Much of what is wrong with contemporary South African writing is that novels, in particular, often serve as platforms for political and post-transitional political agendas in ways that are not sufficiently mediated by the art of the genre. Agendas are not problematic per se, except that they all too often flatten the landscape and render characters one-dimensional, locking necessary debate into an unreadable mastication and ultimately accomplishing very little. This is of course not true for all South African writing: many authors have written current debates into their fictions with a measure of mastery, both humanising and globalising the issues (see, for instance, recent new work by Ivan Vladisavic and Ingrid Winterbach). Too often, however, novels are either super-realistic, which leaves the reader despairing and with Judgment Day fever, or they are frivolous because they do not wish to offend, thereby trivialising very serious issues. So how does one write about economic disparity, homelessness, forced migration and the resultant xenophobia, crime, violence, drug abuse and prostitution, the blind shelter of the wealthy and transforming identities? How does one take the platform writing offers and use it, not to turn characters into concepts, but to turn life into art?
This, in my view, is what Lauren Beukes gets right in Zoo City. Set in something resembling a post-apocalyptic Johannesburg, Zoo City explores a widespread sense of disillusionment with everything that the ‘new’ South Africa once may have offered. Beukes’s city is easily enough recognised as Jozi; rife with crime, gritty, and the hub of all things exciting – legal, illegal, and everything else in between. Her novel, though, breaks away from the matter-of-fact tradition we have come to expect of South African writing, and explores instead the current milieu from the perspective of something one might call fabulation, or speculative fiction, creating a milieu equally close and distant for readers to re-examine things as they are, without feeling judged or excluded. But don’t think for a moment that Beukes makes it ‘nice’. The stock-in-trade of her Joburg includes crime, forced migration and a dilapidated, decrepit city. This is her mimesis, her take on the ‘reality’ of the country, of which Joburg is the symbolic heart.
Reminiscent of Philip K. Dicks’s novels, the chaos stems not from the obvious external bedlam, but from the characters’ engagement and internal dialogue with and about their surroundings. Beukes admirably pulls it all together with a sense of humour not unlike that of Kurt Vonnegut Jr (there’s a cringe in every laugh), such as, for example, when she writes: “I walk up on Empire through Parktown past the old Johannesburg College of Education, attracting a few aggressive hoots from passing cars. I give them the finger. Not my fault if they’re so cloistered in suburbia that they don’t get to see zoos. At least Killarney isn’t a gated community. Yet.”
In a sentence such as this, Beukes manages to touch on the prejudice of the affluent, the suffering of the less advantaged (or previously disadvantaged if one takes it a step further), and gated communities, which implies crime and the various socio-economic and political associations with crime. On the one hand, there are the unmet needs of the underprivileged, which create the conditions for crime, and then there is also the unresolved anger from the struggle years (this is implied), which also leads to violent resolutions. The fear experienced by those against whom the crimes are committed creates a need for more and more frenzied ‘security’ solutions, while the necessary othering from both parties sustains and reinforces social divisions. However, because Beukes’s world is partly imagined, the realities of this dystopian world are explored descriptively rather than polemicised.
The plot is dense and centres around Zinzi, the protagonist, who is ‘a zoo’ - a person bound for life to an animal after having committed a crime. The animal she is bound to is a sloth; heavy to carry and difficult to hide. The sloth, like the animals of the other zoos, becomes a metaphor for the burden carried by people, and more so by particular groups of people, through life. Zinzi is also a squatter and an ex-addict, trying to pay off her drug debt by writing scam letters for syndicates while trying to salvage her remaining dignity so that she can build a better life. Unfortunately, she has a knack of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Her talent, or magical ability, is to find missing things in an almost clairvoyant way, and this lands her slap-bang in the middle of a missing-person case, leading to her involvement with a notoriously reclusive music producer called Odi Huron. He, of course, he has a few secrets in the closet and this is where the plot thickens, though I will refrain from giving away too much of it here.
What I found refreshing is that the characters are surprisingly multi-dimensional. One feels empathy for all of them in different ways, recognising their flaws, life’s unfair allotment of gifts, the struggle to transcend one’s given fate, and the compromising, loss and regaining of hope involved in people’s struggle to better themselves. Beukes also frequently pulls current South African life, lifestyle and vernacular into her imagined nowhere-land, thereby creating the necessary interplay between life and art. What she accomplishes, mostly by means of genre and fictional voice, is to open up the debate again: one wants to talk about the book once it has been read; the concerns in the novel are so blatantly obvious that it seems pointless to avoid discussing it any longer.
My main criticism of Zoo City is that there was one too many plot development by the end of a story which already contained a great many twists and turns. The story is weighty on many levels and the introduction of the white crocodile (which may be a not-so-subtle reference to PW Botha) left me feeling exhausted. It does tie up all the loose ends, though, and allows the protagonist to come full circle, but for me it detracted from the overall quality of the novel’s conceptual design. Nevertheless, Zoo City is a remarkable achievement, an exploration of new territory and a great addition to South African writing, particularly to that rare genre in this country, speculative fiction.