Back-cover blurbs don't usually sell me on books. Too often, A-list authors seem to add their imprimatur to titles of subpar quality. Blurbs have burned me, in other words. Recently, though, I decided to take the plunge with Lauren Beukes' Zoo City, a novel that had received an endorsement from one of my favorite authors (William Gibson of Neuromancer fame) and featured a locale to which I've actually travelled (South Africa). Yet I should've expected that Gibson's name would mislead me. Instead of being SF as I expected, Zoo City mashes together alternate history, indigenous fantasy and gritty crime fiction.
While Dehqan Beyat wasn't the first individual to become animaled, his was certainly the most striking among the early cases. A New York film student becoming an Afghani warlord was odd; one roaming the desert with a penguin in a Kevlar vest by his side was beyond bizarre. But that's how it works once you're animaled: You don't get to choose your charge, and no one knows whether they're physical manifestations of sin or familiar spirits or something else entirely. Yet accumulate enough guilt or shed enough blood, and you'll end up with a beast for life. No colloquialism there. Should your critter die before you, the Undertow will come, a dark, seething mass that sucks the de-animaled ... somewhere. Not that gaining an animal means total doom; a familiar also grants a mystic power. After the shooting death of her brother, former drug addict Zinzi December ended up with a sloth and the ability to find lost things. That ability will be stretched when a client dies, stretched because Zinzi will need to suss out a person, one-half of a pop-music duo that has up and vanished. That search will soon spiral into murder and magic and a glipse through the cracks in reality itself.
As you can probably tell from the above summary paragraph, Zoo City is one dense book. Fortunately, Beukes writes in a more or less straightforward style, avoiding the baroque permutations that make Gibson so difficult to read. Still, it wouldn't hurt if you knew a few of the dark continent's languages, its various religions and its numerous regional conflicts before diving in. Beukes doesn't go out of her way to accommodate American audiences, and sometimes that makes it a bit difficult to catch important bits of character info or plot points. Still, structure is compelling. Between chapters, Beukes cunningly interpolates important pieces of exposition, tucking them into Nigerian scam emails and IMDB-like reviews of documentaries about the animaled. And Zinzi's exploits don't disappoint. Zoo City unfolds like a quasi-supernatural mystery, with dead ends and betrayals and conspiracies cropping up left and right. The ending, though, swerves into horror, and is it a spoiler to say that it's not at all happy, not entirely sad and not particularly satisfying? Perhaps. Yet you should take a trip to this Zoo all the same, because the sights are truly exotic.
(Picture: CC 2006 by alumroot)