To Read Is to Fly

“To read is to fly: it is to soar to a point of vantage which gives a view over wide terrains of history, human variety, ideas, shared experience and the fruits of many inquiries.” 
― Alberto Manguel


You can also find me on Goodreads and LibraryThing.

Zazen - Vanessa Veselka I went to work and a guy I wait on said he was leaving. He said everyone he knew was pulling out.
“Canada is just not far enough. Mostly Mexico. A bunch to Thailand. Some to Bali.”
He always orders a Tofu Scramble and makes me write a fucking essay to the cook. No soy sauce in the oil mix, no garlic, extra tomato, no green pepper. Add feta. Potatoes crispy and when are we going to get spelt. He holds me personally responsible for his continued patronage. I hope he dies. I’d like to read about it.

My brother Credence says people who leave are deluding themselves about what’s out there. I just think they’re cowards. Mr. Tofu Scramble says I should go anyway, that it’s too late. I want to but I can’t. Maybe when the bombs stop, or at least let up. Nobody thinks it’ll stay like this. I call it a war but Credence says it isn’t one. Not yet. I say they just haven’t picked a day to market it. Soft opens being all the rage. My last few weeks down at grad school it was so bad I thought everything was going to shake itself apart. I tried to focus on my dissertation, follow the diaspora of clamshells but every night it got worse. It’s not any better here—here, there, now, tomorrow, next Wednesday—geologically speaking it’s all the same millisecond. The gentle rustle of armies crawling the planet like ants. Anybody with any sense knows what’s coming.

With these opening sentences, Vanessa Veselka drew me into the world she created in her debut novel Zazen, through the eyes of its narrator/protagonist Della Mylinek. Della's voice is original and compelling. A recent recipient of a Ph.D. in geology, the daughter of New Left radicals who judge their children’s actions according to political optics, Della is working in a vegan restaurant as she struggles to put past traumas behind her. In this world, the United States is enmeshed in numerous wars and conflicts, citizens live in fear of bombings, and people are torn between leaving the US before it’s too late, or remaining at the mercy of the unnamed enemies who fill their lives with terror and chaos.

Although Zazen depicts bombings, riots, and murders, the novel also represents a world in which slogans, labels, and messages are ominpresent, and take the place of any concerted action for real change. Della has a keen eye and ear for people who substitute a pre-packaged identity for any deep sense of who they are. The novel is filled with her wry observations of friends, family, acquaintances, and passers-by who seem to devote more time to what their clothing and food choices signify, than to any real impact they might have on the world:

I signed up for yoga classes the week I found the rat. I got a six-month membership. Credence said the consistency would be good. The woman behind the counter was wearing a tank top that had “Namaste!” written across the front of it like the Coca Cola logo. Her hair was red and wrapped in an orange scarf. Her nails were pink glitter and she had a pendant of Guadalupe hanging from her neck.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
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.
“I’d like to take some yoga classes,” I said.

In these passages, Zazen reads almost as a political, social, and cultural satire. However, Veselka does not limit herself to satirical prose. There are moments of pure poetry, and others of deep insight, that anchor the novel and give it power:

I would tell them tomorrow. I would say: I am a pool of light, then flicker like sun on a swimming pool. I would say: It has already erupted. And then, dancing through the braided shadows on the basin, wait for the foliage to land in the pool water and make galleons and cutters out of oak leaves and elm. Then they would have to understand.
The next day a second bomb went off at an auto shop down the street from Rise Up Singing. Everyone was running. But you can’t outrun it. I know. I’ve tried. You just come to the same place again and again. The return is so fast now for me that from the outside it looks like stillness. Like nothing is happening at all. But beyond that stillness is an unmappable topography, an endless stream of content.

And in the heart of the novel, at all times, is Della.

Throughout Zazen, Della struggles to determine where she belongs, who she is, and whether her actions can make any difference in the chaos and fear that surround her. As a geologist, she is trained in mapping the terrain and delving deep into the earth’s layers, so she turns this skill to her attempts to understand the terrain of the city she lives in, sometimes mapping small areas such as the yoga studio where she takes classes, sometimes mapping larger areas:

Out of a desire to understand, I began collecting maps and putting them on the walls. Gift shop maps with sea monsters on them and beveled, unfamiliar coastlines, cold war maps with the Soviet Menace spreading like leprosy. Pink East Germany. Red China. Maps of Pangaea and Gondwanaland from back before the seams pulled apart when we were still all one big continent—Deep Time, where countries turn to silt, silt turns to stone and we can now tell time by comparing the rates of nations collapsing—Biostratigraphy? Patriastratigraphy? Following the law of superposition, one thing always follows another: map of the Trail of Tears, bike map, subway map, and one I drew when I was twelve and wrote “Della’s world” in scented marker at the top. Historical, geological, topographical, ideological and imaginary. Sitting in Credence’s attic I tried to figure out if culture was just geology. Maybe Rwanda was caused by mountain building. And the Russo-Japanese War by glacial till. Maybe you need pirated rivers in the headlands before you can have a Paris Commune.

