Red Lemonade. 2011. 259 pp.
If you are looking for a mash-up between the Portland grunge scene, Red Dawn and the live-for-the-moment attitude of the Weimar Republic (as portrayed in Cabaret), then I have the book for you.Zazen by Vanessa Veselka is set in a parallel world which is remarkably similar to our own except this Portland-that-is-not-Portland is part of a nation suffering under the constant threat of war. Twenty-something Della suffers from pre-war malaise as she watches the nation lurch along on a path that no one seems to want and yet somehow can not be avoided (go figure). There are dark jokes and frustrations, idle bets about when the end will arrive and how and in the midst of it all everyone goes to work and shops and dances as if, well, it's 1999. (There is even a much discussed sex party that seems right out of Prince's party plan.) Della takes in all of this and the disconnect between business as usual and an inevitable harsh future leaves her poised on the edge of the madness. Her brother and his wife are expecting twins, her parents are hippies in their own little world and she might be having a decent relationship if she can rise to the occasion of falling in love but Della can not bear for life to go on as if everything is normal. As the pages turn, she falls to pieces and because Veselka is so good at writing this collapse, because her not-quite Portland is a dead ringer for our own and her almost-America is dangerously similar as well, readers will not be able to look away. This is a good thing though because the ride to the end is well worth every pain-filled moment. (I'll spare you now by saying it's an excellent, poignant and even hopeful ending-promise.)
Zazen is an ambitious novel; it seeks to comment not only on the dull foot-pounding inevitability of [most] war but also on the powerful manner in which humanity lets wars happen. In Della's world no one wants the war to come and yet they just can't imagine a way to stop it. In a diner right out of Alice with a surly boss, host of disenchanted employees and determined defiance against the "man," the protagonist waitresses, dates the cook and wanders in and out of conversations with customers on how the war will start. Long suffering from a trauma in her past, Della eyes everyone around her with a cold sensibility but tiny fractures continuously appear in her behavior until she breaks apart in a spectacular fashion and finds herself calling in fake bomb threats and even more disturbingly joining a cult of wannabe terrorists. Through each step she takes on the path to card-carrying militia member, Della manages to act so rational that you wonder if she is really having a breakdown and further, you can't help but admire her for at least doing something which is Veselka's point. Who's crazier after all, the ones who go insane or the rest of us who keep on going to the mall like it's just another day and more importantly, who do you want to be?
Ultimately, Della has a reckoning as the reader know she will but don't expect Veselka to let her or you off easily. Zazen is about the world turned on its ear and you have to buy a ticket on this ride all the way to the end, through every twist and turn along the way. It's consumer culture, it's the horrors of mass-produced religion (again), it's the disconnect between what is happening and how it came to be. You know that moment in the beginning of Red Dawn when the paratroopers arrive and no one knows what is going on but suddenly, with what seems like no warning, war rains down on the kids in the high school? Well Zazen is like that, a book about just another day and another and another and then, tick tick boom and we all fall down. Wow.
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