Monday, March 03, 2008

The Real Deal on Faking Zen

Zen and the Art of Faking It by Jordan Sonnenblick
4Q 4P M/J

What is the sound a librarian makes when she loved one book by an author (Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie) and had a decidedly mixed reaction to his second (Notes From a Midnight Driver) after she finishes his latest? In this case, it's a sigh of relief. For more than one reason, I'm happy to say that I enjoyed this one almost as much as DGDP.

San Lee has a lot to contend with when he moves to his latest new town and enrolls in his latest new school. There's the Asian-kid-adopted-by-Caucasians thing. There's the my-father-is-in-prison-and-I-hate-him-thing. There's the we-have-no-money thing. And as though all of that wasn't enough, he's the new kid again. It stinks being the new kid. He has to suss out the kids and figure out who he should be this time. He's already been a skater dude, a Bible-thumper, a jock, and a preppy. But taking a look around his new homeroom makes him think none of those identities is going to work here. He's going to have to think this over. As it turns out, the decision is practically made for him. His social studies class is studying the ancient world, and they've just gotten to their unit on Buddhism. San's been there, done that, last year back in Texas. He even did a project on it. Without even thinking much about it, he tosses off a comment or two that make him seem pretty up on all things Zen. And since San is Asian, and since his mother can't afford to buy him clothes that are appropriate to winter in Pennsylvania, he winds up looking and sounding (at least to his classmates) like the real Zen Buddhist deal. Hmmm...that would be an interesting persona, wouldn't it? Especially since it looks like Woody, the guitar-playing beauty in his social studies class, really could go for a Zen kind of a guy.

Just like that, San has his new persona. Of course, there are a few moments of panic, since he doesn't really know as much as people think he does. (Fortunately, the local library has a good selection of books on Buddhism, though checking them out causes other types of problems). The Zen Buddhist thing really starts to work for San. It gets Woody's attention, for sure. They even wind up as partners on their social studies project. And somehow, the other kids start to believe he really is some sort of Zen Master. There's one kid, though, who isn't buying any of it. He's the kid who sits next to Woody in class. He seems to be around her pretty much everywhere they go, actually. And that's a bummer, because this kid is a whole heck of a lot bigger than San is, and a whole lot meaner, too. And it's clear that he's none too happy at the idea of San and Woody being together. The trouble is, Zen Buddhists don't do confrontations, so San can't really defend himself. He just has to sit back and take whatever this kid dishes out. He doesn't dare blow his cover and let people discover who he really is.

Because of course, San isn't any sort of Zen, let alone a Zen Master. And pretending to be a Zen is actually putting him in some awkward situations while not really helping with his other problems. It doesn't make being suddenly poor any easier. It certainly doesn't help him come to terms with what his father did and how he feels about it. No, lying about who he is isn't solving anything. And the fact of the matter is, the truth will always come out. And when it does, ommmm, my gosh, San is going to be in big, big trouble.


Sonnenblick has a talent for taking what could be heavy subjects and leavening them with humor. While San's problems aren't quite on a par with coping with a little brother's cancer, he's still dealing with a pretty full plate. Questions about who you are and how to deal with a parent who deeply disappoints you are not problems one can easily shrug off. The laughs would be few and far between in most books for teens dealing with those subjects, but not in this one. Some YA books try so hard to be funny that it's almost painful to read them. (This may just be my sense of humor. I'm also not a fan of stupid-movie comedies, and slapstick makes me squirm.) Give me humor that comes from someplace real, please. And that's what Sonnenblick does.

A few quotes to give you an idea of San's voice:

Good thing I had probably won her heart by tumbling backward over my own chair at our first meeting. Chicks dig that kind of suave and manly display. Now all I had to do was talk to her, and she would most likely just melt into my muscled arms. My average arms. OK, my totally hairless, scrawny-chicken-looking arms.

From a moment in class when San is developing his Zen identity: I played it cool. "I guess you could say that." A mysterious and knowing half-smile played across my lips. Wow, I had a mysterious and knowing half smile!

The first time San purposely tries to project a Zen image is a little uncomfortable, given that he's sitting on a rock with his legs tucked up on each knee, it's mid-winter, and he's not exactly dressed for the weather. It crossed my mind that if the goal of sitting zazen was to forget about all conscious thought and just be, counting and purposely not counting were equally counterproductive. It also crossed my mind that the followers of Zen might not be enlightened; maybe they were just really, really sleepy. After a while I did manage to stop thinking about breathing by a clever trick: I concentrated on feeling all the individual molecules of my butt freezing solid, one by one. When my whole butt was completely numb - and I mean novocaine numb - I focused on the numbness. But numbness isn't the same as not thinking: it's just thinking about how you have no feeling in your tushy.

They smiled at each other for a moment, sharing some secret adult satisfaction of breaking in another generation to the yoke of book slavery.

On my rock the next morning, I achieved a moment of near-perfect insight. I mean, I know I was only fake meditating, but come on -- don't cubic zirconiums sparkle too?

Over the years, San has come up with a few rules for eating in school cafeterias. One of them is to stick to the pasta and fruit, since no school he's ever been to has ever known what to do with meat. This works really well when you're pretending to be a Zen Buddhist, who do no harm to living things (hence, no eating meat). Thing is, he hates vegetables. Hates them. Hates them. Cut to San and Woody volunteering at a soup kitchen together and being served dinner. Nice, juicy, charcoal-y hamburgers. San's mouth is watering and he's about to enter hamburger heaven when Woody reminds the nun serving them that San is a vegetarian. So he gets stuck with a veggie wrap:
Sadly, it was a fat wrap. There were the mandatory sprouts, which popped in my mouth and shot out foul, dirt-flavored liquid. There was the tortilla itself, which tasted like some horrible mutant offspring of carrot and spinach. There was something slippery and unspeakably spongy -- tofu? A fluffy mushroom? And the whole shebang was drenched in a ghastly ranch dressing that tasted like month-old mayonnaise would taste if you were licking it off a dead cat's mangy fur. With garlic...The next orning I could still taste the sprout-and-garlic horror...Do you know how hard it is to meditate when your mouth is a vegetable disaster area?

You can read more about Jordan Sonnenblick on his web site.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Agree? Disagree? Something you'd like to say in response? Feedback is welcome! Just keep it on topic, please. And if you found one of my booktalks and used it, I'd love to know how it worked for you.