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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Lauren Beukes: "Zoo City"

Author:  Lauren Beukes
Title:  Zoo City
Plot Type: UF with a touch of Horror
Ratings:  V5; S3; H3
Publisher: Angry Robot (2011)

     Set in an alternate Johannesburg, South Africa, this is a world in which people who commit murder immediately become permanent hosts to living animals. Imagine that the scarlet letter on Hester Prynne's chest is a furry mammalor perhaps a spider, a bird, or a reptile. Animalled people must keep their animals physically close, or they will suffer terrible pain. If an animal dies, a shadowy, roaring mass called the Undertow drops down from above to engulf and obliterate its host. The animals serve as a constant reminder of the crime that brought them into their hosts' lives. Along with the animal comes a psychic talenta shavidifferent for each person. In this book, the plague of animal possessioncalled Aposymbiotismdates back to the 1980s in a not-so-subtle reference to the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in Africa.

     This idea of animal possession is a part of several real-world mythologies. According to Zimbabwean tradition, the mashavi (singular, shavi) are spirits believed to possess people and to impart skills and talents to their human hosts. In Christianity, the idea of spirit animals can be linked to the biblical scapegoat of Leviticus 16 and to the burden of sin carried by the protagonist in Pilgrim's ProgressChapter 19 of Zoo City presents a detailed explanation of what mashavi means in this story, so you may want to read that chapter before reading the story to get a full understanding. 

     In the world of Zoo City, an animal arrives seemingly from nowhere immediately after the commission of each person's murderous crime, changing its host's life forever. As Zinzi says, "the problem with being mashavi is that it's not so much a job as a vocation. You don't get to choose the ghosts that attach themselves to you. Or the things they bring with them." (p. 18) As you can well imagine, Aposymbiots (aka animalled people) are marginalizedforced to live in ghettos like Zoo City, where they create their own lively sub-culture. When "normal" people see an animalled person, they have the same reaction that a Nazi in Hitler's Germany would have had when he or she encountered a person wearing a yellow star of David on a coat or jacket. Here, one character fumes after a security guard pulls him out of his car and grills him at length, "Animalists everywhere....They'd bring back the quarantine camps if they could." Zinzi responds: "What do you call Zoo City?" (p. 107)

      Muti (aka magic) is an important part of the story. The magical concept of mashavi is key to the story's conflict as well as being the single most important element in the lives of the animalled people of Zoo City. Most of the people of this alternate Johannesburg believe in magic and regularly make use of herbs, charms, and spells to make their lives easier and safer. In one dramatic scene, Zinzi, the heroine, visits a sangoma (a healer) who feeds her a potion that gives her hallucinatory flashbacks to terrible past incidents in her life as well as frightening visions of the future. 

     Zinzi December is a former journalist and recovering addict who received Sloth, her animal, five years ago when she was instrumental in the death of her brother, an act that landed her in prison. Technically, Zinzi didn’t kill her brother, but she did set up a car hijacking as an insurance scam and failed to tell him about it. When he came to her rescue, the hijacker shot him down. Now, Zinzi lives Zoo City in an ironically named apartment building called Elysium Heights where she makes a meager living finding lost things (her shavi talent) and running 419 e-mail scams to earn enough money to pay off her huge pre-prison debt to her drug dealer. Zinzi's lover is Benoît, a refugee who lost his family in the violence in the Congo. Benoît received his animal—a mongoose—after he was forced by his FDLR captors to kill his best friend, Felipe. The FDLR also poured paraffin over Benoît and lit him afire, so he is covered with slick burn scars. Benoît's shavi is a natural resistance to other people's magic.

            SUMMARY AND REVIEW            
     As the story opens, Zinzi has a new client—Mrs. Luditsky, an elderly woman who dropped her diamond ring down a drain in a public restroom when bandits attacked the Mall in which she was shopping. Zinzi finds the ring, but when she returns it, she discovers that Mrs. Luditsky has been murdered and she is the prime suspect. At the crime scene, Zinzi meets an animalled couple: Amira (whose animal is a carrion-eating marabou stork) and Mark (whose animal is an orange-dyed Maltese). They offer Zinzi a job tracking down Songweza Radebe, an up-and-coming pop singer who has gone missing. Song sings with her twin brother, S'bu. Their managerand the one who is hiring Zinziis the devious Odysseus (Odi) Huron, a wealthy club owner, music producer, and drug dealer. Here, Zinzi describes Huron: "Mr. Huron...emerges onto the balcony with a flourish. He's not so much a barrel of a man as a bagpipe. All his weight loaded in front." (p. 95) In a review in The Guardian,  Huron is perfectly described as "a dreadfully gone-to-seed South African Simon Cowell."

     The story follows Zinzi as she works the case, getting deeper and deeper into trouble as she goes. In the meantime, Benoît receives word from a Red Cross aid worker that his wife and three children are alive in a refuge camp, and he plans to leave Johannesburg to reunite with them. So…Zinzi’s professional life and her personal life come crashing down on her simultaneously.

     Although a crime thriller lies at the heart of the plot, the story is so much more. It's a wild phantasm of hip-hop music, urban jive-talk, quirky characters (including Sloth), and heartbreakall with a heavy dose of magical realism. Zinzi is an intriguing and intelligent lead character who is making the best of her troubled life even if she doesn't like the things she has to do to survivelike scamming a nice American Mid-Western couple out of their life savings so that she can make yet another payment on her old drug debt.  

     Zinzi tells her story in the first-person voice, but her narration is frequently interrupted by information-filled chapters in the form of e-mails, magazine articles, and interviews. One satirical example is a scholarly journal article that purports to scientifically explain the Undertow as a "manifestation of non-existence, a psychic equivalent of dark matter that indeed serves as a counterpoint to, and bedrock for, the principle of existence....This type of understanding of the 'Undertow', not as divine judgement but rather as a necessary part of the fabric of the physical universe, can only serve to relieve Aposymbiot [animalled] individuals of the intense burden of guilt they often carry." (p. 193) What a perfect send-up of the current psychobabble that attempts to assuage people's guilt by explaining away each and every human vice as a "disease" or a "condition" rather than the consequence of a behavioral choice.  

     This is a terrific booka totally fresh approach to urban fantasy that breaks away from a strict good vs. evil take on life. Beukes tells a great story and her descriptions are wonderfully written, full of colorful metaphors and descriptions of life in Zoo City. The climactic ending is probably the weakest point of the story, primarily because it reverts to a modern-thriller action sequence. This is not to say that that the ending is badly written; it's just that the rest of the book is so original and offbeat that I was expecting more of the same all the way to the end. As it turns out, the climax is both pop-thriller-esque and stomach-turningly violent in a Steven King-ish sort of way. The very last scene leaves Zinzi's life in suspensionand open to a sequel. Let's hope that Beukes carries Zinzi's story forward some day.

     I listened first to the perfectly performed audiobook and then went to the print version to double-check quotations and spellings. I recommend the audio version highly. It is read in a multitude of different voices by Justine Eyre. Zoo City won the 2011 Arthur C. Clark award.

     Please note that all spelling and punctuation in the quotations are in the British style and are presented here exactly as they appear in the text.

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