Archive for December 6th, 2010

December 6, 2010

Starter for Ten: In which I discover the perfect quizmaster

On Saturday I read David Nicholls’ comic novel, Starter for Ten. It’s set in the 80s, and is about Brian, a young man who is earnest, lower middle class and a University Challenge fan. He gets into university (Englit) and makes it onto the University Challenge team. He also falls rather stupidly in love.

Nicholls is capable of being really funny. This, a few pages into the novel, was one of the passages that had me giggling and made me want to continue with it:
I think it’s fair to say that I’ve never been a slave to the fickle vagaries of fashion. It’s not that I’m anti-fashion, it’s just that of all the major youth movements I’ve lived through so far, none have really fitted. At the end of the day, the harsh reality is that if you’re a fan of Kate Bush, Charles Dickens, Scrabble, David Attenborough and University Challenge, then there’s not much out there for you in terms of a youth movement.

A few pages later a character is described as “carbuncular”. I was sold.
However, I think I’m just not cut out for comic novels where the protagonist (particularly a first-person protagonist)’s cluelessness is the butt of most of the humour. This was my major problem with Sidin Vadukut’s Dork, when I read it earlier this year. As with Robin Verghese, I spent most of the novel being irritated by Brian’s various idiocies. Even when he is being treated horribly by the woman he is supposedly in love with I’m hard pressed to sympathise – serves him right for being shallow and uninteresting. It’s a pity; as I said above, Nicholls is incredibly funny.
My other problem with the book is that there is not enough University Challenge in it. Quiz shows in general are things that make me happy, but UC is just special. The BBC does not broadcast it in India and this is something that makes me miserable on a regular basis. (I’ve tried asking friends in the UK to record each season for me. They refused to believe I meant it.) I could have dispensed with a good portion of the actual plot of the book if it were replaced with people answering questions.
Starter for Ten was made into a movie, Starter for 10, a few years ago. I have never seen this movie. But it has Rebecca Hall in it (and also Benedict Cumberbatch from Sherlock; this will become important) and is therefore presumably worth my time.
Another movie that involves education and a quiz show is St. Trinian’s. I’m not entirely sure how to excuse my love for this film – I’m inclined to think that anything that brings together Ronald Searle, delinquent schoolgirls, Stephen Fry, and Rupert Everett in drag cannot be a bad thing. I own all the older St Trinian’s films and they are a constant source of joy to me.
In St. Trinian’s a team of schoolgirls competes in a quiz show called School Challenge so that they can get into the National Gallery for nefarious purposes. Stephen Fry is the quizmaster of School Challenge, and he is excellent. Fry does, of course, have a long history with the quiz show.
Fry is soon to appear in the role of Mycroft Holmes in the sequel to last year’s Sherlock Holmes.
In Starter for 10 the quizmaster (Bamber Gascoigne) is played by Mark Gatiss. Gatiss plays Mycroft in the BBC Sherlock (the Cumberbatch version).
I’m not sure that this says anything profound about the character or about quizmasters in general – unless it’s that the sort of actors who look like they could play men who like a sedentary lifestyle and a lot of information also look like they could play men who like knowing things (and often also like a sedentary lifestyle). But it’s a nice little coincidence. It’s obvious that Mycroft Holmes would be the perfect TV quizmaster – if he could bestir himself to show up at the studio.
December 6, 2010

Lauren Beukes, Zoo City

I wrote a short review of Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City for Saturday’s Indian Express. It’s a fantastic book, and one that’s quite likely to be seen as a classic in the near future. I’d like to see more set in this universe (not a sequel – I think Zinzi’s story ends at the right place) because there’s a lot in it to play with. My IE piece focused on the genre elements of the book but there’s quite as much to be said about the familiars, the ways in which the familiars are discussed (the reason I can read the book as science fiction) and the way Beukes weaves other forms of writing into the text.

