Zazen by Vanessa Veselka is an amazing novel, easily one of the most exciting books of the year.
The story is narrated by Della, a recent college graduate with a degree in paleontology, who kills time learning yoga and working in a vegan restaurant while her country, a slightly twisted mirror reflection of today's United States of America, slips into chaos amidst the failures of War A and War B. Della lives with her brother Credence, with whom she shares the disconcerting memories of extreme hippie parenting, and wanders her city (which resembles Portland, Oregon) wrestling with her anxiety, imagining acts of violence and developing desperate crushes on anyone who reaches out to her with a kind word. She's a wry, sarcastic narrator and a troublemaker, and the best thing about Zazen is the chance to see the world through this funny, brainy character's eyes.
As a bittersweet snapshot of a deeply confused alternative hipster counterculture, Zazen is reminiscent of Justin Taylor's The Gospel of Anarchy, another recent book I liked. But Gospel of Anarchy is about post-collegiate anarchists and punks, while Zazen is about post-collegiate anarchists and vegans, and Zazen is about ten times more manic. The comic prose recalls Matthew Sharpe's Jamestown, while the book's sense of traumatic disorientation and social disconnectedness calls to mind Tom McCarthy's Remainder. With all that said, Zazen is like nothing but itself -- a simply original story, emotionally resonant and crammed with nuggets of delightful observation.
This novel is one of the kickoff publications from a new publishing house, Richard Nash's innovative Red Lemonade, which invites you to read the entire novel online. But you may want to buy a copy of this book, or give one to an anarchist/vegan friend. I was very happy to have had a chance to ask Vanessa Veselka some questions about her brilliant work. Here's the conversation we had.
The epicenter of the earthquake that devastated northern Japan last Friday was just off the islands of Matsushima. This coastal wonderland, dotted with jutting rocks and picteresque islands, had been the chosen home of Basho, one of the greatest Haiku poets, in the later years of his life. This article by Hari Kunzru provides some context about the region, and the influence it had on the great nature poet.
When we talk about philosophy, we should have some idea what we're aiming to achieve.
There's a popular misconception that philosophy has no purpose, other than perhaps to exercise and train the mind. If this were all it was good for, I wouldn't bother much with it. When I read or write or discuss ideas, I am always hoping for satori, an event of understanding. This Japanese word can sometimes be used to refer to a specific kind of understanding, and it can also be used to describe the sensation and experience of this understanding, which can be so sudden and surprising as to resemble a lightning bolt, or a smack in the head.
But descriptions of satori may over-emphasize its instantaneous nature, because it's actually not the quickness of satori but rather its permanence that matters most. It's a popular mistake to think that a lightning-bolt realization must be an ephemeral or elusive thing. Satori can be made of concrete, and can be a sturdy and reliable building block to place further ideas upon. The theory of evolution was Charles Darwin's great satori, and is satori as well for everyone else who learns and comes to understand the theory. Sigmund Freud's discovery of dream analysis was also satori, and Einstein's theory of relativity. Buddha's moment of enlightenent under a Bodhi tree may be the most singularly celebrated satori in history, but that's only because there is no biblical record of the specific moment when Jesus of Nazareth realized that the meek would inherit the earth, or Abraham that there is one God. Jack Kerouac once wrote a poignant novel called Satori in Paris, though this is one of his least-loved works, probably because it's about a guy who goes to Paris looking for satori rather than about a guy who finds it. Sometimes, as in this book, satori makes its presence felt most when it can't be found
But we yearn for it often, and luckily we find it often as well. What could be more depressing than an entire day without a single moment of enlightenment? We should never let that happen. When we work on crossword puzzles or sodoku games, we may think we're passing the time or training our minds, but in fact we're sustaining ourselves with little, constant doses of satori.
1. Just Kids, Patti Smith's beguiling memoir of late 1960s New York, the Chelsea Hotel, Robert Mapplethorpe and the early 1970s St. Mark's Church punk poetry scene, has won the National Book Award! Quite impressive. I totally called this back in February, you know. The winner's circle above includes Jaimy Gordon, Terrance Hayes, Kathryn Erskine.
2. Doonesbury turns 40! I grew up with this comic strip. I used to especially love the counterculture literary references: Uncle Duke was Hunter S. Thompson, and several characters lived at the Walden Puddle Commune. (This was probably a reference not only to Thoreau's Walden but also to B. F. Skinner's then-fashionable Walden Two.)
