Winner of PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize upon its first publication in 2011, Veselka's debut novel charts the evolving social consciousness and questionable activism of a young woman named Della, who is struggling for a foothold in a near-future America on the brink of war, in this re-release for our newly volatile political moment.
... a powerful, political, sometimes humorous, often frightening portrait of a parallel world that lurks in the near future in all of its dystopian glory ... One of the reasons that this story resonates on the page is Veselka’s lyrical prose, her ability to ground the events in a place and time while also slipping into surreal moments (without explanation), events and scenes unfolding into emotional, dimensional tapestries ... But this novel is not without humor. Even if Della is laughing on the outside while crying on the inside, she and her friends find a way to joke about serious matters ... Vanessa Veselka has written an engaging, touching book in Zazen, one that leaves the reader saddened by the unnecessary loss and destruction. But there is still a grain of hope buried in the ash ... a unique and lasting work of art.
Zazen’s readers will want to return to it in years to come, if only to hear Della’s voice ... Veselka is at her best when she’s expressing Della’s extreme bitterness about the world, and the desire to get rid of it ... If...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.
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.