The problem with my particular gift, curse, call it what you like, is that everybody's lost something. Stepping out in public is like walking into a tangle of cat's cradles, like someone dished out balls of string at the lunatic asylum and instructed the inmates to tie everything to everything else. On some people, the lost strings are cobwebs, inconsequential wisps that might blow away at any moment. On others, it's like they're dragging steel cables. Finding something is all about figuring out which string to tug on.
It's April, and that means tis the season to be blogging the Clarke Award. (Scroll down to the bottom of the left-hand sidebar to read about the shortlists from the previous four years.) Anyway: two of the 2011 shortlistees I've already reviewed elsewhere; and so onto the third contender, the whip-smart fantastical noir Zoo City, Lauren Beukes' second novel.
Zoo City takes place in an alternate world, one distinguishable from our own largely by the exciting new way it has of marginalising people. Here, society's undesirables - the ones respectable folks won't live next door to, the ones passed over with a sneer for every legitimate job going, the ones hounded by the police for breathing and walking at the same time (but roundly ignored when they themselves are the victims of a crime) - are 'zoos', people whose guilt follows them around in the all-too-literal shape of an animal familiar. Acquired Asymbiotic Familiarism, as it is known officially, first appeared in the mid-1980s, and has been the subject of theorising and hysteria ever since; the afflicted - the 'animalled' - range from hardened criminals to those who, like the narrator, made some really bad choices. There is no indication in the book that an animal, once acquired, fades away with either repentance or time served; this is a stigma that lasts for life, reflecting actions that cannot be undone.
While zoos are demonised by the disapproving, and fetishised by the young and/or stupid - animals are on course to become essential fashion accessories for the edgier pop star, and there's even a Grand Theft Auto: Zootopia - the experience of having a familiar varies enormously. The book's first-person narrated chapters are interspersed with found footage-style extracts from scholarly articles, documentary film transcripts, and coffee table books about the phenomenon. The most interesting of these is Caged: Animalled Behind Bars, which reproduces interviews with people in prisons around the world. American and Australian interviewees explain how familiars operate as status symbols, the ferocity of your animal determining your place in the pecking order; in the Pakistan account, they're being used to torture inmates for information (hurting a familiar also hurts the one it's attached to). For others, they offer companionship. All come with compensatory fantastical abilities:
I oughta be pissed off, man. You can guess what it's like being in here with a Butterfly. Except for the stuff it lets me do.
See, when I go to sleep at night, I wake up as someone else. For the time I'm asleep, I live the day of someone else on the other side of the world. Man, I've been kids in Africa and India, I was once this old Chinese woman. Mostly I'm poor, but sometimes I get lucky and I'm rich.
What I'm saying is, I can't hate the Butterfly. Butterfly breaks me out of here every night.
Zinzi December, a former high-flying journalist who destroyed her career and her family with "a nasty drug habit", now scrapes a living by finding lost things; as described in the passage quoted at the head of this post, her Sloth familiar lends her the ability to 'see' connections between people and the things they have lost: "lost keys, love letters, beloved toys, misplaced photographs and missing wills. I even found a lost room once."
She lives in the Johannesburg slum of Zoo City. Her home is a crumbling, half burned-out tenement called - with savage irony - Elysium Heights, a place where, in the evenings, "[t]he smell of cooking - mostly food, but also meth - temporarily drowns out the stench of rot, the urine in the stairwells". On the morning we meet her, the stairway down from her apartment - or, as she puts it, "this dank room with its precariously canted floor and intermittent plumbing" - is "mummified in yellow police tape" from a murder investigation that no-one bothered to pursue, so she has to drop through a hole in next door's floor, crunching across broken glass past an insensible junkie to find a route to the outside world.
Despite - or perhaps in reaction to - her environment, Zinzi is a chatty, jaunty narrator. Beukes gives her some wonderful, simile-rich turns of phrase, both at her own expense ("I've left distinctive tracks across three holes [of the golf course]: the common kitten-heeled hustler") and at others':
Emmanuel's grin drops from his face like a kicked puppy, bounces on the pavement and tumbles into the gutter with a little pitiful yelp.
Not all of these pithy one-liners are quite so pithy, or successful; "since Sloth I've been so monogamous I make the demonstration banana that Aids educators use to show how to put on a condom, look slutty" is a good idea, but in practice it just stumbles breathlessly over its subclauses. Still, mostly the technique makes for a punchy, page-turning read. It also lets details of the world - and of Zinzi's character - seep into the narrative naturally through the way she responds to what she sees, and the comparisons she reaches for, rather than requiring pauses for infodump.