Before I found out Patti won the National Book Award I was going to illustrate today's blog post with a picture I found of Zonker scuba-diving in Walden Puddle. The image is too good to waste, so here it is:
3. Michael Orthofer of the Complete Review has written a book, The Complete Review: Eleven Years, 2500 Reviews, A Site History, about his experience creating and maintaining that website and the accompanying blog Literary Saloon. I've read it, and it's a charming, candid look at the kinds of questions, decisions and private struggles that animate the life of a serious independent blogger.
1, Prompted by Tom McCarthy's trendy new novel C, AbeBooks presents a tableau of one-letter (or two-letter) books. It's a lot of fun to look at. Of course, I'm an old school techie, so to me C will always be the title of a classic book by Kernighan and Ritchie.
2. Those are the 26 letters of the alphabet in books, and here's the 50 states of the United States in movies. Some of these choices are superb, like Gummo for Ohio, Napoleon Dynamite for Idaho, The Wizard of Oz for Kansas, October Sky for West Virginia, Bull Durham for North Carolina and The Ice Storm for Connecticut. Taxi Driver is not a bad choice for New York, though I would prefer Goodfellas or The Godfather. But the map also misses a few. River's Edge is a better choice than First Blood for Washington, Angel Heart is better than Southern Comfort for Louisiana, Porky's is better than Scarface for Florida, and Ferris Bueller is better than The Blues Brothers for Illinois. I can think of plenty better choices for California -- I saw Fast Times For Ridgemont High, and didn't even know it was a California movie. Finally, Deliverance for Georgia? Nothing wrong with Deliverance, but there's this flick called Gone With The Wind ...
Bill Vallicella, a former professor who runs a good philosophy blog called The Maverick Philosopher, has written an article called Buddhism on Suffering and One Reason I am Not a Buddhist.
He has every right to not be a Buddhist, of course, but I think his article expresses a misunderstanding of Buddhism. This is a misunderstanding I've also heard from others. Vallicella objects to the Buddhist teaching on desire, one of its core concepts, for its essential negativity:
For Buddhism, all is
dukkha, suffering. Allis unsatisfactory. This, the First Noble Truth, runs contrary to ordinary modes of thinking: doesn't life routinely offer us, besides pain and misery and disappointment, intense pleasures and deep satisfactions?
He describes what he sees as the Buddhist attitude towards desire in more detail here, and he captures the prevailing belief well enough:
Each satisfaction leaves us in the lurch, wanting more. A desire satisfied is a desire entrenched. Masturbate once, and you will do it a thousand times, with the need for repetition testifying to the unsatisfactoriness of the initial satisfaction. Each pleasure promises more that it can possibly deliver, and so refers you to the next and the next and the next, none of them finally satisfactory. It's a sort of Hegelian
schlechte Unendlichkeit. Desire satisfied becomes craving, and craving is an instance of dukkha. One becomes attached to the paltry and impermanent and one suffers when it cannot be had.
Yes, this is what Buddhists believe, but if this were the sum total of Buddhist teaching on desire then I would not be a Buddhist either. Taken in isolation, this is too stringent an attitude, too humorless, too inhumane. But is this utter rejection of desire what Siddhartha Guatama, the historical Buddha, actually taught, and what he represented to his own direct followers? Let's take a closer look.
It's easy to misunderstand a book about religion. My first impression of Stephen Prothero's God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run The World -- And Why Their Differences Matter was not good; I read a summary of the book he wrote for the Boston Globe that seemed to strain for Tea Party relevance by mocking the popular idea (attributed to the likes of the Dalai Lama) that all religions are the same, and hinting that this had something to do with national security:
... this lumping of the world’s religions into one megareligion is not just false and condescending, it is also a threat. How can we make sense of the ongoing conflict in Kashmir if we pretend that Hinduism and Islam are one and the same? Or of the impasse in the Middle East, if we pretend that there are no fundamental disagreements between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam?
I went to hear him speak two months ago in New York City, and happily found Stephen Prothero to be more subtle and moderate in person than his publicity department probably wants him to be. HarperCollins may be trying to ride God Is Not One on the coattails of Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens's God Is Not Great. They even swung him an appearance on the Colbert Report, where, again, he came across as thoughtful and knowledgeable, and clearly no firebrand.
Ron Hogan -- media journalist (GalleyCat, Beatrice), marketing strategist and the only literary blogger I know who's been doing it as long as I have -- has just published an unusual book: Getting Right With Tao: A Contemporary Spin on the Tao Te Ching.
It happens I share Ron's fascination with the Tao Te Ching, an ancient Chinese religious/philosophical text ascribed to a mysterious author named Lao Tzu, and with the set of ideas and traditions known as Taoism. The original Tao Te Ching is unquestionably a masterpiece, and the strong philosophy it presents has much in common with later movements like Buddhism, Transcendentalism and Existentialism. I still have my beloved, very beat-up Penguin Classic copy I bought in college; like Thoreau's Walden or Emerson's essays, this is a book you can pick up and return to often when you need inspiration or advice.
