Zoo City - Lauren Beukes

Zinzi December has hit rock bottom.  After years in jail for her complicity in her brother's death, she is dumped back on the unfriendly streets of Johannesburg without home, family, or friends; in fact, the only person willing to acknowledge her presence is her old drug dealer, and he wants her to pay her debt--with interest.  But Zinzi's experiences have left her marked, and not just by a stray bullet: her soul is now tethered to what some people call a mashavi, a spirit, an animal spirit that holds her life in its claws.  In the now common parlance, she has been animalled.


Several decades ago, a mysterious new phenomenon began to emerge, a bizarre shift that kicked science and religion to the curb and left only turmoil and fear in its place.  Scientists, always ready to use names in an attempt to demystify, call it AAF, or Acquired Aposymbiotic Familiarism.  To everyone else, they're zoos, apos, or just plain criminals.  Because every single one of the animalled have committed a terrible crime.  In the wake of atrocity and depravity, the perpetrators find themselves bound to an animal and burdened with a supernatural gift.  Both animal and gift can differ--they can be everything from a high-strung Maltese dog to a lumbering bear to a delicate butterfly, and the gifts are just as diverse: some apos can inhabit others' dreams, some can leech the happiness from a room, some gain supernatural powers of persuasion or personality.  But no matter the gift, no matter the animal, all apos have something in common: a terrible, aching fear of the Undertow.  Although apos don't have empathic links to their animals, they depend on them for their continued existence.  When an animal dies, the human is dragged into the Undertow, a dark, curdling mass of shadows that swallows men whole.


Zinzi is trying to start over, but the sins of her old life are like barbed thorns, sunk too deep in the spirit to be removed.  The "Company" has Zinzi writing email scam letters to pay off her old drug debt, but since the interest is exorbitant, she knows she has little chance of working her way free. Her only honest method of work is using her shavi to find lost things.  Wherever she goes, Zinzi always sees the lost things, bereft ghosts tethered to their oblivious owners.  Usually, she can follow the thin strands all the way back to the lost object, although--unfortunately for Zinzi--far too many lost objects end up in the sewers, and the smell is hard to shake. So when a couple of animalled fixers show up and offer an exorbitant sum if Zinzi can use her skills to find a missing pop princess, she can't resist--it might let her pay off all her drug debts, to really start again. It might just be the lucky break she needs. And given that her last client was just brutally murdered, Zinzi figures she needs all the breaks she can get.  Unfortunately, things are never that easy, and it isn't long before Zinzi is thrown into a plot as murky and brutal as the Undertow itself.


Zoo City is a stunningly original story, a refreshing entry in urban fantasy.  The symbolism of aposymbiosis works on so many levels: outwardly, it calls up the older traditions of totemism, especially in the serious consequences of the totem animal's death.  I was fascinated by the idea; to me, it seemed that one could take the idea farther: if humans have lost totemic animals, then does killing another member of one's species cast one outside of the "tribe" of humanity and force the creation of a new tribe with a new totem? At the same time, the animalism carried with it an entirely different meaning, because it somehow puts an apo on the same level as her animal, an inhuman, unthinking beast that will do anything to survive.  Given how often racism has been couched in such terms, it certainly lends power to the themes within the novel. I was also fascinated by the mechanisms within the world: while killing a human appears to have little effect on the animal, killing the animal summons the Undertow.  It is as if the animals are a second chance, a probation sentence with teeth. Not even Zinzi can explain the Undertow:

"Some eyewitnesses reports describe teeth grinding and ripping in the shadows. Video recordings have shown only impenetrable darkness.  I prefer to think of it as a black hole, cold and impersonal as space.  Maybe we become stars on the other side."

Initially, the concept of an animal familiar reminded me a little of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, but I quickly realised that the apos are quite a different animal altogether.  While Zinzi's Sloth certainly has a personality--he tends to echo her oft-ignored conscience-- the animals themselves seem to exist more as a symbol of shame than entities in their own right.  Zinzi occasionally thinks about her Sloth, especially when he's protesting her actions with his sharp little claws, but in general, I was surprised by the absence of empathy and companionship between animal and animalled.  For me, this distance was symbolised by names.  As far as I could tell, no-one named their animals; instead, they referred to them only by species.  In fact, Zinzi extends this distancing tactic into her interactions with apos as well: she refers to them by first names, last names, and animal species names interchangeably.  One of the odd little twists of the novel was the chosen animals themselves: as far as I could tell, none of them were standard totemic creatures, and I was left to my own musings to decide upon their meanings.


