This is how it is in Zoo City: When you commit a sin with real heft to it, the kind that leaves a body behind you, an animal comes loping, slithering, or winging its way to your side. It’s the physical manifestation of your crime, the weight of guilt given flesh and beady eyes to watch you. Nobody knows why the animals started arriving, or what they are, but eventually both animal and human will be sucked into the blackness by the Undertow.
Zinzi December, our ex-journalist, ex-junkie heroine, earned herself a Sloth by accidentally getting her younger brother killed. Her lover Benoit has a Mongoose, and together they navigate life in the animalled slums of Johannesburg, South Africa. Zinzi works under-the-table as an email scammer and above-the-table as a finder of lost things. The lost things are typically wedding rings and wallets, but her lingering drug debts drive her to take more dangerous work: finding a missing teen pop star. Cue lots of investigative interviews, lots of seedy-underbelly scenes, and a string of brutal murders.
Zoo City is a gorgeous, gritty, crime novel that sizzles across the landscape of alternate-future Johannesburg. The world is sharp-edged and almost tangible, and moves to the fight-or-flight rhythm preferred by murder mystery novelists and good journalists. It’s both mystical and brutally real, light-hearted and sinister. It’s like His Dark Materials grown edgy and sarcastic, where Lyra’s lying has transformed into 419 scamming. It is excellent.
And it’s also very, very disappointing.
But of course, nothing can be disappointing without first showing a great deal of promise. The most compelling piece of Beukes’s work is the idea of it, and her success in pulling it off. The concept of animals as embodied sins—or as ghosts, or wandering spirits, or tiny, punitive gods—is the kind of idea that fascinates and repels. It inverts the fantasy genre wish-fulfillment that surrounds animals; these are not daemons or familiars or loyal steeds. They don’t make smart-alecky comments in your ear, or offer timely wisdom. They are simply wild beasts, yoked to you in a weighty and guilt-ridden symbiosis.
The visibility of being animalled, and the ways it operates within our favorite human hobby of ranking people into visually-marked categories of race and class, is brilliantly done. Particularly within the social landscape of South Africa, the informal segregation of the animalled into slums like “Zoo City” echoes and mimics racial realities. The language of being animalled, and the fears of the white middle class about criminal, animal urges in the underclass, was ready and waiting long before Zinzi and her Sloth arrived.
There’s more to urban South African culture than race politics, of course, and Zinzi is our guide on a winding journey through the strata of Johannesburg. We meet traditional healers dispensing palliatives half-hoax and half-magic, a music industry manager who is a creepfest to the power of ten, Benoit the Congolese refugee, and a slew of Zoos (animalled people) surviving on the bitter edges of the slums. Together, they draw a chaotic, harsh, and gorgeous portrait of a city I’ve never seen.
Zinzi herself is an ideal window into this world, having fallen from her upper middle class beginnings down through the ranks of partyers and addicts, and landed in Zoo City as part of the criminal underclass. Her character is mutable, slipping between hard-boiled sarcasm and moments of startling, sympathetic vulnerability. She’s not a hero, because she barely hold her own former-addict self together, but something about her bitterness and struggle makes her compelling.
But much of the brilliance of the book—the rich realness of Johannesburg, the rhythm of action, Zinzi’s unlikable likeable-ness—is undone in the gory, abrupt ending. It feels like an authorial hand was swept across the chessboard, scattering characters and plots, rendering the game senseless. The very, very end, after the blood is mopped up, is more satisfying, and gives the reader some shred of hope and pride to cling to. But still—reading a book is an act of faith in the author. That problems will be solved, questions answered, something rescued from the wrenching wreckage of these fictional lives. Zinzi rescues very little, in the end.
Read it for an intricate map of a city and its competing, clamoring cultures. Read it for Zinzi’s slick sarcasm, and Benoit’s goodness. Read it for the crisp and clever language, and to see a New Weird concept made real. But tread lightly, and brace for the inevitable crash. Zoo City is not a place for the faint of heart.