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Friday, August 5, 2011

Zoo City - Lauren Beukes

Lauren Beukes is the Queen of Metaphors.  I capitalized and underlined it so it must be true.  I'll go into why this is an awesome novel in a second, but first let me treat everyone to one of Beukes' metaphors:
"I haven't drive in three years and the car handles like a shopping trolley on Rohypnol."
 I don't highlight much when I read, if at all, but I found myself marking sentence after sentence reading Zoo City.  Beukes writes with a rare vividness that would keep me reading regardless of what the hell she's writing about.  As it turns out, what she's writing about has the same zest and magnetism as how she's writing it.

Zinzi December is a Zoo.  Having committed an unforgivable act she has become animalled, cursed (blessed?) with a Sloth that's an extension of herself.  Unfortunately, to everyone who looks at her, Sloth is a scarlet letter marking her a criminal.  She exists on the fringes of Johannesburg in the slum known as Zoo City where the criminal underclass and their animal companions live in fear of being separated.  A recovering drug addict, she owes money to some bad people.  She writes 419 scam e-mails to keep the mob off her back and in her spare time she finds lost items for cash.  When a client turns up dead before paying, Zinzi is forced to take on a missing person's case.  She's hired by the private and wholly odd-ball music producer Odi Huron to find a teenage pop star.  The case is her ticket out of life in the slums, but it might cost her the last shred of human dignity she has left.

Joining a masterful group of first person SFF novels written over the past few years (developing trend?), Zoo City is told entirely within Zinzi's head.  To some degree, Beukes' novel is a pastiche.  Scenes and plot devices referencing The Golden Compass and the film District 9 are obviously prevalent.  There are elements of noir, urban fantasy, psychological thriller, not to mention a bit of not-so-thinly veiled social commentary.  Somehow Beukes manages to pull all this together and instead of coming off as imitation of these various styles she instead finds something all her own.  Let's call it urban noir magical realism (that's gold baby, copyrighted!).

In telling the story, Beukes takes her readers on a ride through Johannesburg.  When I read Dervish House earlier this year I mentioned Istanbul as one of Ian McDonald's characters.  I think the same holds true in Zoo City.  Johannesburg, its music scene, and its abject class warfare, occupy significant space in the novel.  Beukes' flawed protagonist is in many ways reflected in this space - corruptible, decayed, and hopeless.  But she is also trying to be something else.  In many ways the city acts as her foil - its static nature contrasting Zinzi's desire to be better despite her frequent failures.

The most impressive accomplishment in Zoo City is it managed to make me forget I was reading a novel of speculative fiction.  Basing the story in an realistic urban environment certainly aided Beukes' cause, but the depth and rawness of her prose grabbed me with its conviction.  The city's music scene in particular was given so much dimension that Angry Robot and South African production house African Dope. released a Zoo City Soundtrack to compliment the novel.  It's clear that Beukes' world isn't just an author's passing fancy.  Zoo City is the representation of a fully realized vision of what Johanassburg would be if our conscience had four legs and fur.

Sadly no novel is perfect, and there a few hiccups here and there.  Things get a little occult toward the end, more so than the early parts of the novel might suggest, and the villain's motivation is a tad esoteric.  There are also moments when the pace slows down usually as a result of not always brief asides.  It's easy to breeze through these moments to get back to the compelling story.  I strongly suggest reading them closely, not only for the key world building information provided, but for the fairly hilarious inter-textual Easter eggs scattered throughout.

Nominated for the John W. Campbell Award for the best new writer in Science Fiction and Fantasy for her work in Zoo City, Lauren Beukes has established herself as someone to watch in the coming years.  Regardless of the outcome of the vote, Zoo City is a novel that will stand up today, tomorrow, and for decades to come.  I'm going to be in San Francisco next weekend and I'm hoping to take a daytrip to Reno and WorldCon.  If I do, I fully plan to find my favorite South African writer and give her a big high five.

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At August 6, 2011 at 5:58 PM , Anonymous redhead said...

Great review! Agreed that Zoo City isn't perfect, but it is quite a gem. I didn't mind the occult-ness at the end, but I felt some of the flashbacks got muddled with what was happening "now".

But it was a great book, to the point where if it's got Beukes' name on it, I'll read it!


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