By John Clute
20 September 2010
It is dreadful to be here at last, here at the zero moment of history that lasts forever, now that Satan has finally touched down after aeons of fall, it is hell. It may be where William Gibson always knew his novels were heading, to that still point of the present case Zero History inhabits, sucked deep into durance: for the present of the world, with no near future riff to bring a breath of air to the page, is pure hell. Zero History is fatally touched by the present. The title of the book—which buries its predecessors, Pattern Recognition (2003) and Spook Country (2007), in cold ash—is cited, I think, only once in a tale so embedded in epiphanies of nada that reading it feels like staring at Medusa. A female Special Agent for the American Defense Criminal Investigation Service (DCIS)—estrangedly off-patch in a London so awash in evacuated sigils that it has become illegible—has been interviewing the most humanly appealing of the several protagonists of the new tale, whose name is Milgrim (c.f. Spook Country). Half-unwittingly, Milgrim has kept himself effectively invisible (which is to say illegible) for several years: no jobs, no taxes, no address, no expense accounts, no credit cards, no form, no sex, no walkabout, no pheromones. He has been in a kind of brown-out, and must now learn the furniture of 2010 (tweeting is a mystery to him, etc) as though he were a visitor to utopia. This, she says, means that he has attained "zero history." She is of course wrong: the visitor to utopia always finds a ticket to ride. Gibson means something else by zero, by history.
Even as late as 2010—65 years deeper into the progressive cultural amnesia whose dead-centre nadir point in 1945 the term "year zero" was coined to mark—it is pretty certain that Gibson means his title primarily to remind us of the state of Europe (specifically Berlin) at the end of World War Two: a point when it seemed that the long poisonous pogrom-sluiced suicide of twentieth century Europe had accomplished its goal, dooming its surviving inhabitants to spend the rest of their lives in a cenotaphic (which is to say evacuated) present tense, because there was no story left to tell. (The urge to reclaim history from amnesia—which sounds almost Marxist I guess: the Marx who saw that the end of exchange is pure nada—seems to me to fuel the late Tony Judt's magisterial Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 .) So distressedly does Zero History inhabit a world that Tony Judt could not reclaim in a mere book—especially in the terrifyingly unstoried first 200 pages, before Gibson's better-mousetrap instincts guide him to a neatish conclusion evocative of all his earlier closings of the gate against intolerable apercu—it seems a miracle it was written at all.
In his NYRSF review of Pattern Recognition, Graham Sleight justly notes "the terse and verbless terms which Gibson reserves for epiphanic moments," quoting from a moment when Cayce Pollard is brought to a state of ecstatic information overload by the sight of some footage from the fragmented video Hubertus Bigend has directed her to trace down. The heart of this footage seems to be a single "out-of-focus shot of a bird in flight: a noun with no verbs." But those were happier days for Bigend, for Gibson, for the world: days when an absence of the verb of story might expose, for an instant, the pure gape of an unexchanged world. In Zero History, moments when verbs all but disappear create, I think, something different: not epiphany but (literally so in the passage I'm about to quote) taxidermy:
To her right, in shadow, illuminated from within by an Edwardian museum fixture, stood a vitrine displaying taxidermy. Game birds, mostly; a pheasant, several quail, others she couldn't put a name to, all mounted as though caught in motion, crossing a sward of faded billiard-felt. . . . Behind them, anthropomorphically upright, forelimbs outstretched in the manner of a cartoon somnambulist, came a moth-eaten ferret.
In Pattern Recognition, a bird in flight, out of the frame, unentangled; in Zero History, a stuffed quail under glass. When the gape of the world is fixed, as it is here and in the long succession of despairing limnings of deathly embeddedness that follow this early passage, we have come to the dead silent still centre of a world that no longer remembers how to move, a world that can no longer be read. Zero History is not a story about the end of story; it is photograph of that death.
The story itself is obedient to this despair. Hubertus Bigend, mysterious potentiator of the previous volumes of this current trilogy, has no more personality this time round than his phosphorescent suit, which encloses him like a vitrine. His search for a stealth brand of clothing called the Hounds of Gabriel is ditheringly mundane compared to his earlier preeternatural urge to embrace/surround the bird no verb can pattern. Eventually the designer's identity is revealed—she withholds her name, but readers of Pattern Recognition will recognize her instantly: the readers of Zero History are permitted to make more sense of its moments of story than the inhabitants of zero history can—but this moment of traditional storytelling subsides instantly. Over and beyond Milgrim's attempts to parse himself, there is no story to drive the book, just as there is no near future any more to drive the world. There can be no true sequel to this dead stillness. Bigend, like Satan, has been left without a move to make. This is hell.