In times of stress, Della focuses on slow geologic changes and repeats, almost as a mantra, “Nothing personal.” She turns to fortune cookies to honor the memories of people who died through self immolation as a form of protest. As she tacks these fortunes to the maps she has collected, the juxtaposition of the original fortune and magic numbers with the person’s name underlines the ultimate futility of their gesture. Any messages they hoped to convey through their actions dissipate quickly:

I started putting them up on the walls too. I bought a bag of fortune cookies and raided the fortunes. On the back of each I wrote, underneath their lucky numbers in red, the name of the burned.

Jan Palach
Your warmth encourages honesty at home:

Thich Quang Duc
Magic will be created when an unconventional friend comes to visit:

Elizabeth Shin
Your future is as boundless as the lofty heaven:

Norman Morrison
You will be reunited with old friends:

Kathy Change
Your nature is intense, magnetic and passionate:

I taped the fortunes to pins like flags and stuck them in the maps. Each city that inspires immolation gets a tiny white flag to flutter. Tiny little surrender. Tiny little surrenders. Supposedly, the heart of the Vietnamese monk from ’63 never burned but shriveled to a tiny liver. It is held hostage (kept safe as a national treasure) by the Reserve Bank of Vietnam. Tiny liver hearts. I pinned them to the walls. Katydids flutter all around.

I hesitate to tell you much more about Zazen, because part of the joy of reading it comes from the feeling of surprise as Veselka’s prose takes turn after turn away from the expected. Her style and voice are original, but she is not writing simply to shock. The novel, and Della, crept up on me as I was reading, and I saw more and more points of similarity between Della’s concerns and mine. Although Zazen clearly is set in a US in the future, it’s a US that bears striking similarities to the US in 2012. This is a world where capitalist slogans and symbols overtake any changes that radicals hoped to make along the way. It’s a world where shopping becomes a patriotic act for some, echoing George W. Bush’s call for Americans to go shopping after 9/11 as a way to fight back against terrorism. It’s a world full of distractions of our own making, which too often dehumanize us and separate us from each other. And it’s a world where we helplessly ask whether change is possible, whether we can make a difference, and fear to hear the answer.

I had a very personal reaction to Zazen, and one which stemmed from only a very small part of the novel. Among the names of protesters who self-immolated Veselka includes Kathy Change, an activist and performance artist who set herself on fire in front of a peace symbol statue on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania in 1996. I was a graduate student writing my dissertation at Penn at the time. I remember Kathy Change well. She would dress in rainbow-colored leotards and dance in front of the main library on campus, waving hand-made flags with peace symbols on them, trying to forward a cause of peace that only she really understood. People saw her only in terms of her struggles with mental illness -- they let that label drown out any other message she was trying to convey. Some people would heckle her, while others would walk by, shaking our heads and averting our eyes. Kathy Change didn’t fit into any of the neat boxes we had for acceptable forms of political protest. I am not certain that a different reaction from us would have changed her decision, but I do know that any message she was trying to impart, whether by dancing or setting herself on fire, was lost in a sea of labels and symbols and distractions. As I read Zazen, I reflected on the profound failure that represents, considered my part in it, and wondered how to find a way forward, a way to make a difference.

Currently reading

The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan
Rafia Zakaria
About Women: Conversations Between a Writer and a Painter
Lisa Alther
The Relic Master: A Novel
Christopher Buckley
John Lambert, Emmanuel Carrère
Tourists with Typewriters: Critical Reflections on Contemporary Travel Writing
Patrick Holland, Graham Huggan
Inventing Exoticism: Geography, Globalism, and Europe's Early Modern World (Material Texts)
Benjamin Schmidt
Among the Ruins: Syria Past and Present
Christian Sahner
Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul
Charles King
In Light of Another's Word: European Ethnography in the Middle Ages
Shirin A. Khanmohamadi
Intimate Outsiders: The Harem in Ottoman and Orientalist Art and Travel Literature
Mary Roberts