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Zazen by Vanessa Veselka
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Apr 29, 2011

it was amazing
Read in April, 2011

When I saw video from the Japanese tsunami, it struck me how badly Hollywood gets it wrong when it comes to depicting disasters. Hollywood always shows bystanders standing in awe or running away hysterical, while the Japanese video showed people looking so sad at the sight of ocean waves flowing through their city streets. It’s that kind of emotional realism that drives Zazen, and what sets Vanessa Veselka apart from other novelists setting their stories in post-911 ‘life during wartime’-style landscapes.

The novel is from the point of view of Della, a invertebrate paleontologist working as a waitress who is obsessed by cases of self-immolation. Living under the anxiety of a pending war and bombs going off around the city, Della asks store employees to page her sister (who died years earlier) and starts calling in bomb threats to places around town. It’s a bent view of reality the novel creates, and you never know how much of it is Della’s creation. (Veselka is remarkably gifted at showing a warped world anchored by emotional realism.)

The bombings create a sense of community, though less with among the victims than those responsible, and after falling in with a crew of Baader-Meinhof type radicals, Della is pulled in different directions: alienation in one extreme and and connectedness in the other. She is also ineffectual at almost everything she tries, whether it’s leaving town or convincing the person on the other end of the phone that her bomb threat is real.

It’s a novel that reads like a tightly wound rock ‘n’ roll record, its world comes across like a Twilight Zone episode that keeps getting weirder and weirder, and ultimately, it’s a story about how hard it is to set yourself on fire.
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