Review: Zoo City

This review contains spoilers.

Lauren Beukes’ second novel Zoo City has a fair amount in common with Fonda Lee’s Jade City, which I reviewed earlier this week: apart from the similarity of their titles, both centre around more-or-less organised crime in non-Western cities and both feature lead characters who are essentially trapped by oppressive sociocultural factors that they are powerless to change. Why then did I enjoy Zoo City so much more?

Former journalist Zinzi December has Acquired Asymbiotic Familiarism: a relatively new, worldwide phenomenon whereby those afflicted with extreme guilt – particularly anyone who has killed, or allowed to be killed, another human being – acquires by apparently inexplicable means an animal from whom they cannot be parted without considerable psychological suffering, as well as low-level magical powers. The animalled are shunned by polite society (the parallel with AIDS is I think never explicitly stated but certainly there), leaving them to cluster in rundown but companionable districts like Zoo City, Johannesburg, where we lay our scene. Having lost her high-flying journalist job to a drug addiction, and gained a Sloth through failing to stop her brother being killed, Zinzi now relies on her supernatural talent for finding lost things to pay back her debt to her former drug dealer, who also has her using her writing skills on 419 scams. Against her better judgement, Zinzi takes on a missing-person case involving a vanished pop singer in the hope of enough money to pay her drug dealer back once and for all.

Whereas Jade City is a novel about forced social conformity, Zoo City rejoices in variety and individuality, the anarchic energies of the city. Zinzi’s former and current professions give her access to most segments of society, from the dispossessed to the moneyed: she talks to teenage pop stars, middle-aged music producers, nightclub bouncers, refugees, street kids; she’s just as likely to end up crawling through a tunnel to escape violence as she is to sit playing video games in a posh house in a gated community. Then there are, of course, the multitude of animals occupying Zoo City, and the wide range of magical powers their humans possess. This diversity is reflected at the level of form too: Zinzi’s first-person narration is punctuated by fictional found documents – newspaper articles, scientific papers, interviews – mostly covering the social effects of AAF and how the animalled are treated around the world.

Particularly interesting, I thought, was the novel’s treatment of magic. This review comments negatively on the lack of a coherent magic system, but to me that lack seems a feature, not a bug. Zinzi visits a sangoma at one point, and despite her scepticism he appears to know a startling amount about her motives for visiting him; the potion he gives her produces vivid visions that reverberate through subsequent events. The sangoma’s traditional magic (which pops up again at the end of the novel) therefore works alongside the scientifically attested magic associated with AAF: the low-level supernatural powers, the link between animal and human, the dark, roiling Undertow that comes for humans whose animals have died. This is an individualistic, capitalist approach to magic: “anything goes so long as it works for you”. That’s ultimately what the riotous diversity of the novel is indexing too – isolating individualism, as against the strong if stifling sense of community we see in Jade City. Zinzi has associates, contacts, acquaintances, people she might loosely call friends, but ultimately she works her case alone; notably, her long-term lover, a refugee called Benoit, is about to leave her after hearing news that his wife is alive.

In fact, we can see the logics of unchecked capitalism operating throughout the novel: Zinzi only takes the case in order to pay her way out of what’s essentially debt slavery; people sell parts of their own animals for use in traditional medicine; high-class (read: expensive) establishments seek to keep the animalled out in order to preserve their tone (and thus the privilege of their customers). And the novel’s villain (spoilers here) is attempting to use his wealth and influence to escape the social stigma of being animalled.

Part of the novel’s curious power lies in the fact that the animals are not, actually, obvious symbols of guilt: they’re not venal or unusually violent or particularly repulsive; they’re just animals, just themselves. Zinzi’s Sloth is quite cute, even. In fact, far from being symbols of guilt, they are, precisely, innocent; free of humanity’s self-interested cruelty and vexed morality. There’s an interesting process of abjection going on here, guilt “thrown off” onto an innocent scapegoat: this is why the Undertow claims those whose animals die, the repressed guilt returning to consume them. This process mirrors the process by which wider society “throws off” its own guilt onto the animalled themselves, forcing them to the edges of acceptability (think of those upper-class establishments that habitually refuse entrance to the animalled).

Of course this is very similar to how capitalist societies treat criminals today, keeping them locked in cycles of imprisonment and reoffending. But in Beukes’ novel criminality is a highly visible trait, cutting across traditional social classes: so Zinzi, a former middle-class journalist who simply failed to prevent a death, is treated the same as a career murderer, or the drug dealer who keeps her in debt slavery. One of the things the novel reveals, then, is the arbitrariness, the injustice, of how we construct and judge criminality.

I’m interested in how the novel’s treatment of guilt responds to discussions of guilt and innocence in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, Zoo City’s most significant intertext. In Pullman’s series, animal daemons are seen by the Church as a manifestation of original sin; the first novel Northern Lights revolves around a plot to separate children from their daemons in order to save their souls. Here again we see a process of abjection, with innocent animals being scapegoated by the Church in an attempt to make up for the doctrine of original sin. Of course innocence is a freighted concept in this context: in the eyes of the Church, animals are associated with the fallen, materialistic world and are thus further from God. But in Pullman’s novel the Church is the villain; its simplistic innocence/sin binary is better replaced by a Blakean innocence/experience dialectic; and so from the reader’s point of view the daemons are innocent, and so we see the scapegoating process more clearly. What Beukes is doing is zooming in on that process, making it explicit. What happens if the daemons really are symbols of guilt? What would that reveal about or bring out in a society?

To revisit the question with which I began this review, then: why did I prefer Zoo City to Jade City? Beukes’ novel contains a profound critique of global capitalism: it shows how privilege and wealth in this system rely on the scapegoating and exploitation of a wide swathe of society. And it does so in a way that deeply troubles our conceptions of innocence and guilt. Jade City is in some ways a critique of its own society; but its fantastical element is not working nearly as hard as Beukes’ is, and doesn’t generate the same imaginative charge. Zoo City is perhaps not a perfect novel, but it’s one that lingers in the mind for a long time afterwards: inventive, riotous and fascinating in every sense.

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