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The Kitschies: Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

Zoo City

[This is the second in a set of five reviews - each looking at one of our 2010 Kitschie finalists. As part of our commitment to a transparent judging process, we'll run through each of the books in turn with our criteria in mind. Please take part in the discussion below!]

A modern noir set in Johannesburg, featuring a black, female, ex-journalist, ex-junky, ex-convict narrator, a daemon-y sloth clinging to her shoulders, Lauren Beukes’ impressive sophomore novel Zoo City sounds about as wanky as they come.

But Beukes turns what could have been a ridiculous Raymond Chandler-meets-Phillip Pullman pastiche into a deep and thoughtful examination of guilt and redemption in the 21st century. 

Progressive (but not wanky): Zoo City is about many things, but its beating heart is its protagonist, Zinzi December. She’s troubled and she’s troubling, but Zinzi’s a compelling and likable person whose descriptors are so fundamental to her character that they cease to be important except for how they matter to her.  Zinzi’s journey is one from hopelessness to grace, and her attributes are so completely integrated into her character that she fully earns her salvation – not some pat happy ending, but the hope that the future might hold something for her.  Hers is a modern hero’s journey, an Orphean myth with a twist: Zinzi’s not going to consign herself to the maenads. She walks out of the underworld, learns to live with her guilt, and moves on with her life.  You’ve got to keep going, no matter how many skies have fallen.

Intelligent (but not arrogant):  Beukes trusts her readers.  She trusts us to pick up on unknown slang and languages; she trusts us to understand how her novel’s magical economy works without explaining its origins; she trusts us to like her protagonist despite introducing her as a murderer.  She trusts us to care about a music scene we may be unfamiliar with, state-sponsored violence we may not have heard much about, a city we may never have visited.

And Beukes trusts herself to convey these disparate elements.  There’s no vocabulary glossary at the end of the novel, no map of Johannesburg, no real explanation of magic or why it works and when it doesn’t.  Everything we need to know is right there in the text, described with an economy elegant enough to let us fill in the rest ourselves.

It’s tempting, when discussing excellent novels, to talk about them primarily in terms of their Greater Meaning. Zoo City is no exception; we can wave our hands about and argue extended metaphors for apartheid and allegories for the AIDS epidemic to the skies. Zoo City is, in part, great because it invites these discussions. But it is no more about AIDS and apartheid then the Lord of the Rings is about the triumph of middle-class values in the nuclear age. Which is to say, it is and it is not, and can be read and enjoyed on either level, and all those in-between.  What’s more, she accomplishes this without hitting her readers over the head with heavy-handed imagery; the eyes of Dr. TJ Eckleberg do not gaze unwinkingly over this valley of ashes.  Beukes has written a book about something deeply important, but she’s willing to stand back and let us figure it out for ourselves. 

Entertaining (but not trite):  There’s no doubt that Zoo City is a ripper of a read.  The central mystery is carefully constructed, with clues discretely tucked away throughout the narrative.  Familiarity with noir as a genre doesn’t interfere with the novel’s plotting or pacing; the characters and the magic-inflected setting make the book wonderfully unpredictable.  Beukes’ Johannesburg, from its gated communities and trendy clubs to its sewers and slums, is a lush and evocative setting. And Zinzi, with her flinty intelligence and ready wit, is a fantastic guide.

If there’s any real issue with Zoo City, it’s only that the villain’s motive comes across a little muddled. Beukes skirts perilously close to a serial killer narrative towards the end of the novel.  She steps back at the last minute but without quite justifying her decision in terms of the villain’s character and motive.  We can guess what the villain’s about, but Beukes doesn’t quite make it clear enough to be satisfying. But this is a minor complaint, and should in no way be understood as detracting from the novel as an accomplishment.

I would be remiss if I neglected to mention the novel’s gorgeous dust jacket.  Fantasy novels can get the icky end of the stick when it comes to cover art, so it’s as important to encourage publishers to be as progressive and intelligent and entertaining with what they put on books as with what they put in them.

Zoo City, in the final analysis, meets every Kitschie criteria - and then some.  What do you think?  Is Zoo City our 2010 Kitschie winner?