well as using her “Former Life” talent as a writer to come up with scam emails in order to repay drug-related debts owed to a criminal organization. Along the way, we learn how she went from up-and-coming journalist from an educated middle-class background to scraping by as she can day to day in the Zoo City ghetto of Johannesburg. As we get to know the character, we are drawn into her struggle to come to terms with her past, and to find a route back into the journalistic world, while struggling to “do the right thing” and make up for past and current mistakes.

Zinzi’s “finding” talent—she finds things people have lost seemingly by observing the psychic connections between the objects and their owners—is directly related to her downfall. A family tragedy resulted from her descent into drug addiction (she thinks of herself as having killed her brother, because she is responsible for the circumstances of his death), an incident which in turn led to her becoming “animalled.” In Zoo City’s alternate reality, a person who commits a crime or is subject to severe guilt (the exact nature of the cause is never quite explained) becomes connected, seemingly magically, to a particular animal. Human and animal cannot be separated without both suffering, and this connection is accompanied by a particular psychic talent. In Zinzi’s case, it is her finding talent, but talents vary across the “animalled” population, as do the animals themselves. Zinzi’s animal is a sloth, while animals connected to other characters included a weasel, a bear, a maltese, a rabbit, and … a rather unique animal revealed in the last couple of chapters. If an individual’s animal is killed, that person is immediately descended upon by shadowy ghostlike presences that drag him or her into the “undertow”—a phenomenon which no one has really been able to explain, but which Zinzi likens to a black hole at one point, and most of the “zoos,” as animalled people are somewhat derogatorily known, think of it as some sort of descent into hell. Thus, they live with the constant knowledge that being taken by the undertow is in store at some point. Discovering how this process works is a big part of the enjoyment of the novel. It is never fully explained (because no one has been able to explain it), but we accumulate details by way of incidents in the novel, supplemented by Beukes occasional use of excerpts from various writings—news articles, psychology journals, internet postings, etc.—that illuminates society’s response to what seems to have been the sudden appearance of this phenomenon in the fairly recent past. I would think that most people will read Zoo City as a fantasy novel, but there are hints of the possibility of a scientific explanation for the sudden appearance of “magic” in the world, and it could also be read as SF.

Yet another interesting aspect of the story is its South African setting. Beukes is a native and, in her acknowledgments, discusses the research she conducted in order to accurately portray the wildly disparate aspects of the Johannesburg setting. Despite the fantastic elements of the story, it is set in the “real world,” and the ghettoization of the “zoos,” due to the social stigmatization resulting from being animalled, only serves to add one more layer to the author’s portrayal of an already stratified society. The story ranges everywhere from the wealthy gated suburbs to the haunts of the homeless, with detours through the pop music world and the storm drains beneath the city.

A final impressive aspect of the book is its Raymond Chandleresque plot. This aspect could be seen as derivative, but writers continue to imitate Chandler because the approach continues to work, and can still surprise. Zinzi, in her role as investigative reporter, takes on the function of Chandler’s detective. Because of her talent for finding lost things, she is recruited to help find a missing teenage girl—a member of the current pop-singing sensation iJusi—who may have fallen into bad company and whose producer is trying to track her down. But, as anyone who has read Chandler (or seen The Big Sleep) should realize, nothing is as it seems. Events that appear to be unconnected to the main thread are eventually revealed as significant in terms of what has actually been happening all along below the surface. As Zinzi begins to unravel the mystery, we see the events of the story in a new light. Zinzi has to go into action in order to avoid becoming a pawn in this larger game, leading to the story’s climax, which involves that unique animal mentioned above…

Zoo City, then, can be read as a Chandleresque mystery, a social satire, the character study of a recovering drug addict searching for redemption, or an exploration of a fantastic alternate reality. Each reading has its rewards. Combined, they result in an impressively crafted novel that adds me to the ranks of those looking forward to what Beukes come up with next.