Vanessa Veselka‘s Zazen was an interesting read. The title itself implies a seated meditation, which I guess could be applied to the writing, though it is not an overt theme in the book.
The construction of this novel is rather lovely. Veselka’s turn of phrase is unique and I like how she renames people and things for a more fanciful feel: fetuses in utero become bellyfish, policemen are crickets, etc. It adds to the fact that the main character, Della, is not quite in sync with our world after a mental break she had when she was just out of graduate school. Since then, she has been living with her brother and his pregnant wife, imagining she hears explosions from the far off war while covering her walls in maps tracking self-immolation around the globe. After the bombs find their way to her city for real, she decides she wants to call in bomb threats of her own. For a little while, this thrills her, but that quickly fades. However, when someone actually starts bombing the buildings she’s threatening, the stakes are suddenly real.
However, even thought the prose was beautiful, I had some trouble grasping what the book was getting at occasionally. It seemed to be a novel criticizing not only consumer/American culture but also taking a hard stance on the extreme liberal movements against the corporate world. Della is the product of two parents who revel in the activist extremes, and her brother takes to the organizing and protesting angle with grace. But Della seems trapped in the liberal extremes–interested in their ideas, unhappy with their methods. But, all of this is buried behind a very unreliable and somewhat schizophrenic narrator.
Della is a woman with issues who does not see the world the way we do. And because her filter is so off-kilter, we cannot even tell how far off her world is from ours. Now, if we had an unreliable narrator, or a slightly differing world from ours, that’s one thing. Put the two of them together and it’s virtually impossible to tell what is real and what is not. Some people may enjoy this experience. I, however, found it off-putting. I would get distracted by how pretty the prose was and then realize I had no idea what the last three sentences even meant.
This is also the first book in a while were I felt the publisher could have done a much better job with the cover design and proofreading. The cover is unbalanced, with a title that is ridiculously sized and placed. And the amount of typos in the book is excessive. The worst section was two pages near the anti-climax where there were several typos together on facing pages. It makes me feel like they just missed proofreading those pages altogether.
Anyway, I think this book is worthwhile for an examination of the prose and structure, but, ultimately, it was a bit of a confusing disappointment.