I love cities. I might even love cites in fiction even more. I love when writers capture the movement and odd flavor of their particular city, how it moves, the districts and sociological rub of the different neighborhoods, the people on the Street, the people in the clubs, the people in the inevitable suburban strongholds bristling with entitlement and quiet. This book is many things, but foremost to me it's a love-letter to Johannesburg.
I don't know shit about Africa. I have a friend who builds schools in Ethiopia, a cousin who spend a year in Kenya, a facebook friend here and there, etc. I knew a guy from Jo'burg once, but I never really talked much to him, because he was dedicated and determined to seduce a roommate of mine to the detriment of my questioning. I can't say if the city in this book has anything to do with the real Johannesburg, whatever that is, but I was so enamored of the city the author laid out for me here: the afropop stars, the poor moving in from the out-country, the clubs, the suburbs, the refugees, the untranslated words from Afrikaans, the muti. Maybe my pleasure is a kind of literary tourism, where I get to pretend I understand a city, a country, through some words on a page when my only real image of South Africa, to date, is one of barbed wire and the word “apartheid” written in concrete.
Oh, did I mention apartheid? There's something here in this story about the way people are identified and discarded, ignored, plowed under. There's not a lot of explanation for this, but at some point, in our near history, people who commit a crime, result in the death of others, even peripherally, end up with a familiar, an animal, and a talent for something. The animal is the sign of shame, the outward manifestation of internal sin, and the author doesn't spend too much time trying to worldbuild this happenstance into total coherence. No one knows why yet; this just happens. It's treated like a plague at first, the Zoo Plague, but it is not communicable and clearly relies on magic. Good.
It's a first-person narrative, and our first person is a clear and ringing voice. She, like many of the animaled, as they are called, never really lays out exactly what happened to result in her having a Sloth on her back. She was a junkie; her brother dies; she has no real connection to her Former Life, except that she lives the opposite of it. She was a writer, she was a mover and shaker. Now she is nothing, using her talents to find lost things when in her Former Life all she did was lose things. The metaphor of the animal isn't drawn really tight, which is great. I kept trying to make this pigeonhole into a metaphor about race, or about poverty, or about apartheid in its concrete letters, but it kept slipping from me, going in odd directions, demanding to be seen from something other than the angle I was looking from. Wow.
So now for some digressions. My brother-in-law, in one of the most romantic gestures I've seen in while, posted on facebook that he was reading Erving Goffman's Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity for Valentine's Day. Aww. It's been since my college days when I read this, but it's a pretty cool tract about the ways socially damaged identities are managed in the public sphere. How some groups can pass, like gays or the deaf (depending on context, of course); and some groups can't, like those with dark skin (again, contextually, and Goffman was writing in the days before Teh Internetz, so he couldn't even imagine what could go down in public forums that leave our bodies behind in some ways.) How some are wise even if they aren't part of the identity in question. How some reject their stigmas and identify with the typicals (as “normal” has been re-phrased in some disability communities I'm aware of. I like it. Typical
.) How some become radicals. How parents respond, each in their own ways.
And for a sub-anecdote, once I was present for the best interchange between post-colonial people I've ever seen. It was between a Welshman, who, as you may not be aware, feel some bitterness about being taken over by the English in the 14th Century. Not all feel bitterness, of course, and we can all point and laugh about feeling bitter about things that went down half a millennium ago, but for my friend, who is a Welsh speaker and pretty dedicated to preserving the language and culture of his people, this matters. Anyway, he was talking to a Jamaican doorman for a building in NYC. He started in with the whole Down with England thing, trying to find common cause with this other man. The Jamaican leaned back on his heels, unconvinced. “But you're still part of the Kingdom, mon,” he said. I shit you not. Brilliant. My Welsh friend sputtered a bit, and then admitted that maybe being white and educated in the British system gave him some advantages over a Jamaican being raised poor and dark-skinned. Then they made friends, and were annoyingly chummy, but this layering of their roles, their placement within the post-colonial hierarchy, this had to be spoken first.
I guess I tell this story because there's something here, in Zoo City
, about people managing their different crises, their different public identities: a housewife who can hold her scorpion in her purse, who can pass when she goes to fill out forms for the other people with animals; the afropop star who pretends to have an animal to build his street cred; the stupid emo assholes who come up to our protagonist and tell her that it's okay to be animaled. Yup. Cuz you know, kid.
There were things I was not crazy about in this book. The ending is rushed, and I had a really hard time figuring out what was going on in a physical way in the final confrontation. You know, who was standing where stuff. Action sequences are hard, I know. The author relies way too much on the smartass simile. Sometimes it was funny, and sometimes it was way too writerly and made me look at the page and think, “Huh. I'm reading a book.” I don't like thinking this when I'm reading a book. But this is still a strong read, starting with the almost offhanded detective story that boils and boils into a paranoid plot that snaps hard with the Street and characters and things both said and unsaid. Good. Very good. And fun to read. Go to it, folks.