Saturday, 9 April 2011

Zoo City

Lauren Beukes
Angry Robot (

I misjudged Zoo City on first reading. It may have been my own high expectations, after the stripped-down clarity of Moxyland, Lauren Beukes’ debut novel. Or perhaps it was the glib ease with which Zoo City’s pop culture references flow off the page? It seemed to come a little too smoothly, a little too freely, as if hoping to dazzle you with a fast-paced plot and the trappings of urban grit; like a middle-class gangster wannabe flashing gang signs learned off TV.

But beneath the polished darkness of the novel’s surface, in the murky current of the undertow, there’s a depth which might catch you by surprise. It took me a second reading – maybe it’ll grab you first time. Watch your step.

The plot is a familiar one to anybody who’s ever read Chandler or seen Humphrey Bogart strut his stuff on the black and white. A private detective of sorts, Zinzi December, who specialises in finding lost things, takes what begins as a simple job but finds herself floundering rapidly out of her depth as the twists unfurl and the body count rises. It’s been done before, of course, but noir’s never about the story so much as the style. The plot need only get you from A to B as convolutedly as possible; along the way it serves as canvas for rich flourishes of setting and dialogue, and as a framework from which interesting characters can hang themselves.

The setting for Zoo City is an alt-Johannesburg which Beukes, a native, builds with all the power of the familiar and with lashings of style t’boot. It’s a city filled with dirt and life and culture of all kinds, of all levels, and the reader is quickly up to their eyeballs in Africana. The local slang seems to draw heavily on native languages, while much of the plot revolves around the South African music scene and provides a secondary bombardment of peculiar band names, technical jargon and industry cant. The richness of the language approaches Clockwork Orange levels at times, and while the inattentive reader might find such an assault of unfamiliar words somewhat off-putting, it’s an effective method of immersion in an alien culture.

And Zoo City’s Jo’burg is an alien culture, there can be no doubt about that. For a reader unfamiliar with South Africa, it always wears a cloak of menace; for a local, I can only imagine the combination of the familiar and the outright eerie makes for an uncanny, unsettling read. Because the novel isn’t just a hard-boiled noir – it’s an urban fantasy, albeit one far removed from the overtly fantastical end of the spectrum. Zoo City approaches its magic with a skeptic’s inherent distrust, exemplified in the director of a rehab clinic as she answers Zinzi’s questions about her methods:

  “I like good old-fashioned medicine. Methadone is a very good thing. Although a lot of medication is based on herbal remedies. And you shouldn’t discount the placebo effect.”
  “There haven’t been enough studies to ease my mind about the efficacy.”


While Beukes’ magic is for the most part unobtrusive, its implications stretch into every corner of society. It’s always in the background, in casual asides and happenings which wrongfoot you, remind you this isn’t your world. Reinforcing this, Zoo City is littered with Watchmen-like supporting texts which provide intriguing snapshots of the world outside Johannesburg. Newspaper clippings, prisoner interviews, the abstract from a psychology paper and a movie summary from an website – including a handful of comments complete with all the off-topic rants and porn spamming you’d expect to find on the real thing – all add depth to the world Beukes is building here. These interludes allow the reader’s imagination to explore beyond the mean streets Zinzi December walks, and many of those texts pull double duty, laying out with exemplary lightness of touch the ways in which magic has changed the world.

The central conceit, that Zinzi and other criminals receive – from some dark and terrifying place – an animal companion akin to the daemons of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, is thoroughly explored in sociological terms. Nobody in the novel seems to dare speak the word ‘apartheid’, but the shadow of South Africa’s not-too-distant history hangs heavy over Zoo City. The animalled bear an indelible mark of pariah-hood which sees them reduced to second-class citizens – the buildings they live in are condemned and disintegrating, the neighbourhoods they inhabit are abandoned by the authorities, and persecution by mainstream ‘civilised’ society is widespread:

  “Where are you?”
  “Downstairs. Can I come up?”
  “No. Wait. I’ll come down. Meet me at Reputation. It’s the hotel bar across the road.”
  “I think they have a policy,” I say, leaving it hanging.
  “Oh. Oh right,” he says.


In the novel’s lighter moments Beukes has fun with the counter-culture implications of this prejudice, as teenage outcasts express their unthinking rebellion through reactionary solidarity with the animalled, while rappers desperate to appear ‘street’ pose with snarling beasts in their music videos. For the most part, though, Zoo City paints its animalled as a despised underclass struggling just to get from day to day. While apartheid is the obvious parallel given the setting, Johannesburg’s zoo-infested neighbourhoods – all but unpoliced and abandoned by society – bear striking similarities with the drug-ravaged inner-city ghettoes of The Wire. This is a culture which has written an entire swath of its population off as a bad job.

Just as the National Party didn’t exactly have a worldwide monopoly on institutionalised racism, however, Beukes’ South Africa is hardly alone in mistreating its zoos. One of the more chilling inserted texts includes an interview with a fourteen-year-old in a Pakistani prison, where the animals are bundled together to fight and die, drawing down the rolling shadows of ‘the Undertow‘ to claim their partnered humans. The animalled live with that shadow hanging over their existence like the Sword of Daedelus, and it drains their existence of hope:

  “A good cop doesn’t need to shoot to kill.”
  “Is that what you are? A good cop?”
She spread her hands. “You see a furry companion at my side?”
  “Maybe your conscience is on the fritz. There have been studies: sociopaths, psychopaths-“
  “The difference between you and me?” she interrupts… “The Undertow isn’t coming for me.”


The treatment of the animalled is one of the more fascinating aspects of Zoo City, and provides the driving force for much of its action. You could argue that society’s response to the zoos isn’t a baseless prejudice; having an animal isn’t a neutral quality like the colour of your skin, after all, but a permanent, inescapable mark of guilt. Yet the way the animalled are ostracised rejects any notion of rehabilitation or redemption, of second chances. Zinzi refers to her pre-sloth existence as ‘FL’ – Former Life – and when she toys with the idea of returning to journalism, it is with the daydream optimism of a child announcing their attention to become an astronaut.

Zoo City isn’t perfect; it’s a little too fond of the pop culture reference, and though the style of the writing is a suitable blend of wit and grit its relentless hipness begins to grate after a while. The twisty plot is for the most part solid, but there’s a little flab around the middle which could have benefited from a firmer editorial hand. Zinzi seems to lose her way, running out of threads to follow and leading the reader aimlessly around the neighbourhoods and nightspots like some kind of seedy tourist guide, while the novel’s pace flags accordingly.

It’s not long, though, before Zinzi remembers she’s a noir protagonist and develops an almost supernatural intuition, linking A to B on the most tenuous of connections – as if she’d managed to sneak a look at the author’s notes. In fact it’s Beukes’ deft foreshadowing which leads her protagonist on; hindsight reveals just how many pieces of the puzzle are subtly buried in the stream of narrative, and there’s no doubt it’s cleverly done. But it’s a technique which punishes any lapse of attention in the reader, and could leave them floundering in the story’s wake as it accelerates into the climax as if making up for its earlier lapse.

While it has its flaws, Zoo City is a stylishly told noir in a bleak, intriguing universe which casts a dark reflection of our own. At its best moments it leaves you unsure whether that darkness is a property of the mirror itself, or of the subject standing before it.

This review was originally written for It was also written before Zoo City won this year's Arthur C Clarke Award.