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May 24, 2011

Book Notes - Vanessa Veselka ("Zazen")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Vanessa Veselka's debut novel Zazen is so immersive and lyrical, I found myself piecing the novel out over a couple of weeks so the experience of reading it would last as long as possible. Zazen is a literary gem, a post-9/11 work filled with fear, terrorism, beauty and hope.

Literary Kicks wrote of the book:

"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."

In her own words, here is Vanessa Veselka's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel, Zazen:

I wrote Zazen like I was on a mission. I threw everything into it and constructed Della's voice out of sheer narcissistic freedom. I knew it would verge on unintelligible, but I let it be so. This is also how I think of guitar solos. My favorite two are: Fripp's solo on "Babies On Fire" (Brian Eno), and Neil Young's solo on "Cinnamon Girl." One is all chaos. The other is all tenacity. Both feel licentious, reckless. I don't listen to music when I write because, as a musician, I can't keep it in the background. I depend on music when I rewrite, however. In revising Zazen I essentially scored the novel, burned it onto a CD, and used it pharmaceutically. When lost, take this. It was prescriptive.

"K-Hole" by CocoRosie

I first heard Noah's Ark while working in a vegan restaurant. I'd always assumed the operatic parts were sampled so when I saw them live, and Sierra opened her mouth and that incredible aria came out, I was unprepared. I was sitting on the corner of the stage, watching a woman dressed in basketball shirt and shorts, wearing face paint, singing opera and toy with a keyboard controller. It inspired in me the hope that we can transcend all the templates. The lyric "universe of milk and ember/ your hot kiss in mid-December/ what's god's name I can't remember…" was the soundtrack to Della's desire for Jimmy and I used the line "I dreamt 1000 basketball courts/ nothing holier than sports…" in Della's first bomb threat.

"Pyramid Song" by Radiohead

Amnesiac was in my head throughout writing. I've come late to many things and one of them was Radiohead. I discovered this record four years after its release. I wasn't a fan before Amnesiac. Now I would take a bullet for Thom Yorke. I'm not joking. At all. I'm pretty sure the world needs him more than me. There are a couple of Radiohead references in Zazen, first, "Pyramid Song." The dream state it evokes, where there is no penalty in death, is a belief from which Della recoils out fear that it is narcotic. I called a chapter "Blackout Stars" as a conflation of "black-out angels and astral cars" and I also had Devadatta singing "a song about black-out angels." But I got the line wrong! It's "black-eyed angels." I also heard, "There was nothing to fear, nothing dies…"which I now know was also wrong. It wasn't until I was teaching a guitar student to play "Pyramid Song" and downloaded the lyrics that I caught it. But I let the misquotes in Zazen stand.

"Where We Met" by Stefan Jecusco

Normally, I can't listen my friend's music when writing. I know too much about the recordings or the person. So in full disclosure I have to say my boyfriend Stefan Jecusco wrote this song. It sounds like a road ending in a field and the nakedness of it kept me loyal to something unseen inside Della, her desire for solitude.

"Ashes To Ashes" by David Bowie

This song marked the shift between the Della who was afraid to touch anything and the Della who would survey transmission lines to blow them up. To me, this song sounds like a strange kind of commitment, like giving in to something unsteady. The line that haunted me was, "I've never done good things. I've never done bad things. I've never done anything out of the blue…" because it hit Della's rage at herself. I could have done without the gratuitous "whoaha-whoa" that follows. Really, I think we all could have.

"Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" by Bob Dylan

I used to think sublime meant "good" or "nice." Like when people said their dinner was "sublime."
It turns out that sublime doesn't describe dinner.

"Hard Rain' Gonna Fall" is sublime. It's a cascade of relentless disconnected imagery, the vernacular of revolution. In Zazen, it was Grace's song, her terrible lullaby.