Zero History is full of intricate and rather marvelous descriptions of frisson-tasty bits of a world too close to grasp whole; and some hilarious moments; and an overwhelming knowledgability as regards clothing stuff. Its immersion in London is as spot-on and geographically exact as one expects of Gibson, whose figurings of the inner coigns of London have become, over the decades of his career, as inherently edificial as Iain Sinclair's. But this time round the utterands of London choke in their yarns like bugs in amber, for they are already deadish: for you cannot hear history when you are under glass. The death of history, being too much like life at this time, must have been terrifying to face. Nada is hell to describe. Zero History is as brave a book as its title demands of it.
Compared to Gibson's immured gaze upon a world he could not make up stories to exit, Lauren Beukes skates through the foam filth of the present like a waterbug. Zoo City may dive a little too glamorously into terrible high-rises and worse tunnels, and its protagonist (who survives the tale she tells) may wear her deformations and her scars and her cabaret presentation of self like war ribbons, and the present tense of the tale's telling may try a little officiously to shove our faces in the fleuve of the overwhelming nows of an alternate-2011 urban South Africa (Johannesburg is hardly exited), but throughout the horrors and the almost synaesthesical complexities of the scenes unfolded we get a sense of vigour, some of it irrepressible. The main joy of Zoo City is the energy of the thing, that it doesn't stop for breath until it stops for good.
The alternate world transform is laid in so casually that one might be forgiven the assumption that Beukes thinks she is writing a fantasy, but she is not, or not quite. Round about 1998, we learn via one single easy-to-skip passage, a "New York film student" who had transformed himself into an Afghan warlord brings the Zoo Plague—or AAF, Acquired Aposymbiotic Familiarism—into the world. Suddenly (I guess world-wide) humans who have (I think) been found guilty of a crime (or maybe have found themselves guilty of some terrible deed or thought) develop AAF, finding themselves irretrievably bonded to an animal familiar whose shape and behaviour paraphrase their humans' nature and deeds. Any undue separation of human and familiar causes anguish to both. Given the fact that she namechecks Philip Pullman, we can assume that Beukes wishes us to understand that she is channelling the human-daemon partnering so brilliantly utilized in his Dark Materials trilogy. This is in fact so clear upon the page that it gives absolutely no offense; indeed, the opposite: it makes Zoo City, which sometimes has a bit of an versimilitude problem with its material—there are moments when its protagonist protests a bit too much about the grime and guts and venality of the world she weaves her way through shouting—into a genuinely conversant text.
The protagonist, whose name is Zinzi, tells her own story in the present tense, a practice Philip Pullman, writing in the Guardian for 18 September 2010, clearly disapproves of:
"If I just relate now what's happening now," the writer seems to say, "I can't be held to account for it. It's the way things are. I'm just standing close to the action as it happens. I'm not editing or anything. It's really real."
Which may be a little harsh, though there are points in Zoo City when a conventional tensed paragraph of context-wonking wouldn't have exactly hurt; but Zinzi does usually carry the day along with her. The guilt, or crime, which has lumbered her with a Sloth, is that of not (I think) stopping the bullet that kills her brother. She now lives in Zoo City, a District 9 kind of slum where the "animalled" congregate; she has a psychic talent, that of finding things; she is suborned into looking for a missing teenage singer by a vividly unpleasant duo:
I'm obviously not remotely okay, because somehow I missed these two in the crowd—a gangly angel with huge dark wings and a dapper man with a Maltese Poodle dyed a ludicrous orange to match the scarf at his neck. . . The Dog gave me a dull look from the end of its leash and thumps its tail half-heartedly. Say what you like about Sloths, but at least I didn't end up with a motorized toilet-brush. Or a Vulture, judging by the hideous bald head that bobbles up and down behind the woman's choulder, digging under its wing.
The duo subjects Zinzi to beatings and chases and raw encounters with at least one ex-lover; during these ordeals she unpacks an exceedingly unpleasant mystery, involving a crocodile familiar and what seems to be chthonic cannibalism which may be magic, or props.
But maybe the main character of the book is the city. The urban world Beukes describes discharges in the reader's face with something of the interjaculatory insistence of worlds depicted by Paolo Bacigalupi or Ian McDonald, or for that matter Jerome Charyn when he is deep deep deep into Manhattan. Zoo City is exceedingly smart, though overwhelmed at times by plethora (a venal sin; Beukes's familiar is the Hummingbird that eats its body weight daily). The book bustles, it gives you a headache, it pulls at you like a new lover, it nags, it is not quiet, it is not dead yet, it feels proprioceptive to the world.
Long may she last.