KR OnlineReview

Among the Ash-heaps: Vanessa Veselka’s Zazen

Brooklyn, NY: Red Lemonade Press, 2011. 256 pages. $15.95.

ZazenIn Vanessa Veselka’s debut novel Zazen (the first publication from Richard Nash’s Red Lemonade) there are two concurrent wars: one in the parallel America of Veselka’s creation, and one inside the mind of her fervent narrator, Della. That the war inside Della is never fully explained might be a testament to Veselka’s willingness to honor her narrator’s confusion and frustration. Della is striving for something new: a community of people willing to make change, no matter the cost. She seems representative of the socially-charged and independent aesthetic that Red Lemonade has been cultivating in its online offerings. Their website allows readers to access entire manuscripts, making annotations and comments, and for writers to post their own work in progress. It’s a risky undertaking for the writer and publisher (Nash was the longtime editor of Soft Skull Press), believing that literature has suffered from a lack of inclusion yet banking on the goodwill of visitors to the site to purchase the books for their own library. With that in mind, Zazen’s readers will want to return to it in years to come, if only to hear Della’s voice.

Della is an unpaid paleontologist who works at a vegan diner called Rise Up Singing—where we encounter the more enduring characters of this novel. She waits on Ed, Logic’s Only Son; his nemesis, Mr. Tofu Scramble; Mirror, a tofu-munching co-worker; and Jimmy, an old friend of Della’s, who quickly becomes a love interest. Some are working to get out of America, or, as Della terms it, “The New Honduras.” Others are so desensitized to their surroundings that they won’t ever leave. “Sometimes I hate this world,” Della says early on in the novel. “Especially when it’s more beautiful than I can imagine.”

Veselka is at her best when she’s expressing Della’s extreme bitterness about the world, and the desire to get rid of it. When Della enters a yoga studio to see about taking a class and encounters the instructor, Devadatta asks, “Can I help you?” Della replies: “Yes. I want to look like you. I want to be so thoroughly anchored into some sort of pop culture aesthetic that nothing can knock me over or wash me away or make me hate everyone. I want to sleep again.”

Della is not unlike the many over-educated late twenty-somethings of contemporary America: angered by a corrupt world, conscious of a need for change, with no idea of how to make change happen. People are leaving for Canada, Bali, Thailand. Jimmy is on her way to Honduras. But Della cannot leave without testing herself against the paradox that powers the world in which she lives: “I didn’t know what I was doing. I did and I didn’t. If I was really leaving I wanted there to be some kind of record showing exactly which side I was on, even if I was the only one who knew about it.”

The dramatic tension in the novel escalates as Della begins calling in bomb threats. “I’m going to make them feel what I feel,” she says. First a sports bar, then the “box-mall-church.” She finds pleasure in the chaos she creates, in a certain kind of unity falsely expressed: “I was laughing so hard my jaw hurt,” she says.

Della’s laughter, like many of her reactions, is a defense against the revealing of her inner self. In one of the weaker moments of the novel, Della’s activism is revealed to be a projection of her guilt surrounding the death of her sister, Cady, who was killed in a bus crash. Her parents, Grace and Miro, have the family over every year for an anniversary of her death. It may seem necessary to know Della’s past in order to understand her bitterness, but in this case, the inner conflict doesn’t mesh with the outer. The anniversary of Cady’s death serves only as a way for Veselka to detach Della from her lover and move toward a new plot point: bombs are going off—at malls and corporate parks—but Della is not responsible.

Enter Tamara, a woman with lavender hair, and a member/leader of a group of counterrevolutionaries called “Manifestation.” They may or may not be responsible for the bombings, but they do have a farmhouse out in the country where they are concocting a plan to bomb the local Walmart. Della is reluctant to join the group. She has bought her ticket for Tegucigalpa, yet this is an opportunity to be a part of a real threat to the “franchise of nations.” Likewise, Tamara is a reminder of her sister, Cady, offering her a chance at redemption.

If the rest of act three of this novel gets muddled, the reader can trust that this lines up with the significant question posed by Veselka and other authors who have taken on the dystopian look of America: how does one find beauty in so much destruction? What separates this novel is the way Veselka honors the complexity of a young, intelligent generation at once confused and overwhelmed, but willing to enact change. Della’s strength is her individuality, yet she understands that in order to create change, no matter how small, she must choose to join. “Every generation gets to decide its own relationship with the universe,” she says. “And whether I liked it or not, this was my generation.”

Just as Della hopes to affect change at the precipice of a new, confusing era, Richard Nash of Red Lemonade is venturing to change how we talk about books. Zazen is a satiric examination of the real and perceived boundaries of activism and idealism in twenty-first century America, but offering this book on the web free of charge is its own idealistic challenge to readers—and to the publishing world as a whole. It is often the lesser-known entity with a grand idea and the willingness to act that causes the established to change and follow.


Patrick Dacey's fiction has appeared in Bomb Magazine, Greensboro Review, Guernica, Salt Hill, Washington Square Review, and West Branch, among other publications. He is currently seeking publication for his first novel, Language of the Dead. He lives in Richmond, Virginia.