Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Review: Zoo City by Lauren Beukes



Zinzi December is a animalled – aposymbiotic. She has done something bad in the past – she has killed someone – and since the mid 90s that has caused people to manifest their own animals. The animalled all gain a special power upon having their animal, but it doesn't compare to the widespread prejudice and hatred society shows them – nor to the constant threat of the Undertow. A darkness that chases and hunts down animalled when their companions are killed and stalks them until then.

Zinzi has the power to find things people have lost, following the connections of them to their objects. She has had a hard life, an ex-journalist who fell into drug use, the spiral of which eventually ended up with her brother dead and her carrying around Sloth, she now ekes out a living in the slum Zoo City, a derelict, crime ridden and poverty stricken area of Johannesburg with a large animalled population. Trying to get by in the face of prejudice, her severe drug debt she is pulled into a swamp of the music industry trying to find a missing pop starlette who is tipped to be the next big thing – but has gone missing.

Then suddenly there are deaths, homeless people being murdered and going missing and a shadowy underworld to the music industry and her employers she never imagined.


Ye gods of mercy, this book was hard read. It's a crying shame since we were excited to find a book with a black protagonist and then it turns out to be such a damn battle to get through (Renee quit early, light weight!) It's LA Banks all over again, alas.

This book spends a lot of time providing insight into the world by having every chapter start with excerpts from documentaries, from scholarly articles, from magazine articles – even a 419 scam email. It illustrates the world well and it's actually an interesting way to both add world building and to add a lot more flavour and theme to the world. The problem is that they were very very long and completely broke up the flow of the plot which already had problems. We didn't need a long magazine article about a fictitious music industry. We didn't need an article explaining the troubled past of a music entrepreneur, we've already seen he has one, we don't need the details. We didn't need documentary excerpts explaining things about the animalled when we'd already been shown these things – you've shown us, you don't need to tell us. We didn't need an entire 419 scam email (and it's longer than any I've received!) and when we get random emails through the story we don't need all the details – To: from, cc etc etc quoted. Honestly, my gmail knows better than to show me all this excess info, so why is this author? We didn't need all this. It was long, it was excessive and it was distracting.


There are also some sub plots or side-plots or – let's call them what they are – great big plot interrupters that doesn't really add anything except words to the book. Like there's a huge diversion where Zinzi has her phone stolen – and it goes on for pages about her trying to get it back then running from the thieves – and it adds nothing to the plot, story or world. She doesn't even get her phone back. She decides to go visit a muti shop for magical... I don't even know. I don't know why she's there. I don't know what she's after. She just goes. We also get random inserts again just to add theme and flavour (and extra lairs of grim) her boyfriend going to look for his refugee wife, a random shooting of an animalled's symbiont, a visit to an addict support group – just random stuff, adds nothing to the plot but it's there.

Aside from side unnecessary plots, there are often events where Zinzi goes through a long convoluted stage of events to achieve very little. She goes to a bar to talk to a bouncer, she goes in tries to pretend to be a dancer, is refused, then tries to pretend to be looking for drugs and then says no to a dealer, then she sets up a convoluted fake fight with a friend so the bouncer can intervene and she can question him. Worse, he doesn't even answer her questions! And there's a lot of that as well – a lot of leads and interviews and other investigations that go nowhere – but we get pages and pages of her going through all this to get nowhere and achieve nothing. Chekov's gun, please gods! If it doesn't advance the plot, it shouldn't be in the book!

Ultimately, I got lost. Honestly there are times when she goes to question someone, or interview someone and I have no idea why – I have no idea why she's speaking to these people, why she's gone here – it's disjointed or the reason is lost in all the excess. She could be randomly picking up names from the phone book for all I know. Stuff happens, I don't know why, I don't know what the characters are trying to do I can't even remember why they're trying to do it, what their motivation is, what their purpose is – anything. Stuff just happens.

