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Zazenby Vanessa Veselka
2012 Pen/Robert Bingham Prize for a Debut Work of Fiction
Portlander Vanessa Veselka has written a phenomenal debut novel that kicks ass and takes names. Zazen (which is set in an slightly alternate universe, but is still wonderfully and satirically recognizable as Portland) is a brilliant, moving, maddening, punk-rock novel that will give you fury and hope.
There were several books I liked this year that I expected to like (such as Murakami's 1Q84), but this book came out of nowhere and absolutely floored me. Zazen is a brutally honest story about the heartbreak that follows the failure of idealism. However, don't be put off by that description, as there is an astringent wit at play here and gallows humor on nearly every page, making Zazen the perfect manifesto for these Occupy (insert location) times.
Synopses & Reviews
Somewhere in Della's consumptive, industrial wasteland of a city, a bomb goes off. It is not the first, and will not be the last.
Reactions to the attacks are polarized. Police activity intensifies. Della's revolutionary parents welcome the upheaval but are trapped within their own insular beliefs. Her activist restaurant co-workers, who would rather change their identities than the world around them, resume a shallow rebellion of hair-dye, sex parties, and self-absorption. As those bombs keep inching closer, thudding deep and real between the sounds of katydids fluttering in the still of the city night, and the destruction begins to excite her. What begins as terror threats called in to greasy bro-bars across the block boils over into a desperate plot, intoxicating and captivating Della and leaving her little chance for escape.
Zazen unfolds as a search for clarity soured by irresolution and catastrophe, yet made vital by the thin, wild veins of imagination run through each escalating moment, tensing and relaxing, unfurling and ensnaring. Vanessa Veselka renders Della and her world with beautiful, freighting, and phantasmagorically intelligent accuracy, crafting from their shattered constitutions a perversely perfect mirror for our own selves and state.
"The deeply disaffected young woman narrator of Veselka's taut debut must decide whether to flee a dystopian America or try to endure it, and, in the process maybe help save it a little. Della is a waitress with an obsessive interest in self-immolation, a sharp wit, and a dwindling hope in humanity. When a bomb goes off in an office building in her faceless industrial city's downtown, Della finds that the distant wars the country's been fighting are coming closer to home. At first she considers leaving like many others, but then the chaos becomes attractive to Della and she calls in a series of phony bomb threats around town, taking big delight in watching people scramble from, for instance, a mall-church complex. But when someone starts setting off bombs at places from her list of 'targets,' Della realizes that she might be part of something bigger than her own absurd protest. Veselka's prose is chiseled and laced with arsenic observations, and though she unleashes some savage social satire, her focus is more on the hypocrisy, heartache, and confusion that drive Della and those around her. But don't be distracted by the chaos and disorder: Veselka makes a case for hope and meaning amid sheer madness. (May)" Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
"Vanessa Veselka is something like a literary comet: bright-burning, far-reaching, rarely seen, and a little dangerous." Tom Bissell
"At turns hilarious, unsettling, and improbably sweet, Veselka's debut is, above all, a highly engaging, and totally unique experience, which will have you re-reading passages and dog-earing pages. But best of all, in the end, Zazen is that rare novel which dares to be hopeful in the face of despair, and succeeds." Jonathan Evison, author of All About Lulu and West of Here
When there is nothing left to burn, Della sets herself on fire. At twenty-seven, she is stuck in the far corner of a parallel America on the verge of collapse, splitting time slinging tofu scramble at the local vegan-friendly diner and counting down the days until the impending birth of her brother Credences twins forces her out of his houses leaky attic apartment. She collects pictures of historic self-immolators and stares out the skylight of her room while TVs from across the sprawl spew war reports and Presidential battle plans. A breakdown a few years back has sent splinters through her buzzing mind, though something in her still hums with a mercurial urgency, flittering back and forth between fight and flight. Many of those close to her shuffle through the shallow rebellions hair dye, sex parties, gluttonous self-absorption of an ineffective counterculture, and while others join the growing people leaving their country behind for a life of escape and eco-tourism,” something quiet in her whispers the need to stay. But those bombs keep inching closer, thudding deep and real between the sounds of katydids fluttering in the still of the city night, and the destruction begins to excite her. What begins as terror threats called in to greasy bro-bars across the block boils over into a desperate plot, intoxicating and captivating Della and leaving her little chance for escape.
Zazen unfolds as a search for clarity soured by irresolution and catastrophe, yet made vital by the thin, wild veins of imagination run through each escalating moment, tensing and relaxing, unfurling and ensnaring. Vanessa Vaselka renders Della and her world with beautiful, freighting, and phantasmagorically intelligent accuracy, crafting from their shattered constitutions a perversely perfect mirror for our own selves and state.
About the Author
Vanessa Veselka (Portland, OR) has been, at various times, a teenage runaway, a sex-worker, a union organizer, a student of paleontology, an expatriate, an independent record label owner, a train-hopper, a waitress, and a mother. Her work has appeared in Bust, Bitch, Maximum Rock 'n' Roll, and elsewhere. Zazen is her first novel.
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