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Post-Apocalyptic Dystopia? Or Just Reality?

Zazen has been called a dystopian novel but I respectfully disagree. Dystopia is entwined with totalitarianism and depicts a future where individuality is pathologized. In Zazen, individuality is the drug. Personality preferences are given so much primacy that no one even knows what "real" is anymore because it's all just a matter of perspective. But then again, maybe that is my own sense of dystopia. Still, the great dystopic novels — 1984 or Brave New World or A Clockwork Orange — feel different because they are terrifying, elegant and sterile.

And what about the term "post-apocalyptic dystopian fiction?" Dystopic is different from apocalyptic, yet they are often treated interchangeably. Maybe we should dispense with the "post" part. When I envision a post-apocalyptic world, I see an anaerobic ocean soup, flat as a lake, with space wind rippling the surface waters unimpeded by the interference of ozone.

Sea currents slow to a stop. Cyanobacteria fight it out for a penthouse in a stromatolite.

Nothing. Endtimes. Brave New Bacteria.

Okay, so that's a little extreme. Which is really what I think people mean when they say Zazen is a dystopic, apocalyptic novel. They mean it is extreme. The world of the novel is a place where temp agencies are called "Brass Ring Employment Solutions" and vegan neo-hippy restaurants are called "Rise Up Singing." Some readers have asked me if that's really their names or just the narrator's language. My gut response is, who cares what they're called, that's what those places are. All along, I was looking for the language of essence.

Princess Mononoke, Hayao Miyazaki (via unrealitymag.com)

Over the years I have been deeply affected by the movies of Miyazaki as well as novels that came out of WWI and the novellas of Conrad approaching it. So what if I see Kurtz' compound while in the Denver Airport Starbucks — that's just my natural proclivity. But it doesn't mean it isn't true. In fact, I'm pretty sure the Denver tarmac is surrounded by shrunken heads on pikes.

Woodcut illustration by Hans Alexander Muller

The truth is, I imbued Zazen with my most fervent hopes. And hope is as dark as it gets. Della, the narrator, is not cynical as much as broken-hearted. I guess since the things others find funny, I often find depressing, it only makes sense that things some see as terrifying, hold for me incandescent possibilities.

Image credit: Steven Haddock

÷ ÷ ÷

Vanessa Veselka is a writer and musician living in Portland, Oregon. She 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, Maxmum Rock 'n' Roll, Yeti magazine and Tin House. Zazen is her first novel.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Zazen
    New Trade Paper $15.95
  2. A Clockwork Orange (Norton Paperback...
    Used Trade Paper $6.50
  3. Brave New World (P.S.)
    Used Trade Paper $9.50
  4. 1984 (Signet Classics)
    Used Mass Market $4.50

Vanessa Veselka is the author of Zazen

One Response to "Post-Apocalyptic Dystopia? Or Just Reality?"

    Cassandra May 25th, 2011 at 10:04 am

    "Dystopia is entwined with totalitarianism and depicts a future where individuality is pathologized," errm, I don't think 'dystopia' necessarily implies totalitarianism -- just that the 20th century (over which the spectre of totalitarianism loomed particularly large) had some notable literary dystopias, as you've already pointed out.

    As for individuality being pathologized -- hell, lady, Zazen (great book by the way!) pathogizes individuality... I mean isn't the personality, the ego, and the shedding (or need to shed) of the ego hinted at right there in the title? But I understand your point -- in the classic dystopian vision, personality is a menace to the smooth functioning of lockstep society -- in Zazen we get the flip side, the consumer culture saturation of choice... but it is still pathology... bleach and acid both burn the flesh though they come from opposite ends of the pH range.

    Cormac McCarthy's The Road is dystopian as hell and there's no totalitarianism in it -- just the dictatorship of simple human biology -- gotta eat to live. Total ecological collapse, that's the dystopian vision keepin me awake. Hey, this just in (really, it's on the wires today): Colony Collapse Disease continues at 'unsustainable' level. Honeybee's -- pollinators of something like 1/3 to 1/2 our food supply -- continue to die off, globally, at a frightening pace. The cause, as far as anyone is able to tell thus far, is a combination of stresses produced by contemporary global human anti-eco culture. One commentator I read mentions: hey, since changing would require us to give up cell-phones and coal-energies and etc. etc. and since WE CAN'T DO THAT (my emphasis) we need to find 'alternate pollinators' --
    That human ability to kick the can down the road. Someone who doesn't understand that bee die offs are just one of the multiplying symptoms of serious global ecological stress. When it (the ecology presently sustaining some billions of us) breaks down (and I so hope it won't) humanity will pay a terrible cost in suffering.

    Off Zazen's topic I know, but it is on topic of dystopia in general, eh?

    Freaking me out lately: The breathable atmosphere is about 5 miles thick -- 5 1/2 miles! How far away is five miles? That's how far up you can go before you run out of air. You could ride your bike that far in 30 minutes. That's how much air there is. Earth is largish, but outer space is really close. We live in the slime coating a marble. Outer space officially starts 62.5 miles up. East Hampton is farther from NYC than outerspace. (There's a joke there somewhere). There's this thin layer of air on the surface of the earth, the exhalation of algae's and grass and trees. It's scary thin.

    We're all so f'd.

    I see myself telling Della all this over some spelt french toast at Rise Up Singing. I belong in that novel. Della would be into me, I know it.


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