1. Author J. G. Ballard has died.
2. Pankaj Mishra is angry about the "Tandoori-Chickenisation of the literary palate in the west", or the "vastly increased preference for 'ethnic' literature among the primary consumers of literary fiction: the book-buying public of western Europe and North America." As an enthusiast for sites like Words Without Borders and festivals like PEN World Voices, I suppose I should feel chastened, but I don't. I seek out international literature because it's my own literature. Who is Pankaj Mishra to tell me that I might not have more in common with, say, Alain Mabanckou or Indra Sinha or Wen Zhu than I do with the guy who lives next door? He may as well tell me to stop eating Indian food (because I don't really understand it). A clever article, but in the end it's a familiar complaint and a cheap shot.
3, Don Gillmor investigates the history of Harlequin romances.
4. Jill Lepore on Edgar Allan Poe, whose work had "this virtuosic, showy, lilting, and slightly wilting quality, like a peony just past bloom".
5. A Japanese author invokes Poe with a pseudonym: Edogawa Rampo.
6. About Last Night locates a true record of a popular Louis Armstrong myth.
6. Updike on Africa.
7. William Patrick Wend on N. Katherine Hayles' Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary.
8. Emma Bovary, c'est online.
9. Alleged Internet-hater Andrew Keen is just a big softie. His latest article suggests that "blogs are dead" but then quickly devolves into a rundown of some exciting new WordPress real-time/social features. Even in this new mini-era of Twitter, the only thing blogs are dying of is popularity.
10. TechCrunch says web innovators should band together and stop the hype cycle. I agree, but we have a better chance of solving global warming.
11. LitKicks poet Mickey Z. will be participating in "Earth: A Wake up Call for Obama Nation" in Washington DC on April 25.
I don't know if this is the guiding philosophy for the New York Times Book Review in 2009, but they do seem to be making some good choices lately. For the second week in a row, foreign literature gets a lot of attention in today's issue. Natasha Wimmer urges us to discover Argentina's Cesar Aira, either by reading Ghosts or any of his other books, and I intend to follow her advice. This issue also covers four books dealing with China's modern history, including Pico Iyer's cover review of a novel called The Vagrants by Yiyun Li, a purgative tale about the violent excesses of Communist groupthink in a small town during the early post-Mao era. I can't think of many periods in history that cry out more for understanding than China in the last 50 years; by all credible historical accounts, Mao's horrific experimentation with social and economic engineering amounted to the cruelest mass murder of all time, claiming more victims than Hitler and Stalin combined, and yet these horrors typically present a blank face to the outside world, so blank that many outside China (and inside? I don't know) have no understanding at all of what took place during the Mao years.
An oral history by Xinran called China Witness: Voices From a Silent Generation also attempts to bridge this comprehension gap, though Joshua Hammer is not impressed by the author's approach. Jess Row, meanwhile, was impressed when he read Yu Hua's popular Chinese novel Brothers in its original language, but he fears that particulars of this story make it impossible to translate accurately. Anyone interested in the art and science of literary translation will want to weigh his arguments here. One more book about China shows up today, Postcards From Tomorrow Square by James Fallows, reviewed by Jonathan Spence. I doubt I'll find the time, but I'd like to read all four.
I've just been writing about all the reviews I've read of Jonathan Littell's long Nazi-era fable The Kindly Ones. I have little need for yet another take, though David Gates' ultimately negative appraisal is lively and informative enough to maintain my interest. Okay, now I'm done reading reviews of this book for real.
It's certainly my own flaw as a reader that I don't like long books, that I resent it when an author presumes that I have time to read 992 pages (Jonathan Littell) or even 581 pages of the latest installment in a longer cycle of books about a single character, which is what Eric Kraft's Flying amounts to. I begged out of Ed Champion's energetic roundtable about Kraft's latest Peter Leroy book for this reason, despite the fact that the few pages I read were extremely clever. I do feel guilty about not continuing with the novel (which Laura Miller likes in today's Book Review) but I still think it's a bad strategy for an author to write a long series of interlocking books that must be read together for a complete experience. Readers want to first-date our novelists these days -- we're not looking to marry them.
Today's impressive NYTBR also includes a moderately intriguing summary by Jill Abramson of Zoe Heller's The Believers, another novel I want to read and may or may not find time for.
Finally, Rebecca Barry wins big points for reviewing a second-person novel by Patrick deWitt called Ablutions: Notes for a Novel and not once mentioning Jay McInerney.