Steve's Reviews > Zazen

Zazen by Vanessa Veselka
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's review
Jun 03, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: novels
Read from September 09 to 14, 2011

It took me a while to get involved in Zazen, and there was a pronounced difference between my investment in the first half of the novel and the second. The second half was so strong, though, that I ended up really liking it, and being challenged in the ways I like fiction to challenge me: it made me think, and not just abstractly. I was reminded quite a bit of both Joy Williams and and Helen Garner, especially Garner's Monkey Grip which is also set deeply within a particular countercultural milieu of a particular city (Melbourne, in that case). The constant tension of Zazen, the way neither narrator or narrative ever relax for a moment, was gripping if anxious, and the way protagonist Della is overwhelmed and mostly paralyzed by that tension was relatable and familiar and all the more uncomfortable for it. And there are some phenomenal, subtle descriptions of that alienation, a simultaneous, contradictory desire to be engaged in and removed from the world, like this one:
I crossed back over the river. On the water, the city upon the hill wavered, an inverted reflection, and broke into scallops of stuttering light as the sun set. I went to de-paving party once and watched people tear up a parking lot. I cried and cried because I’m a sap and it was so fucking hopeful I felt ashamed to even be there. I never let myself believe things like that can happen but I finally admitted that hidden in my scientist’s mind was a dancehall that I had kept shuttered. I forgot the prettiest fossils are worthless. All the important material eaten by crystals. I felt like that was what was happening to me.

While I wouldn't want to sap that tension, though, I did wonder if there was room in the novel to broaden its perspective at times. Being so entrenched in a particular socio-political set, and most of the characters from that set seeming fairly one-dimensional, became wearing after a while so I really appreciated the rare moment when we got a glimpse of an authorial perspective larger than character perspective. The most powerful of these was when a mother breaks down after buying a doll she can't really afford for her daughter then losing it in an evacuation from the mall. There's an acknowledgement that other people, the less radical and less hip and less "enlightened" (in the eyes of these characters), are also suffering and anxious and leading complicated lives. That insularity of political POV lessened quite a bit in the second half, and I think that — even more than the more active plot later on — is why I found it more engaging than the first, and why ultimately I liked the novel as much as I did.
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message 1: by Sarah (new) - added it

Sarah Etter this book is next up for me - really interested to read it after this review, sir.

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