And then half way through the book we have emails from dead people and visions and... I have no idea. At this point I just kind of gave up following anything any more and just coasted along. I literally just couldn't follow it any more, it was always a struggle, too many derails, too many distractions. I just sat back and watched these random events without any hope of following it any more.




On social justice angle – well nearly every character was a POC which was a big change from the erasure we see a lot in this genre, but I don't think it was unproblematic

I'm distinctly uncomfortable by both what isn't said in this book and by what is implied. We have a large black community, in South Africa, living in a slum in terrible conditions, facing oppression and persecution from others and banned from certain places of business and jobs by prejudice. And this is because of animalism. Prejudice against the animalled. Noooot the other very very obvious ism that is virtually screaming up at us.

In fact, comparing “animalism” to real life prejudices is something that doesn't sit well with me either. We've seen it a lot before in urban fantasy where being supernatural in some way is shown to be persecuted and prejudice is shown. Generally I am not against that – it can be a wonderful little aesop and even possibly a learning curve – but I'm against actually drawing parallels between the fantasy prejudice and actual real life isms. For example, if you say that werewolves are oppressed and persecuted in your world, great, show that – but don't call it racism. If you want to show a vampire rights movement fighting for equality, go for it – but don't draw comparisons with the gay rights movement. There are several reasons I don't like this appropriation but mainly it's because prejudice against these supernatural beings is often based on reasonable fear (vampires and werewolves, y'know EATING people and all).

So we come to Animalism which is, in different parts of the books, refereed to as racism and at one point being animaled is referred to as a disability. Yet how do you become animaled? By killing someone. I cannot say I am comfortable with comparing real world discrimination with a fantasy condition you get after killing someone. It's annoys, it does.

Returning to the living in poverty thing. Here I find myself torn. On the one hand, we rarely see a good representation of class in books, we rarely see the choices people are forced to make, the things they are forced to do to get by, the way people are forced to live by poverty and lack of opportunities and just to survive. The flip side is, when you get affluent people writing stories about people who are not like them living in terrible conditions I do get a feeling of poverty porn as I had previously read in Marjorie Liu's . There's a sense of “oh look how terrible it is for those people” then everyone can gather round for a nice group pityfest. I don't know, maybe I'm being cynical and maybe I should be praising more insight into such poverty, but I'm uncomfortable with it, I am. Especially since nearly everyone Zinzi meets in South Africa is a refugee from another part of Africa with a horror story to tell – it's like pains are being taken to explain just how every part of Africa is some hellish horror zone with atrocity piled on atrocity. It's a very one dimensional picture

On the GBLT score we have a couple of 2 second appearances. We a trans or intersex prostitute who ends up murdered who is referred to as a “boy/girl” (and he/she/it). A trans murdered sex worker with bigoted reference ugh. We do have a couple of random possible gay men having a couple of seconds of air time – though generally the regard is one of contempt of the pathetic more than anything else. One possible stereotype laden “sweetie” portrayal, one hanger on pining after and fawning over a straight guy who has no time for him. Also being animaled isn't like being gay because they DON'T have a “magic zoodar” to detect other zoos. Uh-huh.


On the whole I think she has a nice... concept. I won't say world because all she has is a concept – people who get animals attached to them and a magic power. There's some world building round that but not a whole lot. It is an interesting concept and I'd have liked to have seen it explored... in another book. One with plot I could follow or characters with personalities and without so many trivial distractions and red herrings and descriptions of things I really don't give a damn about. There's a core that could have been decent – but it didn't happen. The plot is nigh impossible to follow, the writing meanders, there's waaay to many distractions and the author needed to read up on Chekov's gun in the worst way.

In the end, I was joyful, gleeful, ecstatic when I reached 90%. Because I knew it was nearly over, that finally this book would end and I had made it, ye gods I had made it!

Would I recommend this book? Only to Tami. This is another book that makes me feel guilty about Sunshine. I DNFed that book and this? This was worse.