In dystopian novels, we often find ourselves cheering on a protagonist’s desperate escape. We want our hero to not only question the beliefs that have so deeply brainwashed his or her society, but to actively pursue some plan of subversion that becomes the catalyst for an all-out rebellion against a totalitarian regime. From enduring classics such as A Brave New World to the current flavor-of-the-week in the young adult genre (The Hunger Games, anyone?), this trope has proven its staying power. We not only want rebellion, but expect it.
The urge to subvert feels even more relevant and cathartic today, during times of economic turmoil and transformative cognition driven by newer technologies and forms of communication. We yearn to have overwhelming systems of oppression dismantled by an outsider who knows the inside. Though we may anticipate the rebellions and find deep satisfaction in them, we also see dystopian novels today that offer a rare form of resolution, through rebellions that aren’t committed.
Zazen by Vanessa Veselka not only grants us access to this unexpected point of view, but also creates a world where uprisings and escape seem futile, despite fashionable interest in them.
Zazen’s narrator, Della Mylinek, is a paleontologist-cum-waitress who finds herself surrounded by all sorts of rebels and outsiders: hippie parents, leftist radicals who start protests at Wal-Mart, punks with dyed hair, vegan coworkers who host sex parties. For her, counterculture has always been the norm.
But Della has also grown up to find herself stuck in a politically tumultuous America (specifically, the Pacific Northwest), where bombs go off and no one really understands if war is happening or not. From the very start, Della’s particularly unreliable narration absorbs us, and we constantly question what she is thinking and whether it has any basis in reality. A host of psychological issues makes it even more difficult for her to sort things out. She deals with persistent feelings of futility, possible post-traumatic stress disorder from a sister’s grisly death and bouts of intense anxiety that even motivate her to call in bomb threats of her own.
It’s only natural for readers to wonder whether the images of this crumbling dystopia, confusing the real and the figurative, simply stand as metaphors that Della has self-constructed to convey her own mental states. Are the places she refers to actual physical locations or just the war-torn landscapes in her mind? There is Old Honduras, and there is New Honduras—both seem real, yet not real at all.
Outside the workplace, Della is her own kind of cartographer. Living in her brother’s attic, she hangs maps on walls and pinpoints locations she deems significant. In particular, she grows obsessed with the act of self-immolation and uses her own mapping system to keep track of all the places where people have turned themselves into living balls of flame. She later implements this system (and makes use of her background in paleontology) to imagine rebellions of her own. Figuratively, she creates her own reimagined geography with places like New Honduras. But the mapping and questioning and protesting leads one to wonder: Has there really been any progress at all? Not only for Della, but the people around her? Are they really doing anything productive? Do these personal rebellions (eco-terrorist attacks, bomb threats, sex parties) matter?
When Della decides to attend a friend’s sex party, she finds a Russian man to sleep with and asks what he thinks about all this. “Doesn’t change much,” he says, “More cute, I think. Meaningless, really.” She pokes fun at these rebels around her (often with hilarious results, especially when describing her parents) and questions their motivations, yet she is unable to extract herself from her environment and what is familiar.
Della tells herself, “I did want someone to do something, and I didn’t want it to be my fault. I wanted everything to be okay, everything to change, and no one to get hurt.” Her obsession with self-immolation and its ties to political motivation becomes the perfect recurring symbol for these recurring questions. She often wonders: How do those Buddhists remain entirely still as they burn? This image captures her own situation as well—how she is so full of fire (like the city and people around her), raised with both righteous and misguided forms of anger, yet how she remains completely stuck, with no ability to form a proper answer to help her move beyond it.
Acknowledging this paralysis, Della starts to fantasize about escape. In various scenes, she visits a travel agency to inquire about foreign places. She even finds herself waiting in an airport for a plane to Laos. But she doesn’t go—she leaves the airport at the last minute. Escape is an option, but it doesn’t seem to have the payoff Della seeks. She questions things so much, always torn about what is right and what is real, that we constantly feel she is unable to make any progress at all. She takes her academic papers and makes a papier-mâché sculpture of John the Baptist’s head out of them. She schemes to blow up towers and destroy transmission lines, but backs down from those plans too. You begin to want to escape Della’s skin yourself to see, maybe just for a moment, someone else’s point of view.
Certain readers may find a book like Zazen perfectly frustrating. (The title comes from the form of meditation—a stilled introspection—practiced in Zen Buddhism.) I experienced a similar reaction reading the novel Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. While worlds apart in terms of their respective dystopias—Veselka’s hippie extremists raised to rebel versus Ishiguro’s extremely sheltered children brought up in a boarding school—both novels offer similar feelings of paralysis that persist in characters unable to break free of their own unfortunate circumstances.
While Della questions her situation as much as she can, Kathy H., the protagonist of Never Let Me Go, remains so obedient and confined that rebellion isn’t even a notion. Raised in an alternative 1990s England where life has already been carefully mapped out since birth, any form of skepticism remains completely subdued. Della and Kathy remain very much products of their own environments and find themselves similarly trapped. Their pasts—the death of a sister, the death of a beloved—constantly tug them backwards so strongly that any forward movement proves difficult. These characters look back obsessively, unable to act out when we might expect. We grow exasperated; things could be different, things could happen, if only they would try to work towards something good for themselves. We want to reach through the pages and give them a nice push
whether in the complete opposite direction they’re headed or straight off a cliff. It’s easy to glimpse these types of reviews from readers—especially those looking for escape from reality by diving into an alternative one—and predict how they will be left wholly unsatisfied.
In both books, these characters come to accept their places within their societies. They are revealed as insiders expected to be outsiders. Yet Veselka’s and Ishiguro’s stories conclude with their protagonists fantasizing over far-off, fading images: the embers and haloes of people on the streets beyond the smoke, a younger version of a beloved running to the sky. Della returns home, making the ultimate decision to take the war (whichever one it is) as it comes. She thinks about her sister again and what she might have been like had she lived, but finally admits how these fantasies will lead her nowhere. Kathy admits the same. They are memories, but they are also dreams.
Looking out into infinity and finally addressing the vastness outside themselves, these rebels who refuse to rebel manage a quick step forward. They pull away from particular images that have kept them stuck. In these dystopias, that small final step feels significant, even though it may not be the massive uprising or karmic lashing we look for in a traditional apocalypse.
Joseph Dante is a writer from Florida. He has a blog where he talks about writing, books, and the internet, and is currently a reader for Hobart. You can follow him on Twitter @storyforburning.