I think (and I’ve been trying to work this out since I wrote the review) that the one thing that stops the book from entirely blowing my mind is that it didn’t feel as if there was enough. I thought the causes of animalling and the Undertow deserved more exploration; not necessarily explanation, since as I’ve said in the review the not-knowing works rather well. Sometimes it was as if this potentially really great concept was warring for pagespace with a really tight, strongly plotted story. The story won, and while this wasn’t necessarily a bad choice, ideally the choice wouldn’t have had to be made. Judging by many of the reviews I’ve read I suspect that I’m alone in this viewpoint though.
Either way, it’s a smart, solid, good book. An edited version of my piece is below:

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Lauren Beukes is a South African journalist and writer. Her first book, 2008’s dystopia, Moxyland, was well-received. Zoo City, her second novel, is a fantasy crime thriller set in the city of Johannesburg.

Zinzi December is a former journalist. After the death of her brother (for which she is in some way responsible) and a spell in prison she moves into Zoo City, a ghetto in Johannesburg inhabited by other former criminals. Here she begins a new life and ekes out a living writing emails for 419 scams and helping people to find missing objects, which are all too frequently in the city’s sewers. The one thing she refuses to do? Find missing persons. Then a client dies and Zinzi is unfortunately on the spot. She’s persuaded by a pair of thoroughly unpleasant characters to take on the case of a missing teenage popstar, and from there on it all goes to hell. Thus far we have a reasonably typical (and rather good) noir crime novel.

Except that Zinzi carries a sloth with her everywhere she goes; her lover has a mongoose and her new employers are accompanied by a poodle and a bird of prey. In this universe, somewhere around the mid-90s certain people began to be accompanied everywhere by animal familiars. This “Acquired Aposymbiotic Familiarism” or “animalling” seems to happen to individuals who have killed someone, and though many theories are discussed in the book no one seems to know why it happens. The animalled are ostracized within their society and targeted by the police; the very presence of the animals confirming that they are guilty of something. Nor can you get rid of your animal by killing it – those whose animals die become victims of something called the Undertow (left undefined and all the scarier for it).
So there are elements of urban fantasy. And possibly science fiction as well; though very little is known about aposymbiotic familiarism, it is generally discussed with the assumption that there is a rational-scientific explanation for it. Beukes herself has suggested “muti noir” as an appropriate genre name, but then that might just relegate it to a genre of one.
Whatever it is, though, Zoo City is impressive. The text is interspersed with different sorts of writing – exerpts from music magazines, medical journals, gossip blogs, internet spam and even something that looks like an imdb page. Zinzi, with her tragic past, her (frequently amoral) survival instinct and a job that skirts quite close to “detective” makes the ideal noir protagonist.

As an outsider, it’s tempting to read almost everything that comes out of South Africa as being in some way about apartheid. In the case of 2008’s District 9, this was certainly justified, though it did somewhat draw attention away from the sfnal aspects of the film. In Zoo City the parallels are less obvious, but they are very present. A number of places in the city have a “policy” against allowing the animalled in. Zinzi and those like her are subject to greater scrutiny by the law and are restricted to living in the only area in the city that will have them.

Wider African politics are also woven into the plot, particularly in the form of Benoît, Zinzi’s lover and a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC. Zinzi herself impersonates an impoverished girl from the DRC (much to Benoît’s disgust) in the service of one of her 419 scams.

Then there are the animals. Fans of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series will be familiar with “daemons”, animals that exist as a sort of external manifestation of the human soul. Beukes namechecks Pullman within the text with a web page that references “Steering by the Golden Compass: Pullman’s fantasy in the context of the ontological shift (2005)”. Beukes’ familiars are different from Pullman’s daemons, particularly because they exist only for a marginalised few. But this makes the relationship between human and animal far more interesting – simultaneously resentful and (reluctantly) affectionate.

If Zoo City has a particular flaw it’s that its characters are not very likeable. Perhaps this is for the best, considering the number of awful things that seem to happen to them. Despite this Beukes’ book is intelligent, gripping and relentless, and I look forward to seeing what she does next.

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I’m a bit surprised that I’ve had cause to reference District 9 (a film about which I felt rather ambivalent) in two reviews in a row now.