“From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”
One of the first books released by Red Lemonade, the visionary new press brought to life by ex-Soft Skull patriarch Richard Nash, Zazen by Vanessa Veselka is a powerful, political, sometimes humorous, often frightening portrait of a parallel world that lurks in the near future in all of its dystopian glory. Della is caught in an emotional battle, deciding whether or not she should leave the country that is dissolving around her, or help to bring it down faster. Bombs are going off, but capitalism continues unabated. Unsure of what to do, Della starts calling in bomb threats of her own, targeting the companies and locations that offend her the most. When the threats start turning into actual destruction, she questions the her role in these events, the universe wrapping around her, burning martyrs and rat queens shimmering at the edge of her vision.
We start with the bombings. Communities often rally together to keep big-box bullies from pushing out small, independent businesses, but would you really wish destruction on them? How about death? Della considers the possibilities:
“When the first box-mall-church went up in the blackberry field I wanted some kind of rampant mass stigmata with blackberry juice for blood. It didn’t happen. It’s not going to. They win; they just roll, pave and drive over everything that’s beautiful: babies, love and small birds. On summer nights with the windows open I hear joints cracking like crickets.”
As her story progresses, she interacts with a motley crew of eco-terrorists, lesbians, hippies, vegans and posers. Della tries to come to grips with the changes all around her and the sense that something is happening, the world around her calling out, asking her to get involved. She questions her feelings and intuition:
“I wake up sometimes and feel the nearness of something but then it’s gone and I’ve started to wonder if it was ever there. Lately, I’ve become afraid that the feeling I used to feel, like something good was waiting, is what people mean when they say ‘young’ and that it is nothing more than a chemical associated with a metabolic process and not anything real at all.”
It takes her back to her childhood. She wonders if she has the courage to act, or if her words are as hollow as everyone else. She studies film clips and articles on self-immolation, the idea of a Buddhist setting himself on fire, unmoving as the flames engulf him, a noble act, but possibly a myth. War is ugly, death is never pretty, and the romance that is often associated with such actions, misplaced and false. Her memory:
“Once I burned an ant with a magnifying glass. It moved when it caught fire because it wasn’t trained to sit there. The straw it crawled on, its very own Popsicle stick palace, blackened and burned. You have to sit there or it doesn’t count. But it moved. That’s how I knew it was alive; that’s how I knew what I did was wrong. Little ant? Little ant? And me crying all night long with ash on my hands. Popsicle sticks. Matted straw. Grassroots. Hallelujah.”
Della has a conscience, as it turns out—a foreshadowing of future events.
Part of what fractures Della’s thoughts, feelings, and memories is the death of her sister, Cady, at a young age. When Della gets together with her family to honor her sister’s life and tragic death, we witness that moment in painstaking detail:
“There was a whirr of trees when the bus went off the cliff. I put my hand against the glass and green blurry streaks raced beneath my fingers. I imagine her in the thorny arms of wild blackberries singing. Mom used to say that we should look sadness right in the eye. I look Cady right in the eye, my older sister, thirteen, crying, tangled in metal, shining. I cannot turn away.”
The ghost of her sister would haunt her forever, shaping her decisions—a complicated tug-of-war ensuing between her mother’s calls to activism, her sister’s brutal honesty, her friends and lovers telling her what is expected, and her own belief system short-circuiting under the strain.
One of the reasons that this story resonates on the page is Veselka’s lyrical prose, her ability to ground the events in a place and time while also slipping into surreal moments (without explanation), events and scenes unfolding into emotional, dimensional tapestries. Take this moment with her brother, Credence:
“Credence sets his coffee cup in the sink where it turns into a silk moth, flies into a
light fixture, and rains down in a cascade of ash.”
And this longer example, speaking of her desire to leave, and how impossible it is for her to voice these feelings to her family, to explain her longing to go:
“…I don’t want to watch anymore. I can’t stop the bus from running off the cliff and the sea is already filled with lights. I don’t know why I can’t be one. I’m going to try. If I stay here I won’t be anything the Bellyfish could lean on, I’ll just be something they have to prop up…
… I would say: I am a pool of light, then flicker like sun on a swimming pool. I would say: It has already erupted. And then, dancing through the braided shadows on the basin, wait for the foliage to land in the pool water and make galleons and cutters out of oak leaves and elm. Then they would have to understand.”
But this novel is not without humor. Even if Della is laughing on the outside while crying on the inside, she and her friends find a way to joke about serious matters, to laugh as the city burns, striving for moments of normality while surrounded by chaos and threats. This, for example, her friend, Mirror, speaking:
“‘You know, that stupid cat never came back. I spent the whole morning shaking a bowl of Meow Mix like a fucking shaman.’”
There is a farm waiting for her, a friend named Tamara encouraging her to come and be a part of something bigger. Della considers it. She attends a sex party, and opts for the red bracelet, the one that means “all access, open to anything”. She buys plane tickets and considers fleeing the country. She doesn’t. In the end, the farm wins out. Her time there is spent doing mundane tasks—helping the commune to live off the grid. Eventually she is drawn into a smaller group of activists, and put to work utilizing her background as a scientist to help take down several electrical towers, finally acting on her desires.
But not everything goes according to the plans. There is betrayal and confusion, mistakes made, more tickets bought, passports stolen, and alliances broken. In the end, Della comes to terms with the war that is erupting around her:
“I looked around at the smoke and people. I couldn’t find any hate in me anywhere. The world is a violent child none of us will get to see grow up.
I decided to love it anyway.”
Vanessa Veselka has written an engaging, touching book in Zazen, one that leaves the reader saddened by the unnecessary loss and destruction. But there is still a grain of hope buried in the ash. Even in the face of such despair and loss, the human spirit can be retained—the love and kindness that separates us from being nothing more than simple, hungry beasts, a more powerful and lasting force than our base desires and endless wants. Written in a layered, poetic voice, Veselka has helped to launch a new press in Red Lemonade, creating a unique and lasting work of art.