Beautiful language builds the captivating apocalyptic world in Vanessa Veselka’s debut Zazen, the first title from new publisher Red Lemonade.
The literati have been impatiently awaiting the inaugural titles from Richard Nash’s new publishing venture, Red Lemonade. Nash spent most of the millennia as the editor extraordinaire at Soft Skull Press. He has the reputation as a “writer’s editor.” In fact, Jonathan Evison said of his time working with Nash: “He was a vast store of knowledge, so that the otherwise mystifying publishing process made sense. He champions work that might otherwise fall under the commercial radar, and he works his tail off for his writers.”
Our impatience is finally over. Red Lemonade’s released its first couple titles this season and among them is the fearless Zazen. Its author is first-time novelist Vanessa Veselka. She’s penned a dystopic romp through a ravaged America. It’s the best kind of imagined world because it’s one ripe with recognizable humanness amidst unpredictable narrative bends.
That humanity starts with Veselka herself. She offers no short-cuts for her characters. Instead, she courageously splatters them onto the page with all their strengths, faults, and biases. She trusts her reader to compile interpretations of what makes these people authentic.
The writing in Zazen is absolutely beautiful on a line-by-line basis. Often, authors fall into two distinct camps: those who write gorgeous sentences, but who can’t spin conflict-driven yarns, direct storytelling taking a backseat to narrative navel-gazing; on the other side are the ones who emphasize plot, building much more filmic stories, yet those authors never take the time to make each sentence stand on their own as pieces of art.
The lucky few are able to do both of these things simultaneously—think Denis Johnson, John Fante, Lynda Barry—and Veselka is one of them. “On the grave itself someone had pressed beads into the dirt. Hundreds of them sprinkled, set and flashing like pyrite in a creek.”
In lesser hands, symbols loaded with such morbid weight would be abused, pounded on like power chords in bad punk rock songs. Veselka, though, paints such things with a brush neither too light nor too extreme. She gives us enough so that the moments can be easily visualized, even when she renders scenes we’d rather not picture so viscerally. This highlights another of the book’s great achievements—the sublime dignity rendered while the world crumbles.
Zazen tells the story of Della, a precocious waitress at a vegan restaurant. She’s a thoughtfully caustic protagonist who is an absolute joy to spend time with. The camaraderie that the audience develops with her is essential, too, because the novel offers a grim view of the future. Yet as we push deeper into the book, it never feels like a slog. You want to flip pages, even as conditions worsen, spirits wane, hopefulness desiccates.
Veselka accomplishes this not only with the sheer majesty of her words, but also with humor. Yes, there’s a levity that buoys the book above the surface of other apocalyptic stories. “God is a broker!” says the guru from the Church of Enlightened Capital. “We are his clients. We each have a role to play in this free market…How will we invest?”
As Della wings tofu scrambles to her customers, bombs are going off all over town. Many Americans are immigrating to destinations deemed safer around the globe. Yet Della decides to stay—at least for now. Inexplicably, she decides to call in the occasional bomb threat of her own, trying to convince the person on the other end of the phone line of her threat’s verity.
The pacing of the book revs up once Della starts spending time with radicals. There are many fractured groups convinced of their own righteousness. They all have plans for how to get the country back on track. In these passages, it’s painful to recognize post-9/11 America, paranoia feeding preemptive violence leading to even greater devastation.
Veselka offers no easy answers for the chaos unfolding outside the characters’ homes. The allegory is that there is no allegory. There is no quick fix; maybe there’s not a long-term fix either. People search amid the bomb threats and explosions and dangerous terrain of everyday life for ways to persevere.
Bombs are always going off, she tells us. But there are also flashes of elation, even if they seem fleeting as compared to the mass of atrocities. Are these true solutions or commercial breaks? That’s for every reader to determine on her own. Veselka makes a cogent case that among the misanthropy, there’s love left in our bombed-out planet.
As Della tells us, “The world is a violent child none of us will get to see grow up.”
Despite that knowledge—or maybe because of it—Della is going to love life anyway, no matter the paltry life expectancy. That’s a certain kind of faith, one Zazen articulates with devastating acuity.