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.
We'll always circle back to our Beat roots around here. Here are a few things that've been going on.
1. I spotted the artwork above, a tribute to the epic poem BOMB by Gregory Corso, on a website by a young French artist named Vince Larue, which is mostly dedicated to 1960s culture and the Grateful Dead.
3. The Norman Mailer Center in Cape Cod, Massachusetts is presenting a workshop on the legacy of Hunter S. Thompson, featuring Doug Brinkley.
5. Jerry Cimino of San Francisco's lively Beat Museum is having a great time being an unofficial consultant (on Neal Cassady's dance moves, among other things) for the upcoming On The Road movie, which will be coming out later this year.
1. Billy Joel had a contract to write a memoir, but got cold feet. Too bad. We know this Long Island boy can write, and I bet he had some stories to tell. The alleged book (my personal guess is that he never began it, though the cover artwork was finished and released) was supposed to have been called The Book of Joel.
2. You know I've been wanting to read this Long Island boy's life story. Jay-Z's recent semi-memoir Decoded had its moments, but Jay hardly dug deep. Good hiphop memoirs or biographies are rare, but I eagerly snapped up Empire State of Mind: How Jay-Z Went from Street Corner to Corner Office, a new unauthorized biography by business writer Zack O'Malley Greenburg, who has covered hip-hop culture and money for Forbes magazine. I suppose it works as a business book, but I found it very disappointing. This white boy, unfortunately, does not know hiphop. The author also seems to think Jay-Z's best years must be right now (naturally, because this is when he's making the most money) which proves, once again, that he doesn't know anything about hiphop.
The Gospel of Anarchy, a thoughtful new novel by Justin Taylor. begins with David, a brainy but fashionably bored college dropout who has pretty much run out of ideas about what to do with his life and has lately been spooking himself by posting photos of an ex-girlfriend to an amateur porn message board. A chance meeting changes everything: David runs into his old elementary school best friend Thomas scrounging for food in a dumpster while a beguiling punk girl named Liz acts as lookout. The falafel they get here tastes good, Thomas and Liz explain, and when David takes a bite it's an epiphany:
I took the biggest bite I could and stood there dumbly, chewing and being watched. It was drier than I'd thought it would be, and sucked up the moisture in my mouth. It tasted okay, other than not being an especially impressive falafel sandwich, which, of course, having been a customer there, was no more and no less than I already knew. No rancid aftertaste, indeed no hint at all of its having turned. The punks were right. It was fine. I swallowed.
David swallows all the way, soon happily giving up all his bourgeois possessions to live in Fishgut, the punk/anarchist house where this collective of extreme anarchists flops. Thomas, Liz, Katy, Anchor and various other drifters turn out to be pleasant housemates, and the endless partying and gratifying orgies easily win David over. This clever novel now changes tone, and we move past David's shallow epiphany to focus on this crazy group's core mythology. This involves an ur-anarchist named Parker, who once lived at Fishgut and left behind a mysterious book.
I bought a Kindle. This was the culmination of a long decision-making process, capped suddenly by an impulse buy. Once I started reading I felt immediately happy with the device, and I suspect I'll be using it a lot.
If you've read Litkicks over the years, you probably know about my history of mixed feelings about this device. On the day the Kindle was announced (with a lot of manufactured fanfare, including the cover of Newsweek) I called it a loser, loser, loser. I was mainly referring to two big problems: it cost $400, and it was gigantic.
1. This rather remarkable painting, titled Hansel and Gretel, was painted by Zelda Fitzgerald in 1947.
2. Speaking of difficult literary ex-wives: earlier this year I wrote an article about T. S. Eliot's Possum's Book of Practical Cats and the Broadway show Cats in which I suggested that the authors must have invented the character of Grizabella to represent Vivienne Eliot, the great poet and critic's first wife, whose life ended in a quiet mental institution. A strongly-worded comment has been posted to my blog article by an anonymous person who appears to be familiar with the T. S. Eliot estate. This person agrees with my conjecture about Grizabella, and points out that a controversy remains over the Eliot estate's attitude towards Vivienne Eliot's legacy. If you're interested in this topic, please read the long comment by "Coerulescent" and judge for yourself.
3. The Moth, an excellent literary storytelling revue, wanted to hear stories about "transformations". I don't think they could have chosen a much better participant for this challenge than Laura Albert, who delivered a moving piece about becoming and unbecoming J. T. Leroy, and about the ridiculous hassles that followed her "exposure". I'm proud to say I stood by Laura even when few others did. Congrats to Laura for finding her way back as a writer; watch the video!
