I recently decided to borrow Zoo from my local library on a bit of a hunch – I’ve been meaning to read more James Patterson plus the premise – of animals running amok on a global scale, akin to a zombie invasion – seemed somewhat intriguing; plus, I recalled a fairly good time reading The Great Zoo of China.
Zoo pits Jackson Oz as a discredited zoological expert who tries to warn the wider world about a strange phenomenon taking over the entire animal population of the planet known as human-animal conflict. The reasons for this happening are not clear and it’s a battle for Oz to first, be believed and gain credibility and, second, to work out how to combat this new phenomenon that threatens civilization.
So quite lofty ambitions – and the book certainly wastes no time in jetting the protagonist around the world to investigate this nascent phenomenon. I certainly didn’t discount the premise as I was driven to discover why animals across the world would change, like a light switch, to almost-instinctively attack humans with ferocious aggression – and to that effect, the action scenes depicting the attacks were quite gory and effectively achieved, with a sense of horror attached, too; especially when concerning the sudden change in domestic pets. There was something innately-horrific and quite disturbing in seeing a young boy cower in terror in a closet while his pet dog turns murderous – a real contrast of terror in usually-sedate suburbia emanating from a source that is known for being anything but terrifying. It’s the opposition of normally-tranquil settings and truly horrific changes to that tranquillity that I derive a lot of my sense of horror from.
My main source of disappointment with Zoo was with its entirely formulaic structure and rather predictable narrative. There was also the moderately-annoying tendency, as with previous James Patterson novels, to over-specialise in the brands of equipment used; I feel this does impart barriers on the narrative that needn’t be there. But the terror and peril was pretty formulaic, and the consequences of it were pretty predictable – the initial refusal to accept the “far-out” theory that is the reality behind the situation, the struggle to implement an effective containment and strategy, and the conclusion of that strategy played out quite predictably. The shallowness of a lot of the characters and their predictability did hamper the story, too; my main criticism being the classic, close-minded psyche attributed to the military characters and their railroading of the situation to fulfil their own predictably testosterone-filled adventure. Likewise, arrogant politicians and academics sneer upon the protagonist’s unconventional methods and lack of traditional qualifications – these are pretty standard tropes to apply to these characters and the mould isn’t particularly challenged.
Thematically, Zoo tries to tackle issues of the effect of industrialisation on the natural world, which is certainly an interesting take to adopt, but it’s quite blunt – the basic malaise that impacts the animals boiling down to mobile phones and car usage, which seem topical but I feel are underdeveloped and sloppily realised. And, too, the theme of human nature being unable to effect wholesale lifestyle change and essentially being doomed by selfishness is certainly a thoughtful one but, again, less elegantly executed in Zoo. There’s definitely some high-concept, thought-provoking material at the heart of Zoo but the execution, coupled with unremarkable and rather workmanlike writing, coupled with uninspired characterisation, shroud these for the most part.
That is not to say Zoo was unenjoyable – it was a fun and breezy romp with a premise that intrigued me enough to stay the course, but it’s certainly not pushing the boundaries of the “animals running amok” subgenre! However, to its credit I’d maintain that as a thriller it certainly delivers on a few moments of thrilling action and peril.
I’d be interested to see if the TV series associated with the book expands on the themes the novel lays the foundations for.
Buy Zoo on Amazon UK