Monday, February 27, 2012

Zazen by Vanessa Veselka

Perhaps the best way to introduce Veselka's first novel is to quote the first three paragraphs:

I went to work and a guy I wait on said he was leaving. He said everyone he knew was pulling out.
"Canada is just not far enough. Mostly Mexico. A bunch to Thailand. Some to Bali."
He always orders a Tofu Scramble and makes me write a fucking essay to the cook. No soy sauce in the oil mix, no garlic, extra tomato, no green pepper. Add feta. Potatoes crispy and when when are we going to get spelt. He holds me personally responsible for his continued patronage. I hope he dies. I'd like to read about it.

We are in an unnamed western American city (San Francisco? Portland? Stockton?) sometime in the near future. The narrator is Della Mylinek, a 27-year-old graduate student at UC Davis. She is living with her brother Credence and his pregnant wife until their twins are born. "...Credence fell in love an got married although I think he secretly wants a medal for falling in love with a black woman. Our parents were so proud. Now, if I could only abandon my hetrosexual tendencies as uninvestigated cultural preconditioning and move in with some sweet college-educated lipstick-dyke bike mechanic, they could all finally die happy."

Della, I hope it's clear, has an attitude. She is trying to make her way in a society that appears to be breaking down--self-immolations, police brutality, rampant capitalism, bombings. She sees the ambiguities and absurdities and can be very funny. ("The [fund-raising] event was a benefit for a media collective that taught underprivileged kids how to make chapbooks.") She and her friends feel powerless and want change. She begins to call in hoax bomb threats to provoke action. Then bombs start going off at the sites she'd called.

So Zazen is working on at least two levels: Della's own thoughts and attitudes and how to bring about social change. While I'm sure Veselka wrote this before the Occupy Wall Street movement gained much momentum, I suspect the book could be read as a primer on the attitudes and feelings of the occupiers. And as a warning to the powerful that if change does not occur, the bombs will start going off.

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