(Goodloe Byron is a novelist -- with an unusual approach to literary economics -- as well as a book cover designer whose graphic work was recently featured on Mark Athitakas's Notes on American Fiction blog. The Wraith is his latest book, from his own Brown Paper Publishing.)
Levi: Your novel The Wraith is very charming. The portrait of hapless trailer park hipsters going about their lives reminds me of the affectionate stylings of Richard Linklater or Jim Jarmusch ... but I also understand that Jose Saramago was your primary inspiration for this novel. Can you tell me what your mission in writing this book was?
Goodloe: It is actually a knockoff of a Saramago book, but it warped in the rain having took so long! The original idea was to do something like the duplicated man; it would be about a little fellow who is suddenly deprived of the dimension of necessity. That is to say that he no longer needed to sleep, eat, drink water, come in from the cold, shave or whatnot. It would then follow that he didn't need to work either, or do anything. What I imagined was that this person would then flee this terrible freedom. He would then go about pretending to be alive as he was before and that his life would become a kind of hollow nightmare.
This isn't really a novel that many people would like to read, I think. That has not stopped me in the past, but it also wasn't enjoyable to write either. I started it about eight times five years ago, then I quit writing altogether. Then, last year, my friend Pablo D'stair and I were discussing the idea, which was the only book that I wanted to write anyway. In this discussion I figured out that the story could not really be told directly, as it was more of a static concept. So I decided to give it a Heart of Darkness touch and describe the story of someone on the periphery of such a man. Mr. Kurtz, for example, is much this some problem, because he is not a person so much as a concept; the collapse of civilization in the face of its underlying barbarity. Once I figured this out, it was very simple and I wrote it in a few weeks while another book was at the printer. All of the events involving the main characters I kind of made up on the fly, though a variety of them I'd thought up during my 'hiatus'. They came together all right I think. The brain stepped out of my way once I figured out the Kurtz thing.
Levi: I notice a strange price on the book's cover: $0.0. What's that all about?
Goodloe: All right, so ... this is kind of complicated to explain. But basically I don't really like to submit stuff places or do the whole writer thing. I just find it ghastly as an experience. Also I would like to point out that my books tend to be a bit of a drag and I design them that way. I want the audience to have to get a bit scrappy. Books that succeed in the market tend not to share this worldview. So instead I save up enough so that once a year I can print up about ten thousand books. Then throughout the year I roll out to different cities or wherever I can get and I hand them out for free or leave them in coffee shops.
Congratulations to up-and-coming indie novelist Tao Lin for scoring a full-page review -- not necessarily a positive review, but a riveting one -- in yesterday's Sunday New York Times Book Review. Nice break!
I'm not workin' the NYTBR beat anymore, but I will pay attention at moments like these. I've been watching Tao's unusual career from the beginning (when I reviewed his first book and called him "faux naif"), and I've appeared at a couple of literary readings with him. His performance style, like his prose, is highly deadpan. The nervous laughter in the audience comes during his awkward silences, just as it does in his novels.
1. We told you about artist Malcolm McNeill's Ah! Pook Is Here, a vast extended collaboration with William S. Burroughs, two years ago. Great news -- the work is going to be published by Fantagraphics.
2. Sean Michael Hogan was one of the five winners of a writing contest we held on this site in 2003. He's an excellent writer, and also an opinionated sports nut, and he's combined both inclinations into an e-book, It's Not Just A Ballgame Anymore. Here, also, is a short story by Sean about the frustrations of being a writer.
“Many of the people who came to us were of the kind who would be a nuisance anywhere but have special opportunities in a bookshop.”-George Orwell, “Bookshop Memories”
For ten years I worked in the second-hand book trade. Five of those years were spent at Wayward Books, an antiquarian book shop in Washington, D.C. that was owned by novelist and critic Doris Grumbach and her partner, Sybil Pike. Another five years were spent selling second-hand books out of my truck just down the block from Wayward at historic Eastern Market on Capitol Hill, a move necessitated when Doris and Sybil relocated their shop to coastal Maine.
Though that period of my life ended fifteen years ago, the bookshop trade has left a mark on my soul. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about that time with a mixture of longing and giddy recollection. Entire newsreels scroll through my head as I think about the eclectic and eccentric assortment of customers and habitués—a fancy way of saying “customers” who don’t actually buy anything—who darkened my doorway. As George Orwell put it, “In a town like London [or Washington D.C.] there are always plenty of not quite certifiable lunatics walking the streets, and they tend to gravitate towards bookshops, because a bookshop is one of the few places where you can hang about for a long time without spending any money.”