ColumnRead and sustain.
In the land of the giants, it’s sometimes hard to get noticed. Indeed, mammoth publishing houses dominate our well-read skyline. They command the windows and displays of what’s left of nation’s bookstores, are evident in every push communication from Amazon and other online behemoths, and monopolize the bestseller list. This isn’t to say that Random House, Penguin Group, HarperCollins, et al, are not putting out some beautiful and important titles, but feeding the profit beast can certainly divert resources from the “less likely to’s” when it comes to both publishing and promotion.
Maybe by chance, or maybe not, given large publishers’ cash-back-first approach, but of the books I’ve read this month, two of the finest standouts are from small, independent presses – Coffee House Press and Red Lemonade. This isn’t to say that Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station and Vanessa Veselka’s Zazen (both released in 2011) haven’t received critical kudos. But for those who haven’t been alerted to them due to a lack of marketing, these two very different books are great reads as well as exciting portents of what’s on the horizon for American fiction; both are their respective author’s debut novels.
Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner
Adam Gordon is a young American poet who has earned a prestigious fellowship in Spain, where we find him negotiating expatriate life, hopelessly “other” while at the same time blending in in ways a mere tourist could never hope for. He’s working on an amorphous multiphased “project” designed to explore a link between poetry and politics and history that may or may not make sense, may or may not come to fruition and, indeed, may or may not even exist. He’s erratic, arrogant, addicted and often fraudulent; clinically, in fact, he’s a little off. Still, he has his charm, which is a good thing, because in Leaving the Atocha Station (Coffee House Press) we spend some quality, thoughtful, often frantic time inside Gordon’s head exploring “the absence of profundity” in favor of observations that – at the expense of what might be considered a traditional plot – explore the relationships between perception, truth, reality and communication.
Gordon’s storyline bounces back and forth from the mundane to the profound. It’s always interesting, sometimes pathetic, often morally challenging and just as often funny. Unlike some postmodern gymnasts, Lerner connects the dots between thought and prose experiments and a character’s experience in a way that leaves us entertained, at times upset and, in the end, moved. This connection represents a critical vein in modern American fiction that Lerner taps into and drives forward. His Adam Gordon is a sad, yet in some ways hopeful character for our frenetic world.
Zazen, by Vanessa Veselka
Unlike Lerner’s effort, Vaenessa Veselka’s Zazen (Red Lemonade) dives bravely into plot, with the author’s gymnastics reserved for language that soars and swirls in waves, reminiscent at times of Thomas Pynchon at his most accessible and Tom Robbins at his most fanciful. Vaselka’s book is, however, hardly derivative. Della Mylinek, a recent paleontology graduate, grinds away at life in the near-future (perhaps) in Portland, Oregon. It’s a dystopian world with America on the decline, trudging from war to war as what could be the sons and daughters of the Occupy movement have a choice to make: stick it out and fight the power, or skip country for third-world safety, away from the bombs and strip malls that equally disrupt the bleak horizon. Pick your existential poison, be it Hamlet or the Clash, and cue “Should I Stay or Should I Go.”
Her degree behind her, Della is apparently damaged, given to snark, and serving up tofu in a vegan restaurant called Rise Up Singing. Tickets out of town in hand, she’s unable to make up her mind on the Big Questions as she navigates the impact of her troubled past. Veselka’s hard-driving storyline is populated by dyed-colorful characters weaving their way through a hopelessly grey landscape, marching into events ranging from mass funerals and protests to orgies to down-on-the-farm family gatherings. Everything in Zazen is radically charged: language, plot and subject matter. It is barren and beautiful, and deeply unnerving – a modern story for our modern times.
Editor’s note: News & Culture contributor Scott Adelson‘s biweekly feature, InPRINT, will review and discuss books new and old, as well as examine issues in publishing.
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