When I reviewed the Riverside series, I came to the conclusion that the books were indefensibly, fundamentally… well, bad, but that I love them anyway. Now I am confronted with the opposite problem. Altogether, I would have to say that Zoo City is an interesting, well-written, unique book. And I don’t care for it.
Zoo City is a slice of life sort of book. Normally that wouldn’t be a good way to characterize a tale of murder and magic, but we’ll get to that. Zinzi December is an ex-junkie who facilitates 419 scams and finds lost keys and, I dunno, tax returns using her fairly interesting magic abilities. She is accompanied everywhere by my favorite character in the book, Sloth. Sloth is a sloth, funnily enough, and he mostly hangs out and is grumpy. He and Zinzi are symbiotic familiar-and-witch, the life of one dependent on the other, and he’s pretty sweet all around. Zinzi is hired by some members of the Hello We Are Evil Club on behalf of an important music executive. One of his star teenyboppers has gone missing, and Zinzi reluctantly takes the job. Her power is finding lost things, though it apparently doesn’t apply to people. Which is why she doesn’t generally take missing persons cases, being no more qualified than I am to do so. So she embarks on a quest to find the starlet and then everything is gritty and conspiratorial.
What I find most interesting in this book is the writing. The bulk of the story is first-person and present tense, tossing you straight into Zinzi’s brain, and you never duck over to another character’s direct perspective. The flow is constantly built upon, though, by other bits of media. Beukes has a wonderful, versatile voice, and everything from trashy tabloid journalism to the blathering of internet commenters is wonderfully captured. The South African setting leads to a lot of linguistic jumps that were hard for a white-bread American-English reader to follow, but once I got into the swing of things, it was easy to get the gist. Hell, I read A Clockwork Orange. This was a piece of cake.
(Except I don’t like cake, and cake is actually kind of tricky. Brownies are easy. ‘Twas a brownie.)
Everyone has a voice and the imagery is always strong and sensual. I mean that in the purely nonsexual sense, I should note. I hope nothing in this book was supposed to be sexy, because it definitely wasn’t. But you could smell the smoke and feel the flesh tear and wade in sewage to your knees right along with Zinzi, and that’s some good storytelling.
The other solid element of Zoo City was its world. Urban South Africa of the magical near-future is a fascinating place. The main fantastic element are the animals themselves. People who have done significant wrong (and this is very vague; more on that later) suddenly develop a bad case of the animal companion edge. They also pick up a single psychic talent, as in Zinzi’s Saint Anthony routine. Zoos are hated and feared and so on and they have their own sort of sub-society. There’s also magic of a more shamanic sort that seems to be accessible to anyone who puts in the time and effort, though I got the idea that a lot of that was fraudulent or just wholly unreliable. That angle isn’t explored too much. Actually, a lot of things aren’t explored. In some places, as in world building elements, that’s alright. I don’t need the story interrupted for an in-depth and pedantic history of the practice of magic.
In other places, it thoroughly disrupts your enjoyment of and investment in the story. Take the animals. I have no idea what the actual criteria are for getting one. The implication is that murder is the big cause, but how direct it has to be escapes me. Zinzi herself is really unclear about what precisely went down to summon Sloth to her. One character seems to have picked his up in self-defense. Another seems awfully unlikely to have killed anyone. Most Zoos seem to be out on the streets, so either grimdark future South Africa has a really, really lenient court system when it comes to murder or you can also get one for petty crimes. But if you don’t have to do anything quite that bad, then why are so many gleefully evil people hanging out un-animaled? I have no idea. And, aside from distracting confusion, the whole situation leads to what I’m going to call the True Blood problem. We’re told that animaled folks deserve our understanding and are unfairly targeted. I’m okay with that. I’m a nerd, and as with most nerds I was picked on in school and am educated enough to be a bleeding-heart liberal. I side with the downtrodden. But since you apparently do have to be a fairly scary person to get an animal and whatever does the deciding is apparently infallible, I think it’s fair to be wary of people who are wearing their “accessory to murder at minimum” badges. I’m not for ostracizing and punishing those who commit criminal acts forever, but it’s a fair indication that you’re dealing with a person who ought to be treated with caution.
Anyway. That’s the trouble with the world. Then come the characters. Some of the side characters are pretty amusing, in a mild way. The bad guys are pretty good bad guys, even if most of them have inscrutable motives for everything they do, whether they’re the Club Evil mercenaries from hell or some guy who doesn’t like Zinzi for some reason and harasses her the whole book because he seems to feel like it. I have a theory that that guy has a thing for her boyfriend. Speaking of whom, Benoit really should be kinda interesting, but he isn’t. He has a colorful and tragic past and a strange present and seems to be one of the few people in the book who’s actually kind of nice or admirable, but he ends up just sort of occupying space.
And as for Zinzi herself… You spend the bulk of the book inside her head, and you clearly find that she’s quite convinced that she’s an unpleasant person who never does anything right. Usually, when a character harps on that point, it gets one of two reactions. If it’s done right, you say to yourself, “Oh, poor character, you just need to believe in yourself! You’re a good person!” If it’s done poorly, the reader is left thinking, “Oh, shut up, you Mary-Sue pain in the ass.” Neither of these things happened when I read about Zinzi’s self-esteem problem. All I could think was, “Yeah, you are a fundamentally unpleasant person who never seems to accomplish a damn thing.”
I don’t mind a villain protagonist. They’re great sometimes. Richard III, Severian, Artemis Fowl (early books); they’re all good. But that’s not what Zinzi is. I don’t mind antiheroes. They’re more fun, really. But Zinzi’s not really an antihero. Her great sin isn’t something she tries to redeem herself for. I have no idea what her great sin was. There’s never any hint at what really happened or why. There’s no suggestion that she didn’t just do something terrible because it was easiest. She’s ultimately not a hero. She doesn’t learn or grow. She doesn’t accomplish anything.
Which brings us to the slice of life plot. That’s all I can call it, because the story goes nowhere. It’s not what I’d call a tragedy in the traditional sense. There’s no fall. There’s no decline. It’s not even really a downer ending where they get a disease and lose the farm. It’s just fundamentally nothing. The world is the same place at the end of the story as in the beginning. A few people die or are terribly damaged. A few people don’t or aren’t. World keeps on spinning. This is not A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. This is just kind of a blank space.
It’s what I’m going to dub the China Meiville problem. There’s a wonderful world full of wonderful creatures and institutions and magic. The words are beautiful, even when what they bring to life is ugly. And yet there’s no substance. None of the characters resonate. None of the story holds up. Know the phrase “and nothing of value was lost?” In Zoo City, nothing of value is gained.
And yet I have to recommend it. It’s groundbreaking and well executed and interesting. And yet.