Identity is a very fragile and ephemeral concept, and the philosophy surrounding identity fascinates me. If, in the immortal words of Ke$ha, “we R who we R”, then who we are differs depending upon whether we are alone or with people, with friends or with enemies (or, if you are Ke$ha, with frenemies). We perform identity, wearing it like a costume. But it’s not something we entirely control. Identity is not so much a costume as it is a negotation between two entities, for part of my identity is not just what I seem to be but how others see me and interact with me.
Now imagine that with a sloth clinging to your back as an external manifestation of your complicity in someone’s death, and you have Zoo City.
Lauren Beukes returns to Johannesburg, South Africa in her second novel, but it’s not the same city. Instead of a tour of a corporate-dominated near future, Beukes spins a bit of alternate history our way. Magic is real, albeit not as potent as some people might like, and it’s never more obvious but with the zoos, animalled, or—if you are feeling polite and politically correct, the aposymbiotic. People who are guilty of another person’s death—i.e., murderers—become spiritually attached to an animal. They can’t stray too far from the animal without suffering great pain. And if the animal dies, they are consumed by a cloud known as the Undertow. The animalled, or apos, are thus identified as murderers beyond the shadow of any doubt, and are treated like outcasts.
Zinzi, our intrepid narrator, has a Sloth. It could be worse—at least she doesn’t have a carnivore, which I think would be more of a burden—but a Sloth is kind of a handful to carry around at times. Beukes implies that Zinzi’s complicity is not entirely with malice, thus establishing our otherwise downtrodden and morally ambiguous protagonist as someone who is, if not righteous, capable and worthy of redemption. Zinzi struggles to earn a living using her shavi—if you get an animal, you also get a minor superpower to go with it. Zinzi can find lost things, so that’s how she makes most of her money. In her downtime, she reluctantly composes new email scams for a company to whom she owes quite a bit of money. She gets involved with some even more unsavoury characters, like you tend to do, and that’s where the story becomes interesting.
From thereon out, Zoo City becomes a spiralling descent into the dank madness of a divided city. Beukes’ economy of exposition and keen ear for dialogue and characterization are an asset here. I found this Johannesburg and this cast far more bearable and likable than Moxyland’s. I could sympathize with Zinzi’s plight and genuinely wanted her to succeed, cheering for her resourceful resilience and sighing whenever she suffered a setback. The plot is of the type that doubles back and folds up on itself several times over, which is not to say that it is too complex, but Beukes has skillfully tangled the various threads.
On the one hand, this is a missing person mystery, with Zinzi in the role of lead private investigator. It has all the hallmark archetypes prowling its pages: the shadowy kingpin who both hires Zinzi and poses her a threat; his nefarious henchmen who are Zinzi’s untrustworthy allies; the love interest, whose relationship with Zinzi is far from one-dimensional; and so on. On the other hand, Beukes explores some of the ramifications of her magic and what it means to have an animal. In particular, the book takes a very sharp turn towards the end, after the mystery part is largely resolved, and Zinzi finds herself on the run for a crime she hasn’t committed.
The twin motifs of guilt and innocence are huge here in Zoo City, for they compound that problem of identity that Zinzi and every other person with an animal feels. Nowhere does Beukes so clearly portray this as with Zinzi’s sometime-boyfriend Benoit. He has a Mongoose, and eventually we learn how he got it—the action of a terrified nineteen-year-old in genocidal Rwanda. Like Zinzi, he bears an external marker of his guilt—but does that make him a bad person? Benoit discovers his wife and children might still be alive in a refugee camp outside of South Africa, so he resolves to leave Zinzi and find them. Not only does this alter their relationship irrevoccably, it sets up an ending that is both poignant and nearly perfect.
As I mentioned earlier, Zoo City takes a sharp turn two thirds through. Just as it seems that the plot is winding down, Zinzi stumbles on to a larger game as people try to get rid of their animals (without dying themselves) in a particularly gruesome and costly manner. I’m not a fan of this transition, because it felt jarring. Beukes puts enough foreshadowing earlier in the book that this additional story element doesn’t seem entirely out of place. But I wish it had been developed more gradually instead of suddenly exploding into the foreground in the last part of the book.
Nevertheless, Beukes make up for it in the ending. I love the ending. It’s quite possibly the only way Beukes could have ended the book in a manner that is happy yet costly for Zinzi, which is exactly the balance she needed to strike. For Zinzi to escape these events completely unscathed would have been unrealistic and thematically unsatisfactory: after all, Zinzi still has to redeem herself for her actions as a scammer. Yet she is, I remain convinced, a good person who deserves that chance—and a chance is exactly what Beukes gives her. At great personal cost and with no promise of success, Zinzi sets out to fill in for someone else, just as that person made a regular habit of filling in for another.
Because it all comes back to identity. We aren’t who we think we are; we are our actions. This is the truth Beukes exposes through Zinzi’s voice and decisions. Despite all the prejudice and hardship Zinzi endures as an impoverished, animalled Black person in South Africa, she realizes that there is one thing no one else can determine about her life: what she does. Other people might judge her and construct their own versions of an identity for her, but that can never rob her of her ability to act on her own beliefs and convictions. In Zoo City, Beukes hands us a protagonist with blood on her hands and a Sloth on her back, and in so doing she tells a story about a woman who reclaims her freedom to be who she wants, not who others expect her to be.