“Sometimes I hate this world,” says Della, the narrator of Vanessa Veselka’s debut novel Zazen. “Especially when it’s more beautiful than I can imagine.” It’s a sentiment that will be instantly familiar to anyone who’s lived with depression, with anxiety, with the creeping sense of dread that sometimes can’t be killed with medicine or psychotherapy. You feel things both more, and less—the smallest sadness can feel like it’s threatening to kill you, and you go numb as a result. And it’s notoriously hard to write about, which is its own special type of cruelty—some experts believe that artists are particularly susceptible to psychological disorders.
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It’s hard to say what afflicts Della, a 27-year-old trained geologist who finds herself rudderless, waiting tables at a restaurant in a gentrified part of an unnamed city. She survived a bus accident as a child, and witnessed an unspeakable tragedy as a college student, and finds herself both sensitive and numb, living with her brother and sister-in-law and trying to make sense of the world. The world, as it happens, isn’t in good shape—a series of bombings have unsettled her city, and Americans are leaving the country in droves, terrified of what might happen next. She can’t decide what to do, and eventually settles on a surprising course of action that spirals out of control, threatening her city, her family and herself.
It might sound as though Zazen is a typical dystopian novel, a warning about the dangers of war, violence and consumerism. It’s not—there’s no trace of didacticism or defeat in Veselka’s stunningly inventive prose. And Della’s not a stand-in for the victims of the American system; she’s a fully realized and original character, a human being and not a placeholder. She’s as conflicted as any of us—more so, actually—finding herself contemptuous of, for example, an oldies radio station (“for being a mask of Christianity formed from revisionist musical portraits of the past”) and a benefit for a hippie media collective (“I couldn’t take it. Everyone was eating almond pâté”). She is tempted by violence, briefly contemplating a series of bombings, but finds herself unwilling to hurt anyone—when she witnesses a woman forced to abandon a doll she had bought for her daughter, following a mall evacuation, she’s devastated:
I could feel the woman’s grief at disappointing her daughter and her self-hatred of letting go of the shopping bag…And I could feel her daughter’s desire for the doll and her attempts to hide that desire so it wouldn’t make things worse and her overwhelming guilt for having mentioned it in the first place. I could feel it all. It was all suffering, all torque, a seamless garment of misery.
It’s a sad variation on the famous Charlie Chaplin quote: “We think too much and feel too little.” Della thinks too much and feels too much—if there is such a thing. Maybe there’s not; maybe it’s just too much for her. Life is never too much to bear, except when it is, and when it is, it can kill you.
It’s hard to write about Zazen for the same reasons it’s hard to write about despair, about pain and about redemption. And there are very few American writers who have managed to pull it off without sentiment or cliche. Veselka is one of them, however, and she’s bound to have a brilliant career. Zazen is a masterpiece. It is not just a novel about pain; it is a novel against pain.
Michael Schaub is the managing editor of Bookslut and a frequent contributor to NPR.org. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. A native of Texas, he now lives in Portland, Ore.
By Vanessa Veselka
Paperback, 256 Pages, $15.95
Released May 22, 2011