The OF Blog: 2011 World Fantasy Award finalist: Lauren Beukes, Zoo City

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

2011 World Fantasy Award finalist: Lauren Beukes, Zoo City

Morning light the sulphur colour of the mine dumps seeps across Johannesburg's skyline and sears through my window.  My own personal bat signal.  Or a reminder that I really need to get curtains.

Shielding my eyes – morning has broken and there's no picking up the pieces – I yank back the sheet and peel out of bed.  Benoît doesn't so much as stir, with only his calloused feet sticking out from under the duvet like knots of driftwood.  Feet like that, they tell a story.  They say he walked all the way from Kinshasa with his Mongoose strapped to his chest.

The Mongoose in question is curled cup like a furry comma on my laptop, the glow of the LED throbbing under his nose.  Like he doesn't know that my computer is out of bounds.  Let's just say I'm precious about my work.  Let's just say it's not entirely legal. (p. 7)

Africa has been the setting of choice for several of this year's World Fantasy Award nominees for Best Novel, yet in fiction as in reality, it is not a uniform, monolithic entity.  Whereas Karen Lord's Redemption in Indigo is an adaptation of a Senegalese folk tale and Nnedi Okorafor's Who Fears Death touches upon the lingering (and to most Westerners, barbaric) tradition of female circumcision and gender imbalances in an Africa that struggles to reconcile modernity with traditional beliefs, Lauren Beukes' Zoo City inhabits an urban Africa of 419 email scams, urban crowding and violence, while through it all showing glimmers of booming economic sectors that too often are not highlighted in literature concerning the second-largest continent.  It makes for a heady yet uneven read.

Zoo City is at its heart a crime/mystery novel with near-future technology and bizarre animal familiars.  It is told from the perspective of Zinzi Lelethu, an occasional 419 operator who displays a talent for finding lost things.  Along with her sloth, she is charged with finding out what happened to the person likely responsible for the death of an elderly woman. 

The action is fast and almost too furious at times.  Beukes takes great pains to construct a modern South African setting that is in turns familiar, exotic, and threatening for readers who hail from other environs.  The earlier scenes in which we see Zinzi at work, writing her carefully-crafted missives to gullible charitable folk or as she interacts with other denizens of her neighborhood, are to me the best scenes in the book.  Beukes imbues these scenes with vivid local color, making the South African urban setting captivating for readers.

Then she proceeds towards the tracking down the nefarious figures involved in the mysterious death.  Here is where the narrative felt a little rough at times.  Beukes attempts to meld the quick-hitting demands of the hard-boiled detective novel, replete with short, staccato prose bursts that zip the plot along while depending upon the setting being firmly established, with an atmospheric story in which the exotic animal familiars (many of whom can talk and in which those who bond with these animals are conferred a social status relative to the animal's viewed place in the food chain) are purportedly to play more than bit roles.  The problem I encountered with this is that there was a sense of herky-jerkiness to the narrative.  At times, the story felt bogged down with details and at other times there seemed to be too few elaborations; very uneven.

This is not to say that Zoo City was a bad or even mediocre novel.  Rather, it is a flawed second novel in which several of the ideas introduced in the opening scenes are not fully developed.  This sketchiness does not ruin the novel, but makes the scenes leading up to the conclusion less powerful, which in turn makes the conclusion less dramatic than it otherwise could have been.  Although there is much within Zoo City that would appeal to those readers who like a combination of fantastical creatures and near-future SF, it just is too uneven of a novel for me to believe that it merits the awards and award nominations that have been bestowed upon it over the past year.

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