William Gibson promises on the cover that Zoo City is “very, *very* good”, which actually makes me hesitate when I’m buying it because I am one of those people who does not love William Gibson. I don’t hate him or anything, but given a choice, I’d rather not read him. But Zoo City is the winner of the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke Award and published by Angry Robot, a UK press I’ve come to admire, and so I grabbed the book despite my Gibson misgivings.
And before I confirm or deny the “very, *very* good” on the cover, let’s talk about that cover. Which features not one, but two people of color and when was the last time I saw that? I’m not completely convinced of the cover design as a design, but after recent controversies about whitewashing on book covers, I was pretty glad to see some very non-white people featured so prominently on the cover of a book. High fives, Angry Robot designer (John Picacio according to the notes on the copyright page)!
But enough cover talk! What about the story?
The cover is, in fact, right. Zoo City is very, very good. One of those books that I thought about constantly when reading it and not reading it, from the time I put it down until the time I picked it up again. And I made excuses in my head to pick it up again instead of do my job or the millions of other things that need my attention during the day. “Just five minutes,” I’d promise myself, and then an hour later, the pinging of my work email would yank me out of my Zoo City trance.
Beukes does the thing that everyone is always saying writers need to do: Show, don’t tell. There are no tiresome explanatory passages here, no characters thinking awkward descriptive thoughts. Zoo City resident Zinzi December is living her life, out of a crumbling Johannesburg apartment building, and the reader is tagging along. So in the opening pages, you meet Sloth and Mongoose and Benoît and Zinzi and you don’t really know who is what to who and why these animals get capital letters. When Zinzi, finder of lost things, leaves with Sloth to talk with an old woman who has lost a ring, you start to realize that Zinzi has no choice but to take Sloth along, but you still have no idea why. As the novel twists and turns its ways through the many twists and turns, the reasons for this become clearer, but not clear. You realize that you know what you need to know to understand the events in those twisty-turny pages and no more.
I’m keeping all the spoiler-type plot details (so basically all plot details) to myself because I’m sure that stepping into this world knowing nothing is a much richer reader experience. And I can’t really talk about the story without revealing things that are slowly revealed on a need-to-know basis throughout the novel. But! Beukes is a great writer with a great knack for dialogue, the perfect phrasing, the perfect pauses. And I get the feeling that the Johannesburg she paints for the reader is not all that different from the Johannesburg in the real world right now, minus the Zoo City of course. Which seems like it would still be a slum just without all the “animalled”. Underneath all the noir-y action and weirdness, there are some interesting meditations on class and race relations that are only too relevant with or without Animals.
I’m not going to deny that I loved this book. Go ahead, hold a gun to my head, but I won’t. I loved the pacing, the rhythm of each scene, the slow reveal, the mix of politics, crazeball style and Beukes’ sharp humour. Two-thirds of the way through, I worried that steam was lost, that the first part of the book had built expectations that the last part could not meet, but ten pages of Zinzi putting her life back together was followed by punches in the face on every other page. Zoo City is one of those books that I read slower the further into it I got because I started to dread its ending. This is what I want from all books, that slowdown, that realization that it will end and that I do not want it to end. Any book that does this to me has won the battle against my grumpy inner critic (affectionately referred to as my brain).
A moment of personal weirdness when I read the word “asshat”, a word that I use almost exclusively to describe the idiots and jerks I encounter in my daily life. I enjoy the imagery of these doofuses wearing hats on their asses, which puts them in the most ridiculously compromising position ever and eases my own tight anger at being thwarted by them. I didn’t really think that this slang was something I had come up with all on my own (the Internet is a powerful, subconscious force in my life), but I didn’t expect to come across it in a novel by a South African. Is this proof of that whole global village crap?