Kissing the Hems of Ghosts: Vanessa Veselka’s Zazen

June 2, 2011 | 1 book mentioned 5 3 min read

coverIn simplest jacket-copy rendering, Zazen, by Vanessa Veselka and released recently from Cursor/Red Lemonade, is the story of a young woman’s attempt to come to terms with the world around her, even as it seems to fall to pieces itself. The narrator, Della Mylinek, is a twenty-seven-year-old paleontologist-cum-waitress, slinging tofu scrambles in a vegetarian restaurant called Rise Up Singing. The novel takes place in a fading industrial city that bears striking resemblance to Portland, Oregon, in a time of social and political unrest not drastically unlike the present. The people with whom the narrator surrounds herself (primarily her coworkers at the Rise Up Singing) are of the socially and politically fashionable counterculture, more interested in funky hairstyles and protest sex than any kind of organized political action.

Della, raised by aging radical leftists, feels at times sympathetic to these new-age revolutionaries and at times put off by them. Every act of rebellion in Della’s circle, whether social, political, or violent, seems motivated by some level of concern for appearance, a desire to be fashionable in resistance. Perhaps as a rejection of the politics of fashion, or perhaps because she’s better suited to operating alone, when Della makes the first move in her own personal rebellion, she starts small and keeps it to herself.

I looked up the number of the sports bar and called in a bomb threat. I don’t even know where the idea came from. When the bartender answered I told him they were all going to die in multiple explosions in the fourth quarter. Then I went and looked through the windows to see what would happen, but nothing did. They were pink and bored.

Not long after Della’s flop of a bomb threat, a real bomb goes off in the bathroom of an office building downtown. This will be the first of many. No one is hurt and the self-styled revolutionaries populating Rise Up Singing trade rumors as to who is responsible for the explosives and the political goals behind them.

Mitch, the cook, thought it was eco-terrorists for sure. Kelly, the fill-in dishwasher, agreed but then they split over whether it was an anarcho-primitivist cell or the Redwood Action Collective. That’s how the betting pool got started. Mirror put each theory up on the “Specials” board as it came in and collected the money. By dinner she had erased the board twice, each time, writing smaller so it would all fit. As the list grew, I began to notice something. Everybody had a pretty good reason to blow up a building.

Excitement, and terror, mounts and the explosions and general upheaval serve to mobilize and inspire a radical underground resistance movement to which, by accident, Della eventually finds herself inextricably connected. She will be forced to decide her role in the revolution.

I started reading Zazen by marking the passages I might want to mention in my review. I circled interesting paragraphs, drew boxes around my favorite lines, dog-eared every third page. A quarter of the way through the book I had to put it down for a day or so and when I picked it back up I realized what a mess I’d made. The first fifty pages resembled a term paper returned by a very approving teacher with abhorrent handwriting and excessively cryptic shorthand. It was no way to read a novel. I forced myself to drop the academic approach, to settle in and enjoy the ride. I made a few notes here and there, but mostly I just read the thing.

Leafing back through the pages, I find that a common thread in my markings, check marks, and boxes is an appreciation of the places that Veselka could have taken jabs at the secondary characters, could have drawn unnecessary attention to their shallowness or made jokes at their expense. Of course, as narrator, Della has her share of commentary, but Veselka gives all her characters space to exist on their own terms. If you’ll excuse a writing workshop cliché, she gives them the rope, and while some characters end up hanging themselves, others use it to climb upward instead. These are, in some ways, pretty reprehensible people (even Della isn’t necessarily someone you’d want to have over for dinner with the family), but the characters are all rendered with respect and humanity that is more than admirable in a literary and media culture that sometimes seems overly prone to cynicism and biting sarcasm.

But perhaps the thing most remarkable about Veselka’s novel is the same thing that makes it such a tough book to review. I’m afraid to ruin the mystery. In much of so-called literary fiction, plot plays second fiddle to character and voice and a thousand other immaterial things. In Zazen, on the other hand, Veselka grabs plot by the lapels and brings it to the forefront of the book without sacrificing the effectiveness of the more ethereal aspects of good fiction. Though I’ve been trained to read for language, sound, beauty, and philosophy, and this novel has plenty of all, I was just as fascinated by the intricate turns the narrative took as it progressed, just as wowed by material revelations in the story that wouldn’t have stood out as clearly in other literary novels. So I’ve been careful, erring on the side of vagueness, because I hope you’ll read Zazen, and I wouldn’t want to spoil the experience.

is a fiction and nonfiction writer living in Portland, Oregon, where he is a student in the MFA program at Portland State University. He recently published his first story in South Dakota Magazine and will have a short essay featured on Montana Public Radio's Reflections West later this spring. His journalistic writing has been published in various newspapers, magazines, and on the web.


  1. i saw vanessa read this past weekend and was blown away. if anyone ever gets the chance to see her in person, take it! what a performance!

    i bought the book straight away and started it that night. it’s exactly what a maturing punk rock girl could hope for. truly amazing. it took all my willpower not to gush uncontrollably while vanessa signed my book. can’t say enough amazing things about either of them.

  2. Daniel,
    I too read Zazen because I was going to review it. I had the hardest time writing the review. But hey, what a book, eh? I really liked what you said about Vaselka giving all her characters space to exist on their own terms. I am one of those hippie parents that raised the likes of Della. But in the end, don’t you think it was the loss of her sister that majorly affected her life? I know her mom didn’t deal with it in any helpful way, but still. I thought Vaselka did an awesome job on the intersection of family and the socio/political times in which we exist as young adults. I do respect your review. But how does anyone live in Portland?

  3. Judy,

    Thanks for reading. It is a great book, and a tough one to review. I think there’s a case to be made for the sister as a catalyst for Della’s lifestyle, but I’m not really one for psychological analysis of characters.

    On the Portland question – I’ve lived in six towns now, Portland included, and I’ve decided that location doesn’t matter nearly as much as frame of mind.

  4. It IS a hard book to review, which is what makes it unique…well said.

    It manages to be both a Leftist utopian fantasia and a Leftist dystopian fantasia, which I didn’t think was possible. And its view of the near/alternative future is a bit too close to reality for my comfort level…

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