"I Don't Need You (To Set Me Free)" by Grinderman

The first Grinderman record is a transcendental religious experience of the Holy Roller variety—
or maybe that was just me? Oh well, personal route to god and all that Lutheran noise—anyway. Hmm. I listened to it a lot. "I Don't Need You" really feels more like a Bad Seeds song but then that amazing Warren Ellis guitar tone sears across the top, earsplitting and miraculous. It sounds like autonomy from the ashes and I used it to get the tone of the chapter "Road To Laos." And, whenever I feel the purposelessness of art, I just look at the Grinderman poster of Nick Cave et al. in gladiator costumes and I feel different.

"Pocahontas" by Neil Young

This song sounds like high desert snow and pine trees. The lines I heard were, "to the fields of green…and the homeland / we've never seen." I didn't grow up on a reservation. I don't have a history of slaughtered ancestors. But I still want a new homeland.

"One With The Birds" by Bonnie Prince Billy

I think Will Oldham is the strangest, most gifted songwriter I've ever heard. The sorrow and bizarreness of this song is not something I will attempt to confine with explanation. It was the soundtrack for Della in Breakers Rise just before she left. I was also thinking about this when I named the "street of birds" chapter.

"Stayin' Alive" by The Bee Gees

I have long bristled at the obsessive nostalgia of my generation. I mean, really, how many t-shirts with 70s detergent ads or decals of The Fonz can you really sanction? I put Saturday Night Fever in that category, something the Fortress of Ironic Solitude. But one night I got caught in a bar where they were having an 80s video night and "Stayin' Alive" came on (Yes. I know it predates the 80s). The VJ turned it up. Until then, I had only heard it on tiny speakers through a television. In the bar, I heard it as it was meant, loud and through a great sound system. In that moment, I totally got disco—what I define as the desperate groove of hopelessness seconds before the plummet. I think I could locate despair in a beach ball. I've got those kind of feelers. So I'll let the line: "life going nowhere / somebody help me…" which is built into the heartbeat rhythm of the song speak for itself. But what really got me was Barry Gibb. I downloaded the song that night and listened to it about 40 times. On that second verse he sounds like a mad crow fighting for breadcrumbs. It's fucking awesome. And, if you ever heard the Bee Gees with their Byrds rip off hits like "New York Mining Disaster," then you watch Barry Gibb in his tight white pants, swiveling hips, singing like a castrati—you know you are watching a man finally do what the good lord intended. It's ugly, embarrassing, sexy, and sounds like freedom. I used it when Della is at party at the anarchist farm and decides to join her generation, like it or not.

"Blank Frank" by Brian Eno

The first four Eno records changed the limits of what I thought songwriting was. My favorite is Taking Tiger Mountain but for Zazen I listened to the songs "Blank Frank" and "Here Come the Warm Jets." The first I used for pure chaotic emotion, and the second for the "Skateboard Sutta" chapter because it feels like seeing dawn after a long night of bad decisions. So great, so gracious, so "oh well…"

"Dog End of a Day Gone By" by Love and Rockets

If the final pages of Zazen have an anthem, it's this. Seventh Dream of Teenage Heaven is one of my favorite records, a fact I hid in my crotch rock years for fear I might lose my AC/DC privileges (turns they're irrevocable). "Dog End of a Day Gone By" has trashy drum machines and guitars drenched in reverb. The synth track is nothing if not shrill, like something stupid you might have said at 14 and regretted for years. It's got the wince built in, if you know what I mean. But also the grandness. Besides, I'm a sucker for single note guitar solos and Daniel Ash knows this because the one here is almost as euphorically cracked-out as the one on "Cinnamon Girl." Full points.

Vanessa Veselka and Zazen links:

the author's blog
the book online (and free) at the publisher's website

New York Journal of Books review
Publishers Weekly review
The Stranger review

CultureMob interview with the author
Literary Kicks interview with the author
My Book, The Movie guest essay by the author
The Nervous Breakdown interview with the author
The Page 69 Test guest post by the author
Three Guys One Book interview with the author
Writers Read guest post by the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

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