Kurt's Reviews > Zazen

Zazen by Vanessa Veselka
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Aug 19, 12

Recommended to Kurt by: Chuck Palahniuk
Read from July 30 to August 06, 2012

This is a haunting novel about finding a place of deep peace as a response to chaos. I bought a copy at Powell's bookstore (during a vacation to Portland) because it seemed like a very Portland thing to do, and I had read a recommendation by Chuck Palahniuk, but I didn't really know what to expect when I started reading. I got something beautiful.

The book is a first-person account of a city (basically Portland, but referred to only as New Honduras, a nickname the protagonist creates because the name resonates for her at a number of levels) with plenty of disgruntled counter-culture but no real change. Normal people go about their lives, spending money in some form of worship at the box-mall-church of their choice. Lots of young people, though, the people who get to be full characters in this story, reject the mainstream, turning to obnoxious displays of veganism or overserious (and hilarious) orgies or endless idle chatter about getting away to some paradise in another country to live forever. Della, the protagonist, is emotionally wounded by taking in the realities of the apathetic darkness all around her, and she begins responding in earnest by calling in bomb threats. Perhaps if she can make Them as terrified as she always is, then something will change. The plot goes off in surprising directions from there, of course, which I won't spoil, but the emotion there is kind of the core of the book - what if domestic terrorism really presents itself as the only rational response to constant terror? How does a thinking and feeling person, not satisfied by anarchist philosophies and organic farm hideouts, really express her opposition to a system when she doesn't know exactly what she wants in its place? How does someone so powerless take control over her own life when she's so used to quietly going with the flow (an almost-complete advanced degree in an impractical science, a casual bisexuality, a reluctant attendance at a horrific annual family gathering)?

Veselka writes with an often-chilling minimalist style, dropping in plenty of little coded lines to (usually humorously) tap into whatever leftist political experience the reader has (I recognized some adaptations of Marxist slogans, and an occasional "Presente!" that I think is being used the same way I used it at a protest of the School of the Americas many years ago - but they're shorthand that won't distract an uninformed reader and will only enrich the narrative for readers who catch the references). I also love that Della's mental health issues creep in so carefully around the edges - Della may be describing a perfectly ordinary scene and then an enormous Rat Queen will appear out of nowhere in the middle of a paragraph and never be mentioned again. It's a beautiful reminder of our protagonist's pain and the urgency of her search for a lasting peace, even when she loses sight of the journey herself.

This is a fairly quick but powerful read. It satirizes ineffective Leftism along with ignorant Conservatism, all while putting the reader through an emotional wringer, even down to the end of the Acknowledgements section. I can't wait for whatever Veselka chooses to write next.
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07/31/2012 page 81
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