Monday, December 12, 2011

(It Doesn't Have Anything to Do with Buddhism)

The other night, I finished a book called Zazen, by Vanessa Veselka. I found it via The Rumpus, a site that, from this perspective, is so much immersed in the literary life in the San Francisco area that it's a little myopic. However, it's helped me to learn that there exists an underground literary scene here in this country, and I read Zazen in part to find out what that scene is like. (The book reviews on the site also led me to a book called The Postmortal, on which I gave up a third of the way through because I couldn't sleep after reading it. Like Feed, which gave me waking nightmares for months on end, only not as succinct.)

I knew before I read this book that I was not likely to be a part of this scene, not now or ever; I'm not an experimental writer, and my few attempts to imitate edgy po-po-mo fiction have resulted in work that's so disconnected from my instincts that I don't even know if it's any good. Now I'm certain: this scene is not for me, and this type of work is not really for me, either. I enjoyed reading Zazen enough to leave it on my Amazon wish list, because I'd like to refer back to it and maybe read it again in the future, but I didn't really understand the mechanisms of the fiction as I was reading it. It was an artifact from another land.

Veselka is a fascinating writer, with intelligence burning like a gas flame under every word, incredible metaphors, and gorgeous, hard-hitting sentence-by-sentence craft. The book was kind of like an octopus in my mind, tentacles worming their way in and clinging and dragging me in, so that my face was right up close to the book's bizarre world, and I had to take the time to get re-tendriled into that world if I took a break before reading on. It reminded me of two other books: Beloved, by Toni Morrison (in the way that time and space were not very well-described but I still had a solid sense of place), and more strongly The Open Curtain, by Brian Evenson, which is probably the most unnerving book I've ever read. Madness lurks in the basement of that book, and the experience of reading it is a little like going mad yourself; the world kept tilting, gradually, as I was reading until I'd look up from the book and it would take a moment for everything to right itself again. Zazen resembles but doesn't resemble the world I know now, so it was like diving into a different dimension every time I opened it again. The narrator is plainly not all there, or perhaps too much there, and seeing her world through her was uniquely effective and a little frightening.

Yet the book was so poorly copy-edited that I kept being un-immersed in frustration every chapter or so to try and figure out what the author meant through the errors. You always end up wondering, if there's poor copy-editing, what else might have been better served by more attention to the text - what else the author and editors missed in the proofs. And there was so much about the book that I found unclear. Some of the metaphors extending from chapter to chapter were too obtuse for my middling non-underground intelligence, and eventually I had to accept that I couldn't quite know the order of events - during the first third or so we kept skipping around in time (I think) without clear markers. I also found the politics of the book to be sort of screamy. There was a lot of ranting that I think the book endorsed rather than merely presenting. I'm quite a bad activist, because I like my art carefully partitioned from my politics, with only little leaks along the wall. Any relationship more intimate and you wind up sacrificing the quality of one or the other, I've found. Most political artists would disagree (naturally), but if I am opposed to the politics of the art, I have a harder time enjoying the art on its merits instead of dismissing it altogether, and that dismissal isn't fair. It's an unpleasant paradigm.

I think that people who write and read in this style of literature regularly would either accept these things or treat them as part of the art. Vagueness, in particular, seems to be a facet of edgy/literary fiction that is well-celebrated but that I personally never enjoy. And I think they find frustrating or opaque books to be that much more arty and interesting, finding the shining diamond edges more compelling than the mud which sometimes surrounds them. I always ask why the mud couldn't just be cleared away. And I think that's why experimental lit isn't for me.

Still. It was a good idea to stretch outside my usual fare, to see what's possible out there in west coast fiction. And like I said, I really enjoyed the experience of reading the book. I just know I don't want to restrict my reading to that kind of book (too cerebral, too much of a project), and I doubt I'll ever write a book like it.

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