Welcome to Zoo City:
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. (132)
What I like about this passage is its incongruous homeliness. Despite the fact that none of the details are original — several are close to cliche — and for all that it’s clear that Zoo City is a pretty beat-up place, this isn’t a judgmental portrait. These people may be caged, but they’re not animals. Our narrator is matter of fact about the meth being cooked alongside the food; if we didn’t already know by this point, we probably wouldn’t be too surprised to learn that she lives here, that she is part of the community she sets out for our consumption.
It’s clearly a place for people short on choices, however. Zinzi Lelethu December is out of prison but far from out of debt, and has been forced to turn her journalistic tricks to 419 scams: a role she’s good at playing, but not happy about. What’s weighing her down is the novel’s fantastic conceit, so thoroughly normalised that taking the above passage in isolation you might miss it. In Zoo City‘s alternate day after tomorrow (the novel is set in March 2011), there’s a new outcast class, sufferers of a fantastical condition termed Acquired Asymbiotic Familiarism by researchers, and animalism or worse on the street. Its defining symptom is the appearance of a flesh-and-blood animal familiar (and these are animals, not talking pets), it seems to afflict those condemned by society or even by their own conscience (justice be damned) and those affected are excluded, exoticised, or both; and they need places like Zoo City to live. The resonances with Pullman’s His Dark Materials in this setup are unavoidable but, apparently, coincidental, although the similarity is acknowledged and there is at least one witty reversal: familiars often reflect their host’s inner character through a mirror darkly. So Zinzi’s sloth, which appeared after the death of her brother, tells you that she’s smart, sharp, and constantly on the move.
As she has to be, to navigate the competing currents that make up the novel’s plot. There’s her desire to pay her way out of her scamming debt; her uneasy relationship with Benoit, a Zoo City hustler whose presumed-dead wife may in fact be alive; the cryptic emails that keep mysteriously appearing in her inbox; and her private enterprise, her magical talent for finding lost things. It’s the last of these that provides most of the forward motion in Zoo City, as Zinzi is recruited by two deeply shady animalled, on behalf of mysterious music mogul Odi Huron, to track down the missing half of the twins that make up his latest pop sensation. The quest takes her, naturally, out of the zoo and into the wilds of the middle and upper class enclaves of Johannesburg: and back, in some cases, into the circles in which she used to swim.
So far so noir, an impression reinforced by the cool terseness of Zinzi’s narration and, at times, of Zinzi herself — “There are two things in the interrogation room with me and Inspector Tschabalala. The one is Mrs Luditsky’s ring. The other is twelve and a half minutes of silence” (28) — and by the pervasive unfairness of the unfolding story. AAF confers something between the stigma of the ex-con and, as the pervasive presence of AIDS reminds us, the stigma of the disease sufferer. Like those, it is based as much or more on assumptions as it is on any empirical reality. Found documents scattered through Zoo City tell the story of AAF — the journal article, the documentary synopsis, the prison tales. The fantastic nature of the conceit has put some reviewers in mind of Jeff Noon’s surreal Vurt (1993), although I was reminded of the more rationalised fantastic of Kit Whitfield’s Bareback (2006). Either way, for most of the novel what’s striking is how low down in the mix it seems to be: a back-note, not a central flavour. It’s only quite late on that it becomes clear, not just from those found documents, how much the existence of AAF has shaped the society Beukes describes.
More immediately obvious, however, is the care with which Beukes sketches the jungle of Johannesburg, and the people Zinzi meets. We watch, fascinated and helpless, as they are used and use each other in turn. Like Beukes’ first novel, Moxyland (2008 South Africa, 2009 UK, 2010 US), Zoo City is distinguished by its texture. The husbandry of information is mostly superb; the glimpses of Zinzi’s world captivate, from the gated high-rise where a broken lift means the wealthy residents simply throw their rubbish out of the windows, to be cleaned up once it hits the ground, to a “Great Gatsby by way of Lady Gaga” (219) nightclub and Zinzi’s own cluttered, crappy flat; and the various characters Zinzi meets, from Huron himself, to popsters Song and S’bu, to current and ex lovers Benoit and Gio, are captured with precision and detail. Per John Clute’s review, Zoo City is indeed an energetic read; but it’s Zinzi’s binding voice that makes it a visceral one, and more transporting than the earlier novel.
Less welcome is the way in which the marketing-driven cynicism familiar from Moxyland — “it’s not just about the music anymore,” Zinzi is told, “it’s about the brand” (120) — becomes here something of a red herring. Shadowing the brisk surface narrative is the Undertow, a metaphysical darkness that threatens to consume those with AAF. It is the attrition of stigma, and the burden that the novel’s villain seeks to use power and privilege to escape. The impeccably chroegraphed ending that Beukes contrives from these ingredients however, is a betrayal, an imposition of justice that everything else Zinzi has told us, and everything Moxyland might have lead us to expect, insists is unearned. And it diminishes an otherwise fine novel, even if the clue was there from the start. The thing about a zoo, after all, is that it’s a lie: the real world is a jungle.