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Zoo City

by Kavish Chetty / 01.07.2010

The vigour of Lauren Beukes’ writing comes from a simple fact: she doesn’t hide herself beneath the archway of those two tired syllables (‘apart’ and ‘heid’ – when you give that word a taste of its own medicine, when you segregate it from itself, it reveals its project rather blank-faced and boldly: to keep apart, to hate). So, her prose wrested free from the now nauseating sea-sickness of liberal guilt that I’ve become so accustomed to from local fiction, it flourishes.

That’s not to say her novel is abstract: it is set very firmly in a frigid and bleak Joburg. But how refreshing that the word ‘apartheid’ appears only three times in the whole text (and all three times, in the space of one minute from each other, in the form of a newspaper extract). The bifurcation and alienation of our history is still inked in here, let’s be sure, but it reveals itself subtly.

First things second, then. Beukes is an enviably sensuous writer. This magical Joburg of hers, dark and bruised, is wrought from the kind of phraseology that would make Martin Amis grimace with jealousy. It is scarred, blemished and battered, but the language she uses to conjure its piss-stained alleyways and throngs of junkies is like vile poetry: linguistically gorgeous and sick all at the same time. It’s the comedy alongside the private apocalypses; it’s the six-shooter sharp wit of her one-liners that will convince you that, like the Wu-Tang Clan, Lauren Beukes ain’t nothin’ to fuck with.

Some of the Zoo City Merchandise

Zoo City is hard-boiled noir murder-mystery transplanted into modern day Joburg, but sassy and contemporary. All the tributary clichés are here, but decked out in the sparkle of slummy 21st century-ness. In this world, Zinzi December, a burn-out with failed ambitions and jail-time etched into her CV, is gifted with mashavi. She isn’t unique: this mashavi, a kind of special power or gift, is wielded by a significant swathe of the population. All carry around animals like a personal familiar, with which to channel their magic. All make the public frightful, curious, apprehensive. And Zinzi’s special power? She can find lost things.

It’s while on the trail of a lost ring, her head and imagination ringing with her sixth sense, that she gets enmeshed in a whole narrative of bad-luck, starting with the kind of mess-up Humphrey Bogart would warn you about: her client mysteriously ends up dead. From here, it’s mangled motives and double-crossings, shady big-shots with equally shady promises of fortune and muti and dark magic. Part one is missing-persons drama, part two is murdered-persons drama. And even though part one’s climax is false-alarm bathos, the slickness of her prose keeps the intrigue intact.

Nothing’s missing in this novel. Kooky characters will trade veiled insults with our take-no-shit protagonist with hilarious result. The obvious parallels found in the skeleton of the style (and parallels the press has gripped onto judging by the back-cover) are to Raymond Chandler and Jeff Noon. But comparing Beukes’ previous novel (Moxyland) to this one shows off re-invention and fluidity. Her style is her own. I’d urge everyone to buy a copy of this book, from one of my new favourite South African authors. Fuck J.M. Coetzee.

Best yet, Beukes really knows how to market herself. From unique collectable merchandise to a kicking South African soundtrack produced and distributed by African Dope Records to the trailer below.

Zoo City is available at all good bookstores.

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