Friday, 9 November 2012

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

People who would happily speed through Zoo City during the day won't detour here at night, not even to avoid police roadblocks. They're too scared, but that's precisely when Zoo City is at its most sociable. From 6pm, when the day-jobbers start getting back from whatever work they've been able to pick up, apartment doors are flung open. Kids chase each other down the corridors. People take their animals out for fresh air or a friendly sniff of each other's bums. The smell of cooking - mostly food, but also meth - temporarily drowns out the stench of rot, the urine in the stairwells. The crack whores emerge from their dingy apartments to chat and smoke cigarettes on the fire-escape and catcall the commuters heading to the taxi rank on the street below.

Just a note to say I hope whoever found my copy of this book which I left on a train at Turku station enjoys it. This is a wee little tradition of mine when I travel. I continually acquire books, so rather than return home with a new piece of luggage stuffed with hardbacks that could get me kicked off a plane, I tend to just leave them in public places. 

It's my little treat. 

Zinzi December not only has a wonderful name, but a colourful past, that in the bizarre techgnostic alternate Johannesburg of this story has marked her out as one of the animalled. Which is to say her sin is visible for all to see as an accompanying totem creature, in Zinzi's case a sloth. A former journalist, she has hit rock bottom following the death of a sibling and her own crippling drug addiction, and so has turned to writing conscience-wracking scam e-mail campaigns to make money. Her time is spent in a ghetto for the animalled, the 'Zoo City' of the title. Her lover happens to be a member of the local proxy authority, a rare noble-hearted fellow named Benoit who is otherwise surrounded by thugs.

Zinzi's own 'talent', another aspect of the animalled process, is that she can find lost things, which allows her to eke out some additional income. Unfortunately her latest outing has led to her becoming the suspect in a murder investigation. Her elderly client dead, with her own pariah status making her an easy target for the police, when a dubious offer of work from a legendary music producer comes along Zinzi reluctantly takes the job - to track down a teen singer on the cusp of real stardom. Unfortunately Zinzi's journalistic instinct alerts her that something more is happening here than a simple missing persons case, with hints of black magic rites, a possible cover-up of a club massacre from years before, and mounting corpses seemingly fallen victim to an invisible killer. 

There are two aspects of this book I love. Firstly the disjunct between Zinzi's performance as an innocent naif to sucker her scam email victims - she generally plays the role of an African princess in exile, or a traumatised adolescent - with her cynical 'real' self. Her narration during these sequences of the book is very entertaining. There's also Beukes approach to exposition, recreating an imdb-style page on a film documentary explaining the history of the 'Zoo plague', the religious symbolism, social upheaval - even a shout out to Philip Pullman's daemon concept from His Dark Materials! It's a very winning approach, one that mirrors how folks generally research things these days. Perhaps hints of her journalist past and the ever-present imminent deadline? Why watch a film when you can simply read the user comments!

Unfortunately the conclusion feels rushed somehow, a somewhat shaky resolution of all the excellent world-building that proceeds the final third of the novel. Several characters are dispatched unceremoniously having served their plot purpose as the story moves forward. There's a hint of Chandler to the proceedings, the collection of known unknowns growing as Zinzi becomes more involved, but he would have carried off the arbitrariness of these events with a little more panache I feel. 

Still that is not a fair comparison. This is a richly imagined world, with a neat sideline in sarcasm. It is no wonder the book has done so well for Angry Robot. Give it a try. 

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes


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