Red Lemonade (2011)
256 pages, $15.95
Please note: this review is quite effusive. If I don’t overtly order you to go out and buy a copy of this book, it’s only down to my sense of propriety.
How otherwise could I respond, except to sit on my hands and not type? This is a novel of great Ã©lan. The proseÂ glitters like handfuls of glass – not just beautiful, but cutting deep. ZazenÂ is centred around the narrator Dellaâ€™sÂ immense and bitter sadness at the debased world around her. In Dellaâ€™s America, war is imminent, or already begun, with the destruction happening on the margins, only rarely visceral enough to peel the corners off the faÃ§ade of calm. The media seems to show a fragmentary image of what is happening. The population, for the most part, are either leaving or in robust denial of the consequences of their staying. Della sees the tanks and bombs and death rolling ever nearer with a holy sort of terror. Trying to bring herself to tell her brother and his pregnant wife that she wants to leave before the full force of the war hits, she thinks:
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 [the cafe where Della works]. 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 the stillness is an unmappable topography, an endless stream of content.
Della as Alice in Wonderland, curtly pointing out the madness of it all; the ridiculous, unstable dimensions of existence. But Della herself is not a stable figure. She lurches; she has an understanding of the world so metaphoric that it borders on prophetic â€“ half-way between the visionary state and total breakdown: her obsession with those who die by self-immolation in protest of the war or out of surreally petty reasons of their own, the way she maps out their deaths across the world and pins to each one a fortune from a fortune cookie – dark humour and pathos are conjoined twins in this book.Â A poisoned pregnant rat she finds and buries who then inhabits the city in various forms; a Godzilla-like monster, Â a sleek mother-goddess for the disaffected, a manifestation of Dellaâ€™s loathing of â€˜big churchâ€™ and capitalism trampling over all she wants to hold dear. All these elements which keepÂ reoccurringÂ in the text, growing tendrils, altering meaning, splitting the earth apart in various ways.
She begins calling in fake bomb threats:
Then I called Naught, a raw food tapas bar, because the bathroom sink counter had the name of a different god/prophet painted on every fourth tile and “ALL IS ONE” inlaid around the basin. Then I called all the strip joints that charged a stage fee. Then after that, the human resources department of a popular Vietnamese restaurant chain, demanding an end to bubble tea as the hyper modern equivalent to absinthe and a barrier to real revolution because the equation Bubble Tea = Something to Look Forward To depressurizes the misery of capitalism and is a Hello Kitty band-aid on the festering wound of Neo-Liberalism.
They say irony is the last refuge of the helpless, but for Della, even through the dizzying horror, her brilliant mind still fires social critique, she is incapable of distancing herself completely. Her heart crushed but still beating inside her chest.Â It’s fair to say that no one escapes Della’s fierce gaze. She wants so much for the world and rails at theÂ ineffectual, the disengaged. She lashes out a racial politics, at the Left she is a part of. Becomes ridiculous herself, and aware of this, tries for escape in the circuitous, unpredictable ways only she can.
Trying to sum up this book is difficult; to say it is a fight for clarity would suggest it works primarily through language. And while it’s true that Veselka drops stunning phrases like Groucho Marx dropped one-liners, like antacids dropped in water fizz,Â ZazenÂ is also both a study in character, and a dystopian and thrilling story. One of those rare beasts that are intensely literary and a page turner at the same time. To say it’s a dystopian novel, would be to try to slide it neatly into one of our generationâ€™s best-beloved genres, that of dystopian fiction, and therefore cut the raw, squirming edges off, marginalising the artistry of the words, the view into the tumultuous headspace of the main character, the mood of bright charge, of thick, grotesque despair.
Half-way through, I began to feel a tightness in my chest. Fear. That Veselka would run out of steam. That it couldn’t possibly keep being this good.
Spoilers: it could. The high-wire dancing continues right to the end. I’d even include theÂ acknowledgementÂ page in this. Zazen, then, is one of those works that like lightning streaks and dashes across the sky, a novel to fulfill an essential purpose: to remind ourselves that literary bravery, in this form and others, is not only possible, but utterly necessary.
Helen McClory was raised in both rural and urban Scotland. She has lived in Sydney and New York City and is currently to be found in the Old Town of Edinburgh in a three hundred year old flat opposite a tunnel into the underworld. The manuscript of her first novel KILEA won the Unbound Press Best Novel Award 2011, and publication is currently being sought for it. To keep the wire steady, Helen is working on a second novel about the intersections of love, failure and technology set in New York, New Mexico and Cornwall. Progress on this at: http://schietree.wordpress.com/