Brian's Reviews > Zazen

Zazen by Vanessa Veselka
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Apr 15, 2012

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bookshelves: novels
Read from August 12, 2011 to January 18, 2012

This story of a young woman trying to decide whether or not to become a terrorist presents serious challenges to the reader. Della is an ex-graduate student, and her looping, logorrheic voice doesn't clearly spell out exactly what is happening in her world at first. Is she describing real things, or using metaphor, when she describes the explosions that keep happening around her in Philadelphia, or when she describes the police as "crickets"?

Gradually a picture emerges of a wounded, alienated young woman reaching adulthood just as American society is beginning to seriously collapse. Emigration is high, and she's trying to decide whether or not to accompany her lover to Honduras when she's introduced to a purple-haired siren at an underground rave; this older woman realizes just how disaffected Della is. What she does with this knowledge, and her proposition to Della, takes up much of the final third of the book.

If you're looking for a book that starts with a clear "terrorism is wrong" moral, this is not it. The evils of late capitalism are not debated here, but presented as real and obvious and serious enough to demand action. At the same time, there's a line beyond which Della refuses to let herself go; lines between property crime and physical mayhem are debated in ways that are not always comfortable for the reader. At the same time Della's brother and sister-in-law, with their candle-lit marches and impotent pamphleteering of a new Wal•Mart site, are a stark critique of today's left.

But this is not entirely a political novel. The fuzzy line between reality and fantasy in Della's brain, and the dynamics in her family, the hole left by her dead sister, make this at times an intimate family study. Della's mother appears for less than a dozen pages, but is almost a tone-poem of grief and self-hating despair.

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