A thoughtful review of Zoo City
Lauren Beukes is the writer most of us wish we could be. Just to come out into the open about that. She’s written a book set in Johannesburg that is an effervescent injection of life into South African fiction. It is dirty, topical, fantastical and rather well written as well. We hate you Lauren. I refuse to flit through the plot as Google can do that for you – I’d rather present my experience with this book.
What Ms. Beukes has done is imagined a world where muti is an everyday part of life sprawling into the streets of Hillbrow. Rather than breathe robots and neo-noir detectives into being she’s twisted the angle of the lens only fractionally and given us something which actually feels new. And I know from my own attempts that to come up with an idea or two is one thing, but to come up with citrus in a vanilla world is another feat entirely. From here she unfolds a Gauteng fable stuffed with house music beats, violence and an off-kilter redemption struggle.
A pattern theurbaneagle has observed – science fiction can only be an extrapolation of the current world through the writer’s personal experience. We write about where we come from, and then we take a guess about where we are going. Physicists and computer geeks greedily monopolized the genre to mean hackers, outerspace voyages into strangely anthropomorphic worlds and umm… laws governing the behaviour of androids. Now we have someone in love with the genre with an unrelenting clarity from her field of ‘now’ through journalism and a prickling interpretation of life in South Africa. This does wonders for the genre and I can’t help but think she’s joining authors like Paulo Bacigalupi in defining regional-based cyberpunk that puts the textures of the future at all our fingertips. It seems the Third World creates its own dystopia and drama for them.
What makes it work is the platform she sets for herself. Anyone else able to match the setting without the verve to pull it off would be left with a Wired Magazine meets Mail & Guardian amalgamation. It really does shine through the text – flitting between formats, distracted tangential metaphor and an incessant drive for Mzansi vibe colours the pages of Zoo City.
Unfortunately what that means is that this is not a character-driven novel. I enjoyed her depictions and the personalities in the book, but they are more frames on which to hoist up lofty ambitions. The complexity which Ms Beukes demonstrates when she pours breathe into the protagonist Zinzi is not distributed freely to the other characters. The first-person mechanism at work here is fascinating and well done, although it has the occasional jarring effect of near-deifying Zinzi’s‘ ability to eject ascerbic wit. To expand, I don’t think the novel would have worked if it didn’t feel so close to the ground. but I’m curious to see whether she can produce a multi-perspective piece in the future.
Zoo City is terse yet unafraid to frequent literary alleyways off the side of the plot. I was waiting for a simile to be lackadaisically repeated, for a crack to set into the array of metaphors so I could say ‘aha! she’s just like any of the other wannabe writers’, but it never does. That’s probably why William Gibson loves Lauren Beukes. There were frequent pauses whilst reading it that I remember being amazed at what she had just come up with. Amazed and amused actually.
What I can say, as a personal preference, is that when a novel is as intentionally fresh and fast as what Zoo City is, there is a danger of critical ideas being merely referenced superficially and not explored. I know she does her research, she states as much at the end of the book, but I enjoy writers in love with their ideas and willing to grant them as much time as they need. Perhaps it’d ruin the pacing of the book, and Moxyland her other book will be slightly different. So, although this is touted as dystopian on the back cover, it is not in the same genre per say as books delving into complex biotechnology and mathematics to elucidate a fictional world. Does this mean it’s not Speculative Fiction? Once again, I think it’s even hard to fault the novel here as she does give background to many of the mysteries in the book, and I can imagine to non-South Africans much of the descriptions of the chaos in our streets would seem like the ravings of a mad fantasy prophet (or sangoma).
To conclude, I hope to give the author as much publicity as I can because she deserves it for this novel. I can’t imagine a young South African and/or a fan of fresh absurdities in Urban Fantasy not enjoying this book. Check it out here:
Official Zoo City Page
If you enjoyed this review, or have read the book please share your views (or this post)! I’ll be busy with her first book Moxyland shortly and will post another review when I’m done.