I loved how the flavour of the city pervaded the novel.  In Zinzi's Johannesburg, Shona mysticism mixes with Zulu phrases and British slang; the city teems with immigrants and refugees from the Congo and Botswana; American tourists shuffle through the (cleaner) streets; smells of Lagos cooking drifts through the air and mixes with exhaust and the sangomas' incense. I loved how many cultures Beukes brought into the novel, but at the same time, given that this is South Africa, I felt a little uncomfortable with the utter absence of any reference to racism. The entire discussion of prejudice revolves around those who at least partially deserve it; as Zinzi explains,

The truth is we're all criminals. Murderers, rapists, junkies. Scum of the earth. In China they execute zoos on principle. Because nothing says guilty like a spirit critter at your side.

Apophobia should not be treated as a slot-in replacement for racism. Even if the animalled find redemption, the appearance of their animals mean that at some time in their past, someone had just cause to fear them.


Like the other Animalled, Zinzi is a deeply flawed character, but her voice is wry, sharp, and and amusing.  Take her description of Newtown:

"The funkified art, theatre, design, and fashion capital of the inner city. They burned this neighbourhood down in the early 1900s to prevent the spread of bubonic plague, and it occurs to me that they should consider doing it again, to purge the blight of well-meaning hipsters desperately trying to paint it rainbow.

I should really try to be less cynical."

At the same time, I found Zinzi rather difficult to like.  She has a tendency to wound those around her, then abandon them to the consequences.  Her experiences have brought her so low that she freely admits her self-centered carelessness, but with an adolescent's petulant anger against those who would expect more of her:

"I didn't know you were this selfish."
"I'm an addict! It comes with the fucking territory.  I'm sorry I'm not as perfect as your fucking wife."

 Maybe the thing that bothered me most is that I felt that the novel leaves Zinzi essentially unchanged, that the events of the story utterly failed to disrupt the status quo.

While Zinzi may freely admit that she is selfish, she is more than ready to excuse her own actions with necessity or the stupidity or duplicity of others. She's rather impressively vindictive--consider her actions against Gio--while somehow expecting mercy from others. In most cases, she just refuses to consider the potential consequences of her actions: even at the end of the novel, when one would have hoped for a moral epiphany or two, she drags Benoit into a situation that leaves him mortally wounded.  Then she walks away.  Sure, she decides to help bring him his family--but that's only after she has used, damaged, and discarded him. It's a feeble gesture at best, a sorry sop to a pitiful conscience.  She's able to walk away from a mortally wounded man with the comment,

"There was nothing I could do there."

In some sense, the whole case was an exercise in futility.  The children--all the children--still die.  Sure, Odi gets it too, but I was left wondering if he wouldn't have been dealt with in the same way by the "procurers" in any case--otherwise, one would have thought they would have attempted his rescue. It almost seemed as though the crocodile was their ultimate goal. I still don't understand the role of Mark and Amira; if they truly had such powerful shavi, why didn't they use it on themselves? Nothing has really changed.  She is still trapped in her scam artist deal--unless she actually flees the city permanently.  Her conversation with her dealer seemed to sum up the whole book:

"Load saved game."    


"We reset to where we were before."

 And that's pretty much what happens.

(show spoiler)

I loved the gritty, jagged edges of the story, the unique setting and structure.  Zinzi's chapters are interspersed with mock articles, emails, and Apos movie reviews.  While some readers may find the structure grating, I relished every opportunity to dig deeper into the world.  While I think the mystery itself and the overall plot arc might be the weakest aspect of the novel, I was captivated to the end.  There are still so many aspects I want to understand, from the nature of the Undertow to certain aspects of Zinzi's gift.

For example, I found the "nonsense poetry" both perplexing and intriguing--it reminded me a little of the Shona tradition of "praise poems," but I didn't really see how or why they really connected into the mystery.  How, exactly, did the ghosts in the wires end up contacting Zinzi?


I also found myself wondering about one particular passage long after I closed the book. It's the travesty of a love-story that Gio prints:

"A gang-bang really, because the shadow of murder, of my sin, is like a fourth in the bed beside us." 

It seemed startlingly apt to me; the idea that Zinzi is penetrated, humiliated, debased by her own guilt, forced to carry its physical manifestation, trapped in a world where she is so selfish, yet so utterly lacking in self-esteem, that unthinking, even animalistic sex becomes a way of eating up the hours and staying above the Undertow.

"In my chest, the poison flower bursts open, an explosion of burning seeds. [...] It is the death of hope."

(show spoiler)

In everything from magic to music to metropolis, Zoo City is a refreshingly abrasive, vibrant read.


MUSIC: As always, I listened to music while I read, and since the novel centres around the South African music scene, I decided to do my own exploration of kwaito and Afropop, and I think it added extra dimensionality to the novel.  If you want to explore kwaito music yourself, this NPR music sampler is a great way to get started.