In a nameless yet all-too-familiar city, where "box-mall-churches" and faceless plazas named after the banks that funded them rub up against vegan cafes, yoga studios, and a "mural of neighborhood black people enjoying gentrification," Della Mylinak thinks about what it would be like to set herself on fire. In her attic bedroom in her brother's house, she places pins in maps to mark where others have self-immolated and rips her mail to shreds to make a papier-mâché head of John the Baptist. She buys candy-colored prepaid cell phones in a mall kiosk and uses them to call in bomb threats that she has no intention of carrying out. Meanwhile, all around the city, actual bombs explode regularly. Della watches the catastrophe with detachment and a muted sense of panic, trying to decide what to do and whether anything can be done.
Vanessa Veselka's debut novel Zazen is, in some ways, recognizable: it shares traits with those familiar dystopian novels in which the world has gone to shit and an unlikely hero tries to wake everyone up. The city and greater society Veselka describes certainly fit the dystopian mold. Everyone around Della seems at best lost, and at worst disturbingly clueless. Two wars loom, foggy but menacing, in the background. Events that should be meaningful (like a bomb threat, or the shooting of two teenagers, or even Della's sister's death) don't move anyone to action; instead, a peripheral cast of characters stays mired in agony and navel-gazing.
But though the world of Zazen is dystopian, the typical arc of the dystopian novel doesn't fit, and Della is too evasive to be a typical "hero." And though Zazen also shares some similarities with Those Big Novels by the likes of Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace, where every other word is a brand name, the plot is somewhat elusive, and the protagonist tends to wade through all of it in a daze, the novel also doesn't really reside in that notorious boys' club that is postmodernist maximalist meta blah-blah fiction. What makes Zazen different, interesting, and also really hard for me to figure out is Della.
In this interview on OPB's Think Out Loud, Veselka says she "tripped over" Della, by which she means that she kind of stumbled upon her as a character and a voice and just couldn't stop writing her. I find that really interesting, because to me Della is completely mysterious, almost opaque, and sometimes maddeningly so. Her moments of acting out are so unexpected that they seem almost courageous, like when she calls in all those bomb threats, dropping the cell phones as she moves throughout the city like some secret agent in a movie, or when she leaves a party for her dead sister only to go straight to an all-night grocery store and have the customer service desk repeatedly call her sister's name over the PA. But for much of the novel, Della is somewhat frozen, observing without reflecting. I can't remember the last time I felt so deeply inside a character's voice without understanding her motivations one bit. Her admiration for the self-immolators seems connected to this tension between action and observation: it stems from the fact that the act is so definite, and those who accomplish it can seem so certain.
While Della may be hard to crack, the narrative she anchors is recognizable in a way that's off-putting, since it doesn't feel very good to recognize oneself in a world so jumbled and seemingly purposeless. It's also often very funny, though I found myself reading passages aloud to whoever was in the room and then stopping and rereading in my head to figure out why I laughed. I will say this: if you're a white, vegan, yoga-practicing feminist with tattoos and you live on Alberta Street or in the Mission or Williamsburg or wherever and you're really sensitive about that and unwilling to think about what it means to be all of those things, then for goodness' sake, do not read this book. But if you're a white, vegan, yoga-practicing feminist etc. who also believes there are many things really wrong in the world and you're often unsure of the best course of action to right those wrongs, Zazen will be a puzzling and compelling read.
And! If you live in Portland, lucky you: Vanessa Veselka is reading TOMORROW, July 21, at Annie Bloom's Books in Multnomah Village. That is such a cute bookstore. Go see her (and me, because I will totally be there, brow furrowed).