Zazen by Vanessa Veselka. Red Lemonade. 256 pp. $15.95.
Sicklied O’er with the Pale Cast of Activism
The messenger bag-toting, fortune-cookie-fortune-collecting Della Mylinak, waitress, trained paleontologist, and legacy “revolutionary,” does not approve—of anything, really. Despite seldom articulating specific arguments about politics, the economy, and society, she nevertheless suffers under a heavy dread about humanity’s general direction, particularly America’s. She lives in a Portland-esque enclave where she plates tofu scrambles, attends yoga classes, and obsessively researches historical instances of self-immolation, cursing big-box stores, malls, and churches alike. The arrival of something called a “box-mall-church” ushers in an understandably dark time for our heroine, leaving her little choice but to phone fake bomb threats around, hoping to spread her gnawing, panicked despair to local sports bars and office buildings. The moral calculus grows more complicated when her imaginary bombs start exploding for real.
Della narrates Vanessa Veselka’s debut novel, Zazen, and as I read I couldn’t stop feeling that Della would consider me part of the problem. I certainly can’t count myself as part of the solution, at least as Della’s loose community of pierced-and-dyeds, organic vegans, Latin America fetishists, and half-assed terrorists would define it. But what kind of a solution do they offer? Do I stand more than three purely aesthetic steps—a Goodwill shopping trip, a can of cheap black hair dye, a Prince Albert—from card-carrying membership in exactly the sort of band of youngish outsiders that, at least in a story like this, brands itself as humankind’s only hope?
I sense in Veselka’s writing a concern about just this question, a concern that periodically surfaces in Della’s flashes of awareness about her neo-hippified situation. The novel sticks within the physical and/or psychological confines where bohemianism meets D.I.Y. craftiness meets complaining about The Man; the rest of society—the hated mainstream, presumably—comes through only in the vaguest of impressions. Even when Della enters the belly o the beast itself—a stampede-like sale at a Wal-Mart—she mostly just stares at another hippie. No matter; she seems to have more effective bile for her own than her enemies, and her descriptions of her detached, dogmatic parents, mildly famous for something 1968-y, come in second to the stark savageness of the way she reports on her mercilessly pious brother’s hopeless grassrooting: “He made sure everyone who passed us had a lavender quarter sheet on sweatshops and fully understood the connection between gender and class.”
Can I call this satire? Entire chapters of Zazen nail the culture of youthful Weltschmerz-turned-aggression-turned-insularity with great precision. One particularly farcical minor character spends nearly the entire book organizing a pansexual orgy and berating others for their insufficiently rigorous veganism. Others organize “a benefit for a media collective that taught underprivileged kids how to make chapbooks.” Detail descriptions like “Her Nepalese bracelets clanked together as she reached for the tabouli” pass with some frequency. Yet Della’s panic about certain aspects of society feels genuine—as, on some higher level, does Veselka’s. Alas, Della’s angst could use precision. “I’m so sick of how they always win,” Della says. But who are they?
I suspect Veselka well understands the dangers of pointing the finger at they, just as I believe she understands the even greater dangers of wanting to tear down existing structures, literally and metaphorically, without having any idea what to replace them with. Everyone she encounters in the various ragtag clusters of activists, objectors, and opt-out-ers fixates on a different vision of the future (when they have visions at all) yet their fantasies are unrealistic: these Utopians generally nurture hazy images of block after block of nothing but housing co-ops, yoga studios, handicraft markets, sex-positive shops, and organic vegan diners—which, to me, sounds no less oppressive than a vast sprawl of sports bars, office blocks, and box-mall-churches.
As a distant backdrop to Della’s personal struggles, the United States government she so despises fights two simultaneous conflicts—”War A” and “War B”—with never-described enemies. Though possibly too neat an allegory for our present historical moment, it does offer a worthwhile parallel: the state may have locked itself in battle with a faceless, ever shifting enemy, but so have the leaflet-tossers, the gender-benders, the culture-jammers—pretty much anyone who has ever spelled America with a k and expected a result. Everyone sees bottomless wells of alien malice where none may exist. “Even though I hate it,” admits Della in one of her moments of clarity, “I am as entangled as everyone else and part of how one thing led to another.” There isn’t any they.
But that in no way reduces the seductiveness of a they—a single corporate greed-head, neo-colonial politician, or remorseless brainwasher of the simple masses—standing in the way of happiness. We do a lot of growing up at once when we realize that no one villain’s malice causes our discontent, though the confused shame of learning that lesson while still, in some sense, continuing to wish such a villain into existence never quite fades. That complex discomfort runs through Zazen; in coming to what may or may not be this realization just as shells begin raining down on her city, Della perhaps counts as a late bloomer in this regard, though one surrounded by those bent on never blooming at all.
Whenever they bloom, characters of Della’s breed surely star, by now, in enough books to constitute their own small genre. I must leave the judgment of whether she rises to the established standard of the contemptuous-of-the-mainstream-but-disillusioned-with-the-alternative protagonist to the disillusioned-with-the-alternative-but-still-contemptuous-of-the-mainstream novel’s aficionados. Suffice it to say, though, that for all Della’s moments of brashness—and they easily outnumber the moments when she turns her fierce critical faculties on herself —I look upon her personality as a writhing nest of doubts. This makes me like her better than would most any conviction, no matter how theoretically upright. Which isn’t to say that I’d want to hang out with her in real life, especially when she gets involved, late in the novel, in a plot to demolish a power station, a not too terribly complicated action nonetheless made almost ludicrous by the insignificance of its target. In the near-malevolence of this last-ditch effort to effect a societal change and if possible, believe in it, I see Veselka’s strongest choice about Della: even while appreciating the elements of the struggle within her, I don’t feel pressured to, in any sense, admire her.
Yet Zazen doesn’t read like one of those books whose author feels wholly obligated to publicly skewer her own youthful delusions, thereby attaining a higher level of seriousness. I have no reason to believe Veselka even considers the suite of notions she sometimes ridicules delusions, exactly. I smell a real love for “the independent coffee shop between outlet stores,” for “seed-based cheeses and zines,” for “the bright arc of social revolution,” even if no two people will ever agree on what an abstraction like that could mean in the concrete world.
Veselka writes with a refreshing lack of judgment about what makes Della hard to get to know as a person but easy to get to know as a vehicle for internal conflict. When Della moans about how she’s “sick of people acting against their own interests,” how she sees them “mooing about how to refinance the slaughterhouse,” I glimpse the root of her fury. Far milder versions of this sentiment, dialed down to plain exasperation, provide the stuff of so many ineffectual opinion columns, blog posts, and impassioned dinner-party monologues—forms of theater, essentially. This performative quality, I suspect, is what irks Della about her fellow nonconformists but also what she can’t resist falling back on whenever she gets a look at the outside world. But Veselka knows, and embodies in her protagonist, the unfortunate fact that you can’t come off as a real person and spread word of your righteousness to a hoodwinked world at the same time. Deep down inside, I think Della knows that too—and it drives her nuts.
Colin Marshall hosts the public radio program and podcast The Marketplace of Ideas. He also blogs at The War on Mediocrity.
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