Very mixed feelings about this one. Zazen is the kind of nihilistic, meditative tract that a lot of people rave about. Vanessa Veselka definitely examines a lot of the paradoxes inherent in the way some adults conduct themselves during those often aimless days after school and before middle age. At the same time, I did not have a good time reading this, and I never really enjoyed any of the characters. But I do wonder how much of that is the book and how much might be my own internalized literary misogyny….
Della Mylinek has a PhD in paleontology but doesn’t know what to do with her life. So she has moved in with her brother and his wife, works at an ostensibly vegan cafe, and half-heartedly engages in the pseudo-radical discourse of the people around her at work and in her life. After witnessing the thrill of bombs, both real and threatened, Della decides to call in her own fake bomb threats—at least, she thinks they’re fake, until some of them turn into actual bombs.
Zazen is supposed to be, I think, a commentary on the way we often feel impotent in a supposedly democratic society. Our society has been co-opted by the power of corporations and the mega-rich. To compound the issue—and this is really what Veselka tries to get at—the grassroots efforts to help individuals band together to put pressure on governments and corporations are themselves often co-opted or fragmented. Veselka portrays this in the way the various characters around Della interact, alternatively working together and arguing about the best way to resist, the best labels to use, etc. Della is extremely cynical, having grown up in a leftist household and then having steeped in academia for a decade. So eventually, as she finds herself more and more drawn to certain radical elements, she has to consider what she really wants: does she want to stay, to leave, or just … do something?
I had a hard time getting into this book, because Veselka never seems to establish why Della begins drifting towards such extreme actions. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’ve been where she is, but I’ve felt a similar type of ennui, I think, and I definitely have friends who have been in Della’s shoes—and as far as I know, none of them have entertained bombing a power substation. While I don’t reject the notion that someone like Della could become radicalized, I just don’t see it in the way she is portrayed here. She’s just bored and aimless.
“Bored and aimless” kind of describes my overall reaction to Zazen. Much like its cover, this entire book feels dreary and washed out. That isn’t a comment on its quality per se—I actually think the writing here is rather good—but its tone. This isn’t the kind of book to be reading during a rainy end-of-summer week, and the fact I wasn’t that sympathetic towards its protagonist doesn’t help.
Yet a part of me wonders whether I would be this critical if this book had a man’s name attached to it. Veselka’s writing reminds me a little bit of Douglas Coupland’s, for instance. It’s true that I’ve largely moved on from Coupland after really enjoying him in my impressionable years of high school and university, but I still like aspects of his writing. So maybe part of it is an age thing, and I’ve just outgrown my personal phase of enjoying coy commentaries on the dystopian aspects of our modern world. Still, I suspect I would unconsciously tolerate this type of prose from a male author more so than a female author, because we’ve been socialized to take men more seriously, and it behoves me to recognize that I have these biases.
Zazen is the kind of book that will appeal, I think, to a certain type of reader—I realize this is a kind of tautological declaration, but bear with me here. You’re going to know if you like it when you read it, and you’ll know fairly quickly. I don’t think it is overly pretentious, but it is close proximity to pretentiousness. Sometimes that works for me and sometimes it doesn’t (for a variety of reasons), and in this case, I’m coming down on the latter side.