Zinzi's self-presentation, too, is compelling: an infectious mixture of self-directed snark and prickly pride. She's up-front about her pratfalls and ebullient about the casual prejudice she is subject to, but at times her insistence on how she's so over the superficiality of her old life, and so down with her new one, rings hollow:
I reach past him to pull out a vintage navy dress with a white collar, match it up with jeans and slops, and finish off with a lime green scarf over the little dreadlock twists that conveniently hide the mangled wreckage of my left ear – let's call it Grace Kelly does Sailor Moon. This is not so much a comment on my style as a comment on my budget. I was always more of an outrageously expensive indie boutique kinda girl. But that was FL. Former Life.
Zinzi repeatedly juxtaposes these different aspects of herself to raise a smirk. On one occasion, she describes a bank of recording equipment at a client's house as "at least semi-pro, if I'm any judge of expensive. And I am"; then, further down the same page, she follows up with: "There's a bankie of dope inside. And it's quality, if I'm any judge of substances. And I am." She uses irony to keep herself at arm's length from the world she's dropped into, but there are signs that this - coping mechanism though it is - can be corrosive in its own way. In particular, she can be glib to an almost aggressive degree when discussing both how far she has fallen, and the reasons why. She describes her familiar, Sloth, as "my own personal scarlet letter"; meeting her ex for the first time since she did a swan dive into junkiehood and he dodged the worst of the consequences to keep his job and his old life, she provides a snarky running commentary on his discomfort:
"Sorry, yeah, guys, this is my friend I told you about?" Gio's tone is loaded with things left unsaid. "Zinzi December. We used to work together." Sleep together. Take drugs together. Sleep together while taking drugs together at work together. It was a simple relationship, really.
She is even willing - with some regret, albeit mostly for her own pride - to milk the harm she did to her family, if she thinks it will help her on a case:
"What point do you wish you could go back to?"
"The moment before I got my brother killed."
"Heavy," says S'bu, but I can tell he's impressed. And this is what I've come to, breaking out my worst personal tragedy to pry open a teenager. If I hadn't already hit my ultimate low, this would be a close contender.
Looked at one way, it is this willingness to exploit anything that got her into this situation in the first place; looked at another way, Zinzi no longer has the luxury of scruples. The comparative calm and safety of Zoo City for its inhabitants, she says, is one of "mutually assured desperation". To pay off her drug debts, Zinzi is locked into a sideline in 419 scams run by the people she owes, and there is a blithe callousness in the way she reels off her resume:
People want to believe: you just have to feed them plausible constructs. [...] I brush the dusting of Mongoose fur and flea eggs off my laptop, and flick open the screen to see if the phish have been biting.
I've become a master builder in the current affairs sympathy scam. A broken levee and an old lady with a flooded mansion, desperate to sell her priceless antiques cheap-cheap. A Chechnyan refugee fleeing the latest Russian pogroms with her family's diamonds in tow. A Somali pirate who has found Jesus and wants to trade in his rocket launcher and ransom millions for absolution.
It's all topical. All rooted in the hard realities of the world. Ironic that Former Life I never watched the news. But then, lifestyle journalists don't have to.
She is not without feeling; a scene where she meets two of her marks to seal the deal, posing as a traumatised refugee from some horrific internecine conflict, is excruciating for her as well as for the reader. But most of the time she manages to avoid thinking about the consequences of her actions for other people, or the fact that her lover, Benoit, really is a refugee, one haunted by the fear that he left his wife behind to die in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The central thread of the story sees Zinzi pressganged, through a combination of veiled threats and flat-out financial necessity, into taking on the sort of case - a missing person, the most difficult and painful of lost things to seek - she'd sworn never to attempt again. Like any good noir, the plot thickens swiftly, the complications and betrayals pile on, and our heroine spirals down into ever seedier and more dangerous circles, taking more than a few punches to the gut (literal and figurative) along the way. I have some reservations about the ending - although, unlike Niall, not for any excess of neatness, but rather for the utterly bonkers grand Guignol of it all, which seems to belong in a different register than the rest of the book.
This is an assured, gripping novel held together by a strong, appealing narrative voice and the courage of its convictions; I'm very pleased to see it getting the attention of the Clarke Award jury - even if it's more fantasy than sf, to my mind! I can't wait to see what Beukes does next.